Wildfire Ecology Part 1: Almost 4 Weeks Later, 489 California Wildfires Still Burning

Crowning Tree in WildfireOn June 20, 2008, an unusual, early summer lightning storm sparked over 1400 fires in California.  According to state wildfire maps, currently 489 fires are burning.  The reduction in the number of fires is not because they have been put out, but because these blazes have merged.  For example, the Hell’s Half Complex, which threatens my home and has prompted the sheriff to issue a mandatory evacuation, originated as 17 fires that have now grown together into one fire over 10,000 acres with 35% containment.  11 California counties have received disaster declaration from President Bush, who will be touring Northern California today.

These fires started naturally and are probably the kind of fires that occurred naturally before massive fire suppression efforts began in the west a hundred years ago. After a nice Memorial day soaking, the foliage here was pretty green when the lightning struck.  These fires have been smoldering and cleaning up the forest, except where they are threatening homes. Klamath-Siskiyou Wild explains it best:

Fire has been an integral component to the function of biodiversity for millennia. Fires burn in a diversity of patterns and intensities, and are influenced by numerous factors such as fuels, temperature, terrain and moisture. Many of these fires are close to communities and firefighters are doing their best to protect lives and property. Once the smoke has cleared, we may find that many of these fires in back country forests were ecologically beneficial as fire clears out understory vegetation, burns a natural mosaic pattern and leaves behind a healthier forest.

Four weeks later, things are changing with hot, drier air expected in the region; these fires won’t be out until rain comes in October. Slow burning, healthy fires are turning into uncontrollable nightmares.   Decades of old-growth logging and a 100 years of fire suppression have created highly flammable forests that are not natural at all.

Authentic fuel reduction prevents hot, mega fires. This does not equate to logging; however, it means that small fuels are reduced, especially near communities.  Ecologically destructive logging projects are often disguised as fuels reduction, but they leave the forest more prone to high intensity fires.  What needs to happen to deal with the increase in western wildfires, as predicted by climate change reports, as well as the lack of resources currently available to fight these fires, is small diameter tree removal and brush reduction in our forests.  Reducing ladder fuels is crucial to preserving our forests during naturally occurring fire events.  Older trees are more resilient to fire if over-crowded forests are cared for with sound fuel reduction projects.

Future posts in this series will be written on firefighting techniques and salvage logging versus natural regeneration after a burn.

Image: Richard Klein

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7 thoughts on “Wildfire Ecology Part 1: Almost 4 Weeks Later, 489 California Wildfires Still Burning”

  1. Jennifer – how do I contact you. I have some very interesting documentation for you regarding the USFS and wildland fires.

  2. I wanted to add that I do think more firefighters would help, well more hot shot crews. I had three type 1 incident commanders tell me they cannot perform burnout operations in steep, difficult terrain, because they cannot get hot shot crews. The National Guard is good for mop up, but we do need more hot shots. Fires are being made bigger because of the shortage, as dozer lines have to be used for containment on ridges for massive burnouts, whereas hot shots could contain the fires much closer to where they are actively burning.

  3. Yes, Bush has cut 1/3 of the budget for fuels reduction and firefighting. Gore predicted with 1 degree increase in temps, lightning storms will increase by 10%. I agree, there is no single answer, and yes, we need to take responsibility in creating defensible space around our homes.

  4. You know it’s not about just getting more firefighters.
    it’s about the federal government cutting the fire suppression and prevention budget every year.
    It’s about USDA Forest Service Firefighters not even being recognized as Firefighters, but rather as Forestry Techs and the like.
    It’s about USDA Forest Service firefighters not being able to afford to take care of their families so they leave for bluer pastures with the state.

    If you don’t have a strong wildland firefighting force how can you expect to defend homes

  5. I live in Malibu CA and live through fires every year. There is no single answer to the complex wildland fire problem, but it is going to get worse in coming years. Every year is now “unusually dry” and that’s not going to change. Congress can allocate more dollars to firefighting (and save the National Park’s budget), but more firefighters isn’t the sole answer either.
    Your are right – there must be some controlled burns, and maybe som “uncontrolled” burns to clear out decades of dead brush and trees killed by insects. Most important, people must take responsibility on the urban/wildland interface and CLEAR A DEFENSIBLE SPACE. Finally, I think we are coming to the time when people in the interface are going to have to bear some of the cost of fire protection.

    I am a wildland fire expert. If you are interested in a novel about wildland firefighters, go to http://www.kurtkamm.com

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