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California’s Forests Were Born to Burn
It is fire season and dry forests like those in the Lake fire area near Big Bear are born to burn and need to do so to rejuvenate. Forests are not “destroyed,” “damaged,” or “ravaged” by large, intense fires; rather, their natural bounty is restored out of the ashes of nature’s phoenix. Soon after a fire, prodigious tree seedlings emerge to jumpstart the new forest even in the most intensely burned patches. Dead trees anchor fragile soils and shield seedlings from intense sunlight as life and death are joined-at-the-hip. A kaleidoscope of wildflowers attracts pollinating butterflies and bees, and songbirds and woodpeckers prosper in the rich post-fire environment, as do bears and deer. This richness of fire-adapted plants and wildlife rivals that of the more heralded old-growth forests. Like the Lake fire, most forest fires in western North America burn in a complex mosaic of fire intensities that is natural and expected.
A single large fire actually burns mostly in low- and moderate-intensity effects, killing few of the largest trees. Occasionally, within a large fire, there will be both small and large patches of high intensity burns where most or all the trees are killed. There is now a strong consensus among scientists that such areas are some of the very best, and most threatened, wildlife habitats in our western U.S. forests. When viewed from an airplane, this pattern of burn intensities is a living mosaic of plant communities in different stages of post-fire rejuvenation, exactly the way nature intended forests to burn in dry regions like southern California’s mountains and much of the Sierra Nevada.
Rare species also seek out the charred trees from miles away in search of fire habitat. Witness the Black-backed Woodpecker. So named because its jet-black backside is camouflaged against charred trees, this woodpecker follows fires in search of post-fire habitat to feed and nest in the large fire-killed trees. In California, it is under consideration as a threatened species because post-fire “salvage” logging almost always destroys its rich habitat.
Some claim that, if we weaken environmental protections and increase “thinning” of forests, this will effectively reduce fire severity and will “save” our forests from fire. Consistently in large fires, like the Rim fire of 2013 in the Sierra Nevada, forests with the least environmental protections and most intensive past logging (like private timberlands, and some National Forest lands) experience the most intense and unnatural fires. By contrast, the most protected forests with no history of logging, which often have the densest forests (like National Parks, Roadless Areas, and Wilderness), tend to have the least intense fire effects (http://johnmuirproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RimFireFactSheet.pdf). Simply put, the more we log the pre- and post-fire environments, the more we prime the fire pump for the next big fire as logging leaves behind slash piles that act as kindling for future fires.
Few people realize that these “thinning” or post-fire logging operations are not benign pruning projects. Rather, they are typically intensive commercial logging ventures through which private logging corporations purchase public timber, often removing the largest and most ecologically valued trees on our National Forests and doing considerable harm, unlike the beneficial effects of fire.
Likewise, from multiple scientific studies we now know that areas with higher numbers of trees killed by drought and native bark beetles do not tend to burn hotter as claimed. Rather, extreme weather events, triggered in part by global warming, are increasingly influencing beetle populations and large fire events. We must address the real problem: unnatural greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel burning, and rampant logging of our otherwise carbon-rich forests.
There are ways to coexist with fire so that we can appreciate its beneficial role in a safe way. Numerous studies have shown that if homeowners build with fire resistant materials and reduce vegetation nearest a home, the odds of a home surviving a forest fire are up to 90% or more. Logging in the backcountry does not improve those odds. This is why we are joined by 25 other scientists from around the world in releasing the first comprehensive synthesis of the ecological benefits of large fires and how to coexist with fire in the landscape. Large fires are not ecological disasters unless we log them in the aftermath.
About the Author
Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala is Chief Scientist with the Geos Institute (www.geosinstitute.org) in Ashland, Oregon, and Dr. Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org), Berkeley, CA. They are the editors and co-authors of the new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires which is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store.
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