Have we finally had enough of burned forests and homes?

My background is: 33 years of wildfire suppression experience, a degree in Forestry from Cal Berkeley where my studies included fire science and forest ecology with post graduate studies in forest ecology, 31 years with the U.S. Forest Service where I ended my career as Ecosystem Manager on the Lassen National Forest. There my responsibilities included the Fire Management organization. I also rose through the ranks from fire crewman to Incident Commander. Later in life, Dale Knutsen and I developed a Feather River College short course in local forest ecology and wrote a textbook, “The Dynamic Forest.”

The most basic lesson of wildfires that I learned was the “Fire Triangle.” This shows that only three things are necessary for fire to burn: oxygen, fuel and ignition. A second “Fire Triangle” lists three factors which influence how a wild land fire burns: fuel, weather and terrain. It is obvious that only one of these factors is within our direct control and that is the wild land fuels. This is also the factor which politics and disinformation has removed from our control.

Our emotionally sincere, but scientifically ignorant, California population has been duped into thinking that the lush forests we see around us are “natural.” But they are far from the open pine forests of the Sierra Nevada that John Muir described over 100 years ago. The current forests are a function of our European lifestyle which includes fixed ownership of land and permanent, combustible homes. If one owner raised wheat while his neighbor’s land was forested, the fire necessary to maintain the forest would be prevented, as a hazard to his neighbor’s crop.

Since the last glaciation, some 10,000 years ago, frequent fires swept through our forests cleaning up the ground fuels. These fires were ignited by lightning or, more frequently, by the native peoples to manage the vegetation necessary to maintain their way of life. These light fires occurred whenever there was sufficient ground fuels to carry a fire. Here in Northern California, this allowed the groundcover of grasses, bushes and flowers, which John Muir chronicled, to flourish along with the animals which depended on these for their habitat.

The forests which greeted the explorers contained only about 1/10th, or less, the number of trees per acre than those characterizing the dense forests of today. These “new” forests are different in species composition as well. The fire resistant open pine forests are being replaced by an understory of mostly fir and incense cedar reproduction. These species are more densely crowned than the pines and flourish in their light shade. The pines, however, cannot receive enough light to reproduce in the deep shade of these more invasive species. A characteristic of these “shade tolerant” trees is that they maintain their lower limbs much longer and lower than do the pines. This highly flammable “understory” forms a “fuel ladder” which reaches from the forest floor to the tops of the highest “overstory” trees. Thus the frequent low “ground fires” of the ancient forests have been replaced by the catastrophic infernos of  today which consume both the dense forests and the homes within and adjacent to them. Wildlife and fish habitats are decimated as well.

Another obvious adverse effect of these dense forests is that with 10+ times more trees comes the need for more water to supply them. The problem is that less rain and snow is able to reach the forest floor because the overly dense, multi-layered canopies trap both types of moisture. That is why folks run under trees when a shower comes. Until saturation is reached, much needed moisture is trapped within the forest canopy leaving little to reach the floor.

I did a simple test at my own home near the west shore of Lake Almanor. I placed moisture catchments under a multi-layered forest, the kind most desired by “environmentalists,” and under the open sky. After a year of recording I discovered, in this limited test in this small area, that the dense forest canopy absorbed 37 percent of the moisture which then evaporated, in the case of rain, or sublimated, in the case of snow. It was a dryer than normal year, however. This indicates that in most years our forests are under severe moisture stress. No wonder we are having the increasing bark beetle outbreaks. These reactions to forest stress are entirely predictable, also.

To us with scientific understanding and physical experience, the inevitability of these catastrophes is entirely predictable. We just don’t know when, where or how the ignitions will occur. The release of these massive amounts of energy, which has often accumulated for 100+ years, creates unexpected reactions. Witness the unprecedented, massive “fire tornado” in the recent Carr Fire west of Redding.

Another unfortunate truism is that the 2nd forest fire is always worse than the first. An example is the Chips Fire which followed the Storrie Fire several years later. The Storrie Fire burned in the Feather River Canyon in the summer of 2000. It burned a steep south-facing slope and, aided by up-canyon winds, consumed 21,000 acres of both National Forest and private timber lands. The managers of the private forest lands quickly removed the fire-killed trees and utilized the wood for lumber and other forest lands quickly removed the fire-killed trees and utilized the wood for lumber and other forest products. The leftover debris was cleaned up and the lands quickly reforested with a variety of species. Now their lands are again forested with some 30-foot high, healthy trees. Brush and grass species have invaded the openings providing habitat diversity.

The Almanor District, where the fire burned, tried to follow suit but, being a federal agency, were blocked by litigation from the “environmental industry.” It is no trick to delay action a few years until the once salvageable timber has lost its value through insect and decay activity. What could have brought funds to us and the Forest Service to cover cleanup and forest restoration costs have been lost, plus the cost of litigation. A convenient law passed by our Congress allows for the cost of litigation to be covered by your tax money, even for these litigants, the “environmental industry.” Now our lands are covered by brush, dead standing trees and downed logs. The stark interface between your National Forest lands and the reforested private lands is termed by Forest Service foresters as “the wall of shame.”

On July 20, 2012, at 1:57 a.m., a campfire along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Chips Creek drainage, escaped along with the hiker. This was on your National Forest lands near the middle of the old un-restored Storrie Fire.

The steep canyon wall is topped by Soda Ridge where the massive buildup of forest fuels left from the Storrie Fire awaited those midnight flames. Because of the forest of standing dead trees (snags) sticking out of the post-fire brush field and the jack straw of logs on the ground it would be suicide for fire-fighting crews, or even tractor operators, to attack this holocaust. The only alternative available was aerial attack. With an up-canyon wind the wind the head of the fire was covered by smoke, a normal occurrence. The aerial attack was therefore precluded by loss of sight distance between aircraft. That left waiting for the new fire to burn through the old and into the unburned forest before a direct ground attack was safely possible. By then the flame front was over a mile wide, which again is normal for a re-burn fire.

The Chips fire burned for an additional month and covered over 55 thousand acres of National Forest and private lands. This was far larger than it would have been had the fuels generated by the Storrie Fire been cleaned up. The fire-killed trees could have been harvested, while still utilizable for fuel and lumber. The USFS tried to clean up and reforest our land, the same as had been done on the private timber lands, but were delayed by appeals from the “environmental Industry” until the time of opportunity had past. The fire killed trees were rotten and brush had spread over the burned land precluding effective reforestation.

Unfortunately, this will be the same scenario for this year’s Carr, Herz and Delta fire areas should dead fuels removal and forest restoration efforts not be undertaken.

So far the 2018 fire season has resulted in the loss of 336,000 acres (525 square miles!) of once forested land including 1,100 homes and businesses and 8 lives, in the Redding area alone. At the same time nearly 1/2 million acres were on fire in the nearby Mendocino Complex Fire, mostly on your Mendocino National Forest lands.

Support the political leaders who wish to restore common sense, our forests and surrounding communities, before the second inevitable fire. Continued ignorance will allow this scenario to become the unnecessary “new normal.”