The War Against Wildfire
Forests in the American West have been shaped by fires. So why do we continue to fight them?
Chad Hanson lopes over to a patch of young conifers and waves an arm at me. “Come over here, he says excitedly, pointing to dozens of one- to three-foot-tall saplings. “Look at pines and firs growing under these snags. See how healthy they are? And here, see these holes in the blackened bark? Those were made by black-backed woodpeckers. They are seeking the grubs of beetles that burrow into the dead trees after fires. Can you imagine how much energy it takes to drill these holes?” he says, his voice a mix of amazement and admiration.
We are walking through Stanislaus National Forest, about a mile from the border of Yosemite National Park, in a patch of woodland that the Rim Fire swept through back in the summer and fall of 2013. It’s a pleasant summer afternoon. A faint breeze offsets the bright glare of the sun high overhead in the cloudless blue sky. The blackened trunks of the pines Hanson is standing amidst cast linear shadows on the ground. Patches of tender green shrubs and pine and fir seedlings cover the forest floor. Three years after the Rim Fire, this patch of forest is clearly regenerating itself.
Hanson, a tall, lanky figure dressed in khakis, is a forest ecologist who specializes in wildfires. He is also the director of The John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit that uses science and legal means to push for ecological management of forestlands, especially ones that have been severely degraded and damaged by decades of commercial logging and fire suppression measures. A California native, Hanson began studying the aftereffects of the Rim Fire – the third largest wildfire in California since the early twentieth century – almost as soon as the smoke cleared. As we walk through the charred trees, he can barely hide his enthusiasm, constantly pointing out signs of new life sprouting up amid the dead stands. “To me this habitat is fascinating. Every time I go out to a burn area I learn something new,” he says.
I’m a wildfire aficionado, much like Hanson. I have chased down large wildfires around the West much as a birdwatcher might pursue a rare species. The Biscuit Fire in Oregon. The Hayman and Waldo Canyon Fires in Colorado. The Mustang Blaze in Idaho. The Wallow Fire in Arizona. As an ecologist, I value seeing firsthand how wildfires work their magic across the landscape. And like Hanson, what I have come to appreciate is that nearly all of the Western landscapes could be more accurately termed “firescapes.” To some degree or another, their vegetative communities are shaped by periodic wildfires.
Whether one recognizes it or not, most of us actually love wildfires, or at least the long-term consequences of them. If you enjoy the golden aspen forests that cloak the Colorado Rockies in autumn, you are seeing the aftermath of a wildfire. If you’re a tree hugger who snuggles up to a giant Douglas fir in an old growth forest in Oregon, you are once again experiencing a fire-created forest. If the red-barked boles of a ponderosa pine stand in New Mexico make you smile, you’re admiring the work of wildfire. While every forest has its own, distinctive, fire pattern, there are few woodlands in the American West that don’t owe their existence to fire.
Yet, for nearly a century now, the US Forest Service has been waging a war against wildfires in the West, spending billions of dollars to put out fires on public lands and supporting commercial logging projects to thin out forests in order to prevent fires from spreading and “destroying” the forestlands. An effort that probably started as a response to our inherent fear of big fires eventually led to an increase in logging in our state and national forests, and the replacement of ecologically-rich old growth forests with densely stocked tree plantations
To this day – despite the overwhelming body of new research that points to its futility as a fire retardant as well as to the immense ecological harm it causes – our public land managers continue to remove both dead and live trees from forests as one of their key fire management tools.
The Forest Service has already logged about 5,000 acres within the Rim Fire burn area. In late summer, as this issue went to press, the agency was finalizing its Rim Fire “reforestation” plan for Stanislaus, which will determine whether it maintains the remaining unlogged burned areas of the forest as they are, or clearcuts them to fuel the biomass industry. Meanwhile, using the same “fire-safety” logic, the agency and other forest management authorities in California were preparing to log millions of standing dead trees on public and private forestlands across the state that had been killed due to a double whammy of five years of drought and a native bark-beetle infestation.
These drastic measures ignore an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that shows that climatic conditions – in other words, persistent hot, dry, and windy weather – and not tree density are what cause large wildfires. As our rapidly warming world dries out the American West and we continue to see large intense wildfires, we need to take a hard look at whether it makes sense to continue with these expensive, ecologically damaging, and often futile fire-management practices, or if we can find a way to coexist with fire.
My visit to the Rim Fire area with Hanson this summer gave me a chance to add yet another large fire to my list. Set off by a hunter’s illegal campfire that went out of control during the hot, dry August of 2013, when California was in its second year of drought, the Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres of forestland in Stanislaus National Forest and portions of Yosemite National Park. This largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada took thousands of firefighters, aided with fire engines, airplanes, choppers, and water tankers, nine weeks to fight at the cost of more than $127 million. As with all large, weather-driven fires, the Rim Fire slowed and began to go out when the weather changed –temperatures cooled, winds died down, and humidity increased.
But while the fire was still raging away, it was accompanied by a steady stream of fear-inducing, hyperbolic reporting by agencies like the Forest Service and much of the media. The fire was consistently described as “catastrophic,” “destructive,” and “devastating.” A month in, Forest Service ecologist Jay Miller said the fire had completely charred trees, leaving nothing alive. “In other words,” he said, “it’s nuked.”
Nuked is strong language. More importantly, it is inaccurate. For one thing, much of the area within the Rim Fire perimeter did not burn at all, or burned at very low-severity, which means most of the larger trees survived the blaze. But even in places where the fire killed the bulk of the trees – areas termed “high-severity” burn patches – it created one of the rarest and most ecologically valuable habitat types in the West – the snag forest.
Snag forests – which comprise standing fire-killed trees, or “snags,” patches of native fire-following shrubs, downed logs, colorful wildflowers, and dense pockets of natural conifer and oak regeneration – only occur when there is a hot, tree-killing blaze. These short-lived forests – which exist only for a few years until the regeneration process is complete and new trees start taking over the space – are one of the most biologically diverse habitat types in the West, equaled only by old growth forests. Snag forests are so unique that there’s an effort underway to get them recognized as their own forest class, much like boreal or rainforests.
As ecologists, Hanson and I saw the Rim Fire was an ecological success story. The fire had created a patchwork quilt of unburned forest intermixed with high severity burn areas. This heterogeneity is what creates healthy forest ecosystems.
When Hanson went back to the Rim area in the spring of 2014, less than a year after the fire, he found signs of rejuvenation everywhere. There were hundreds, and in some cases thousands of naturally regenerated conifer seedlings per acre. Charred, seemingly dead ponderosa pines were “flushing” new needles. Even in areas where the fire had burned the hottest, he found the ground covered with sprouting pines, firs, and oaks, and wildflowers like lupines, clarkias, and Indian paintbrush, and shrubs and grasses that deer were munching upon. Up in the snags, woodpeckers, flycatchers, and many other birds were already flitting about.
Clearly, the forest had begun reviving, phoenix-like, in the first spring after the fire.
It must have started with wood-boring beetles that rapidly colonize burn areas. These native beetles, which have evolved over millennia in a long relationship with fire, can detect fires from dozens of miles away through infrared receptors. They lay their eggs on standing snags and their larvae bore under the bark, often before the smoke from the fire has fully cleared.
The beetles are usually followed soon after by birds, especially woodpecker species like the rare black-backed woodpecker (currently proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act), hairy woodpecker, and white-headed woodpecker, which feed on the bugs. Hanson points out that one black-backed woodpecker eats about 13,500 beetle larvae every year – and that generally requires access to at least 100 to 200 standing dead trees per acre. (Forest Service guidelines require only four to five snags be left standing per acre.) These birds are a keystone species in snag forests. They carve out a new nest cavity every year, thus creating homes for numerous secondary cavity-nesting species like mountain bluebirds, squirrels, and even martens, that cannot excavate their own nests.
Meanwhile, newly sprouted grasses and native flowering shrubs that germinate after fires, like whitethorn ceanothus and deer brush, would have begun to attract deer and many flying insects that provide food for flycatchers and bats. Soon, seeds produced by the shrubs would draw rodents like voles, mice, and squirrels. These smaller mammals, in turn, attract raptors like the California spotted owl and northern goshawk, as well as black bears that also forage on the berries and grubs found in snag forests. Over time, maybe even a rare carnivore like the Pacific fisher, which actively hunts for small mammals in snag forests, would pass through.
Eventually, as the next generation of forest community grows around it, this snag will cease to be, and the creatures that depend on it will move on in search of the next fire-scorched patch of forestland.
The presence of spotted owls in snag forests merits special attention. The northern spotted owl, which is listed under the Endangered Species Act in Oregon and Washington, as well as its California subspecies, which isn’t yet on the ESA list, is known as an old growth forest dependent raptor, and the assumption has always been that wildfires “destroyed” owl habitat. But Hanson and several other biologists who have been documenting California spotted owl use and occupancy of forest lands in the state, challenge that common perception.
photo by Tom Benson/Flickr
As he explained to me while pointing to a patch of unburned woodlands the fire missed: “The spotted owl nests in the patches of older forest like that over there, but they seek out rodents, which are their primary prey, in places like this burnt forest. So what you have is a bed and breakfast situation. They nest in the older forest, but forage in the snag forest. Contrary to assertions from the Forest Service and others, owls not only persist, but they thrive in these burned areas.”
“The research is finding 92 percent occupancy of owl territories in the Rim Fire areas,” Hanson says, referring to the percentage of surveyed burned land occupied by owls. “This is way higher than what you typically find even in unburned old growth forests, where you would be lucky to get 60 to 70 percent occupancy.” The Forest Service’s own data shows that there were more spotted owls seen in the Rim burn area a year after the fire than in any other forest area in the Sierra Nevada, he says. “Yet they continue to tell the public that large fires like the Rim Fire are a threat to the owl.”
The agency has approved logging in all 39 areas within the Rim Fire burn perimeter where the presence of spotted owls has been recorded.
To many folks the removal of dead trees might seem logical and harmless, but snag forests are a critical biological legacy that provide the ecological foundation for forest regeneration. Dick Hutto, professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Montana, doesn’t mince words: “The ecological effects [of post-fire logging] are uniformly negative,” he says. They are, he adds, “the strongest and most consistent scientific results ever published on any wildlife management issue.”
Somehow, this crucial insight still hasn’t permeated the mindset of state and federal forest and fire management agencies. Hutto says that’s because agencies like the Forest Service are still “old boy networks” filled with rangers who honestly think that a healthy forest means a green one that has no beetles, no dead trees, and no fire. This deeply entrenched view sees logging as the solution to almost everything real or imagined that can beset a forest. Those who don’t buy into this view don’t last long in the agency.
To get a clearer picture of the Forest Service’s post-fire logging operations, Hanson and I visited a few logged areas in Stanislaus. Some researchers say post-fire logging helps by disturbing the soil surface and breaking up the dry, water-repellent layer that sometimes forms in a fire, thus increasing the soil’s ability to soak up water and produce new life. But most others say that the heavy machinery used for logging tends to further compact the soil, which was what we witnessed.
Heavy logging equipment had churned and compacted the soils, destroying all vegetation. The largest snags had been removed, leaving behind a barren landscape without any “structure” or dead wood. At one site, the line between a logged area and an untouched high severity burn patch was very “clearcut” (pun intended): The logged area was covered with golden cheatgrass and other invasive plants, while the naturally regenerating patch had a green groundcover of native ferns, shrubs, and flowers intermixed with dozens of small conifers and black oak saplings. I could’ve told the difference between the two treatments blindfolded. Just marching through the logged area filled my socks with cheatgrass and other seeds that took me an hour to remove.
On my way up to Stanislaus National Forest earlier in the day, I’d stopped by a ranger station in Tuolumne County and picked up a printed tour guide for the Rim Fire. The guide cited several reasons for logging the burned areas, including the usual assertions that fallen trees create a tremendous fuel load that can feed future fires and that the Forest Service was improving visitor safety by removing snags which “posed a significant hazard to forest travelers.”
Hanson has some choice words when I read this out to him: “Pure bullshit!” His colorful exclamation is, in fact, backed by a ton of research that shows that dead trees – whether killed by wildfire or beetles – tend to reduce future fires, not enhance them. Nearly all studies that have looked at fuel reduction effectiveness have concluded that under severe fire weather – the kind of weather conditions that prevailed during the Rim Fire – logging projects are largely ineffective at controlling the blazes.
Climatic conditions ultimately control the spread of wildfires.
Another problem with fuel reductions is that their effectiveness is short-lived, says Bill Baker, retired professor of ecology and geography at the University of Wyoming. Vegetation grows back quickly. Typically, what dominates the regrowth within fuel reduction zones are small trees, shrubs, and grass – the kind of fine fuel that carries fires. Fire ecologist Elizabeth Reinhardt and her colleagues at the USDA’s Fire Science Lab in Missoula, Montana go as far as to call such efforts “both futile and counterproductive.” Under dry and windy conditions, burning embers are lofted by winds miles ahead of the fire front, making control nearly impossible – until the weather changes.
Indeed, that’s what happened during the Rim Fire. It was mostly private industrial timberlands, which had been intensively managed, that had the highest levels of high-intensity fires, while Yosemite, where no logging or thinning is permitted, had the least. Even historical records show that conifer forests that were mechanically thinned on national forest lands between 1995 to 2013 had higher levels of high-intensity fire than un-thinned forests.
Rather than reduce a wildfire’s reach, thinning can sometimes actually increase a fires spread by putting more fine fuels like needles and cones on the ground and opening up the forest canopy, which in turn dries out these fuels and allows greater wind penetration. It is fuels like needles, grasses, and shrubs that sustain blazes. When it comes to trees, usually only the very outermost layer of the trunks burn – which is why you have snags left after a major fire in the first place. We all know this from our own experiences with campfires. If you try to ignite a fire with large pieces of wood, you can’t get them to burn. Even after a campfire is roaring, one must continuously feed the fire with smaller fuels to retain burning coals under large pieces of wood needed to maintain the blaze
Still, the idea that dead trees are a fire hazard continues to have widespread currency among forest managers and the greater public. The California government’s recent decision to take out beetle-killed trees on over 6 million acres of public forestland is the latest example of such outdated, fear-based thinking.
What I have learned from visiting many of the larger blazes that have occurred around the West, as well as from looking at research by other fire ecologists, is that it’s climatic conditions that ultimately control the size and spread of wildfires.
This was first brought home to me during the summer of 1988 when forest fires burned millions of acres across the West, most famously in and around Yellowstone National Park, where at least 1.5 million acres were within the fire perimeter. I was living adjacent to the park then and was able to observe firsthand how the fires were an act of rejuvenation and also how the weather played a heavy hand in their spread.
Consider that 1988 was the driest year ever recorded in Yellowstone in over a hundred years. By summer, relative humidity was so low that even green trees in the park were drier than kiln-dried lumber. Once there were a few ignitions, winds, in some cases exceeding 50 miles per hour, fanned the blazes that sometimes raced miles through the forest, casting burning brands far in advance of the actual fire front. All these factors combined to create the perfect ingredients for a so-called “mega-fire.”
The Yellowstone fires taught firefighters, fire ecologists, and others crucial lessons. One is that you cannot stop a blaze when the weather is hot, dry, and windy. As Dominick DellaSala, chief climate scientist at the Geos Institute and author of The Ecological Importance of Mixed Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, says: “Under extreme weather conditions, fires will burn through everything but a Walmart parking lot.” Indeed, despite more than 10,000 firefighters, air tankers, helicopters, and even National Guard troops, the Yellowstone fires were not extinguished until snowfall in September brought an end to the fire season.
The connection between weather and fire is obvious, but often overlooked, even at times by firefighters themselves. I recall a 1930, typewritten ranger’s report I read about a fire in Yellowstone which concluded, with no hint of irony: “Finally got the fire under control. Had a hell of a time breaking camp in the rain.”
photo by Blue Canoe/Flickr
So often we humans take credit for extinguishing fires that are inevitably going to go out whether we do anything or not. And if you don’t have the specific weather conditions of low humidity, drought, and high winds, you simply do not get large burns. Between 1972 and 1987, for example, some 235 ignitions in Yellowstone’s backcountry were permitted to burn without suppression. Of these, 208 burned less than an acre, and all 235 self-extinguished without any suppression.
Yet, from 1985 to 2015 an estimated $25 billion taxpayer dollars were spent on fire suppression. Most of this money was spent trying to suppress the relatively few big fires burning under extreme fire weather conditions. “It makes about as much sense to just throw the money out of the airplane window at these large blazes for all the good it does,” DellaSala says. “You have a firefighting-industrial complex getting this blank check from Congress, and their control tactics don’t do anything to address the fire. Instead what we usually fund is an airshow. Our entire fire policy doesn’t seem financially prudent or ecologically appropriate.”
With climate change turning up the heat, a volatile combination of higher temperatures, low rainfall, and dry weather is making extreme fire weather more frequent in the West than in the past few decades. But recent wildfire stats are actually compatible with the historic past. In a report published earlier this year, researchers Stefan Doerr and Cristina Santin of Swansea University in England found that in forests that were well-adapted to fires, there had been no increase in overall fire severity. They further found that in western forests, “area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement,” and that “there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago.”
Indeed, during the dry spells of the 1910-1940s, fires in the West averaged some 10 to 30 million acres annually, and before Europeans arrived, wildfires typically burned over tens of millions of acres each year. DellaSala says that all these recent accounts of unprecedented fires, such as coverage of the 10 million acres “destroyed” by fire in the US in 2015, suffer from “fire-history amnesia.”
Meanwhile, projections about how climate change will affect wildfires in the future vary widely as well. Some studies predict hotter and drier conditions will lead to more fires, while others predict less intense fires as decreased precipitation reduces the growth of combustible understory vegetation. Still others predict more fires in areas where the weather gets drier, and fewer where warming weather actually increases summer rainfall. However, Hanson says, even those who predict increased fire in forests generally do not expect levels to go up enough to erase the current deficit in wildfires relative to natural, historical levels.
But historical data about the prevalence of mega-fires and the ecological importance of snag forests offer little comfort to people who live near forests, whose homes are in the potential path of these fires. An estimated 46 million single-family homes across the United States are located in fire-prone areas. In the West, where wildfires are more common, nearly two million homes sit on the so-called “Wildlife-Urban Interface.”
According to Headwaters Economics, an independent research group, wildfire protection and suppression costs, ostensibly to save these homes, have jumped from less than $1 billion annually in the 1990s to an average of $3 billion, largely as a result of increased development and warmer weather conditions. These costs now account for nearly half of the Forest Service’s annual budget.
A far more distressing cost is the toll on firefighters, which is also on the rise – from an average of 9 deaths per year in the 1990s to 19.3 in recent years. The worst year of all was 2013, when we lost 34 firefighters, including 19 who perished at once while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.
Given what we know about the futility of the current fire control measures, it’s past time we started thinking seriously about how we can adapt to coexist with fires, much as we do with other natural hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.
For starters, as fire experts recommend, we need to stop building homes in fire-prone areas. In effect, we should limit home construction in the “fire plain” just as we do in a river’s flood plain. For homeowners already living in these areas, the solutions might be quite simple. A key strategy is to “reduce home ignitability.” In other words, homeowners need to accept responsibility for their home flammability and adopt “firewise” practices like installing metal roofs and removing flammable understory vegetation in the “defensible space” zone within 100 feet of their homes.
Unfortunately, despite the proven inadequacy of traditional fire control approaches, there’s a strong incentive to continue with business as usual when it comes to wildfire management. Many Western politicians use large wildfires as a bludgeon to undermine support for federal environmental laws and garner more taxpayer-subsidized logging.
There is also a massive private interest in firefighting. Contractors now supply local and national land agencies with everything from fire engines to firefighters. The private firefighting industry, whose influence on politicians and government is on the rise, constantly lobbies for more firefighting funds. As Upton Sinclair declared: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But the truth is, we are never going to win this drawn-out battle against wildfires. To continue on this path means to continue impoverishing our forest ecosystems, risking the lives of homeowners and firefighters, and wasting billions of tax dollars. Changing fire management policies to ones that accept that wildfires, even big ones, are inevitable, is the only thing that will help us coexist with this vital force of nature that has been shaping Western landscapes for millennia.
George Wutherner is an ecologist and author of 38 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.