Every Forest is Different
Four Points to consider when thinking about forest fires
1. Every Forest is Different
2. Logging and Over-grazing
3. Climate Change
4. Fire Suppression Fallacy
Intensively Managed (logged) Forests Burn Hotter Than Native Forests
* The research cited above analyzed 1,500 fires in 11 Western states over four decades - an overwhelming convergence of evidence. Some of those studies include the following: 1. Odion et al. 2004. Fire severity patterns and forest management in the Klamath National Forest, northwest California, USA. Cons. Biol. 18:927-936.
2. Zald, H., and C. Dunn. 2018. Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape. Ecol. Applic. 4:1068-1080.
3. Bradley, C.M., et al. 2016. Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere 7:1-13. 217 scientists sign letter opposing logging as a response to wildfires (we are signatories).
Forest Fire Hyperbole
The Folly of "Salvage" Logging
Despite overwhelming science showing that post-fire logging causes significant ecological damage, advocates for the timber industry ignore the fact and use Orwellian double speak ("restore" actually means to log or clear cut) to confuse the public. At times, the disregard for Nature is blatantly exposed. Such occurred during a USFS sponsored field trip through the Rim Fire on May 30, 2019. When confronted with the fact that thousands of nesting birds would likely be killed in in an upcoming salvage/grinding operation, a board member with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy said that such a thing didn't matter because, after all, birds will be killed in the next fire anyway. See Figures 1 and 2. When confronting cognitive dissonance, individuals and institutions will reject, rationalize, or ignore the truth. This is why we filed a lawsuit to stop the forest from being destroyed by salvage logging.
Forests Regrow After High-Severity Fires
A new study found that natural regeneration of conifer trees after the 2013 Rim Fire fire was abundant, including in the interior of the largest high-intensity fire patches. This is good news because it means we do not need to subject forests to the well-documented harms caused by post-fire logging.
In the process of making this determination, the researchers also discovered why the Forest Service has failed to accurately assess forest regrowth in big western US fires like the Rim Fire area. First, when the USFS establishes their field plots (the specific areas where they actually look for tree seedlings) they make them much too small to accurately assess the amount of regrowth across the landscape, leading to false reporting of large areas without natural regrowth. The new study established plots that were dozens of times larger and found that the size of the plot was highly significant in relation to detecting the level existing conifer regeneration. While some previous studies reported findings which suggested the possibility that plot size was important, the new study is the first one ever to specifically explore that question and prove the importance of plot size.
In the era of climate change, when many are understandably concerned about the ability of our forests to regenerate after big fires, these are hopeful findings, and not just for the Rim Fire burn area. The methodological issues that the new study identified which resulted in an underreporting of tree regrowth after wildfires are not just limited to surveys by the Forest Service in this burn area. In fact, many of the studies that have been covered in the media claiming a failure of forests to regenerate after high-intensity fire suffer from the same errors. The new findings indicate that forest ecosystems are much more resilient to wildfire than we humans give them credit for. Download: Hanson, C.T., and T.Y. Chi. 2021. Impacts of postfire management are unjustified in spotted owl habitat. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 9: Article 596282.
That is not something you are likely to hear during or after the next large forest fire in the Sierra Nevada. It certainly wasn’t during the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite and the Stanislaus National Forest. It should have been, however, because the science is clear – severely burned forests provide some of rarest and most biodiverse habitats on earth.
Research questioning the notion that high severity fires in the Sierra Nevada are “unnatural”
“Our results suggest that wildfire burning under extreme weather conditions, as is often the case with fires that escape initial attack, can produce large areas of high-severity fire even in fuels-reduced forests with restored fire regimes.”– Lydersen, J.M., M.P. North, B.M. Collins. 2014. Severity of an uncharacteristically large wildfire, the Rim Fire, in forests with relatively restored frequent fire regimes. Forest Ecology and Management 328: 326-334.
“Proposals to reduce fuels and fire severity would actually reduce, not restore, historical forest heterogeneity important to wildlife and resiliency. Sierran mixed-conifer forests are inherently dangerous places to live, which cannot be changed without creating artificial forests over large land areas. However, people can adapt to fires by channeling development to safer areas and modifying ignition zones near houses and communities to survive fire.”– Baker, W.L. 2014. Historical forest structure and fire in Sierran mixed-conifer forests reconstructed from General Land Office survey data. Ecosphere 5: 1-70
“The rate of high-severity fire has been lower since 1984 than the estimated historical rate. Responses of fire behaviour to climate change and fire suppression may be more complex than assumed …Management could shift from a focus on reducing extent or severity of fire in wildlands to protecting human communities from fire.”– Hanson C.T. and D.C. Odion. 2014. Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA? International Journal of Wildland Fire 23: 1-8.
In relation to thinning forests in an attempt to reduce high severity fire in Northern Spotted Owl habitat, "We found that the long-term benefits of commercial thinning would not clearly outweigh adverse impacts, even if much more fire occurs in the future. This conclusion applies even if adverse impacts of treatments are quite modest because of the vastly larger area that would need to be treated compared to area of high-severity fire that might be reduced by thinning."Odion, D.C., C.T. Hanson, D.A. DellaSala, W.L. Baker, M.L. Bond. 2014. Effects of fire and commercial thinning on future habitat of the northern spotted owl. The Open Ecology Journal 7: 37-51.