27 Apr 2009, 2:52pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Preventing Catastrophic Forest Fires

The Redding Record Searchlight is running a series of articles about forests. We posted a discussion about last week’s article in Long-Term Health Effects of Fires [here].

This week’s article is about preventing catastrophic forest fires, a topic dear to our hearts because SOS Forests is dedicated to that exact goal. The Redding Record Searchlight also invokes the wisdom of “experts,” something we invoke regularly ourselves.

Experts disagree on methods for preventing catastrophic forest fires

By Dylan Darling, Redding Record Searchlight, April 26, 2023 [here]

Flames from last year’s Moon Fire almost burned down Mike Boswell’s home on Rector Creek Road near Ono.

But ultimately the house was saved by brush thinning his family did on their 20 acres long before the blaze burned through in early July.

“We are like the poster children for clearing your property,” Boswell said.

In the north state and around the West, the call for residents to clear vegetation around their homes has become the mantra of firefighting agencies.

While the strategy has proven successful for homes like Boswell’s, the question remains of how to manage the thickly forested land abutting their properties, including vast acres of federal land that make up much of the north state landscape. …

The north state’s wildlands are primed for fire, as last summer’s epic fire season proved. Thunderstorms on June 20 and 21 sparked thousands of wildfires that burned for months and fueled ongoing debates about how the wildland should be managed. …

Because this topic is dear to our hearts, we are going to take some time to parse this article, dissect it, and suss out the useful information, if there is any.

Right off the bat we can safely say the journalist author is uneducated in forest history and displays certain biases we find tiresome. Forests, public and private, are not “wildlands”. That moniker is a-scientific, a-historical, a-factual, and bespeaks a deep ignorance that some might call racist but really is more of an intellectual blank space. It is also an overused buzzword which too often adorns a Federal forest policy of No Touch, Let It Burn, Watch It Rot un-management.

But we give the journalist author props for writing an article on this topic in the first place. Darling interviewed experts (dueling experts) and we can examine their testimonies — albeit we have keep in mind that very little of the interviews are given, and the fragments filtered by a journalist author with certain tiresome biases are all we have to go by.

Here are a few of the dueling experts’ quotes:

The forests are becoming overloaded with fuel, said Arlen Cravens, fire management officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Redding. He said increased thinning and prescribed burning programs are needed throughout the woods.

“What we want to do is return fire into its normal, annual cycle in the ecosystem,” Cravens said. …

But as dramatic as last year’s fire season was - 800,000 acres burned north of Sacramento - other years have been just as brutal. Over the centuries, fires regularly burned hundreds of thousands of north state acres in a year, said James Agee, an ecology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“It would have made last summer somewhat an average year,” he said. …

Carl Skinner, a scientist studying fire at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station in Redding, agrees. He said fire burned through the north state woods every six to 15 years.

Those frequent fires cleaned out low-growing plants and small trees, keeping down the amount of fuel - or vegetation - ready to burn, Skinner said. …

Among those who advocate more prescribed fires is Richard Fairbanks, fire program associate with The Wilderness Society. … He disagrees with those who say that more thinning and logging are the best way to reduce fuel in the woods. The demand for timber has evaporated and the thinnings leave too much fuel still on the ground, he said.

“Chain saws are not going to be the answer,” Fairbanks said. …

Ed Murphy, a forester with Sierra Pacific Industries in Anderson, agrees with Fairbanks that an effort must be made to prevent crown fires.

“When the fire is up in the tree crowns, you can’t fight it,” Murphy said.

But he disagrees with Fairbanks’ solution.

He advocates thinning and timber harvests that create “moats and castles” - fuel breaks around and through the forests that would keep flames from spreading over vast acreage. That approach eventually could use prescribed fire, he said, but first the level of fuel in the forest needs to be eliminated through thinning. …

One fact missing from the article (and we have to blame the journalist for the omission) is that the fire history of California has been anthropogenically driven for millennia.

A comment to that effect was posted at the Record Searchlight by our own Dr. Bob, which in now in the public domain and we repost it in it’s entirety:

by Bob Zybach

Some of the historical information in this article is inaccurate. Yes, fire used to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of northern California landscape every year — but they were not “brutal.” They were fires purposefully set by local Indians, much as described as being done by a current landowners in today’s article.

Last year was not “normal” or “average” at all; particularly not in an historical sense (hundreds or thousands of years). It was, indeed, “brutal” — because of all the volatile fuels that have built up on federal lands the past 30 years, and because of new “let it burn” policies.

Yes, fires were in the environment every six to fifteen years, as Carl Skinner states, but no, that does not support Agee’s position at all. Skinner is describing regular purposeful fires; Agee says that current catastrophic events were “average.” They certainly were not, although they seem to have become so lately.

Fuels have built up because Indian fires (and grazing and logging) have been “eliminated” (as Skinner states) from the forests, not because of “agressive fire suppression.” Elimination and suppression are two different things, and a partial cause of today’s catastrophic wildfires is the elimination of Skinner’s regular controlled fires.

Finally, methods for preventing these types of events altogether have been known to scientists and successfully proven in the field for more than 50 years. The most famous example is the “six-year-jinx” Tillamook Fires of 1933-1951, which were studied extensively by forest scientists at Oregon State University, and which were successfully controlled and prevented by: 1) fuel management (logging and snag cutting), 2) road building (fuel salvage, firebreaks, and suppression access), and 3) reforestation (green trees and moist shade).

Oregon now has the lush, productive Tillamook State Forest where major forest fires once occurred regularly. This is because truly expert opinions were sought, and then listened to.

Catastrophic megafires are bad things. They cost hundreds of $millions and do $billions in damages to forests, watersheds, and communities. We have been experiencing a forest fire crisis over the last 20 years and especially this century, when every Western state has suffered the largest and/or most expensive, most damaging fire in state history.

It is therefore laudable and appreciated that all these experts and journalists are coming to the consensus realization that we must do something — that we must mutually strive to reduce (eliminate) catastrophic fire. Even if the experts disagree about what to do, it is a step forward that they all now agree that something must be done.

The disagreements about what should be done, if there are any, stem from uneven understanding of the history of fire in the landscape, its human origins, and the ecological effects of sustained anthropogenic fire.

Preventing megafires requires the application of landscape-scale treatments that include fuel removal and prescribed fire. If those treatments are designed with the actual fire and forest history in mind, they will be more likely to achieve the goal of preventing catastrophic fires that go mega.

There are other goals besides reducing megafires that must also be considered; forests have multiple resource values. All those various forest values are protected by eliminating catastrophic fires. That is a key point. But the treatments to prevent catastrophic fires must also be sensitive to forest values. The treatment should not be worse than the disease, although in this case the disease, catastrophic fire, is fatal to forests and hugely debilitating to all forest resources.

Restoration forestry is the set of sensitive treatments designed to protect and enhance wildlife, watershed, and other forest values while eliminating the threat of catastrophic fire.

Restoration forestry requires an understanding of forest history including the historical human influences that shaped forest development pathways. The humans responsible for those influences had limited technology but were effective in preventing catastrophic fires.

We can and should learn from that.

27 Apr 2009, 4:21pm
by Al

Bob -

I strongly suspect that Jim Agee was quoted out of context - he probably meant that the acreage burned might have been “average”, but (as a student of the late Harold Biswell) he knows quite well that there is a big difference in intensity and damage between what happened last year and historical low-intensity fires.

27 Apr 2009, 5:11pm
by Mike

I agree with Al. I didn’t care for the journalistic quote bites. There is much more depth to the science than was portrayed.

SOS Forests is a place where longer expert expositories are welcome and stored for reference, in a format much better than a newspaper for such things.

Dr. James Agee and any of the experts mentioned above are invited to express their points of view in full without editing here.

27 Apr 2009, 6:33pm
by Bob Zybach


You may be right, but I’ve had similar differences with Agee’s views on fire history in the past. He has tended to rely far too much on mechanistic “models” and unreliable second hand accounts over actual documentation in my view.

Hopefully, that has changed in the last ten years or so, and this is simply a case of quoting out of context — I’m in agreement that the “sound bite” approach is a poor way to frame arguments and tends to misrepresent viewpoints.

28 Apr 2009, 8:53am
by bear bait

The issue was, for 10,000 years, reducing fuels. The issue for 10,000 years was personal safety and ability to live off the land. The issue for 10,000 years was ease of movement and transport. So what has changed?

The modern way to reduce fuels, live safely, have the land furnish natural resources for continuance of the human experience, to move about freely and transport people and products, has been land clearing, logging, grazing, building roads and trails, which in some form of 21st century blindness, is no longer a viable option.

It becomes obvious to historians that we have forsaken our humanity for a type of police state that is clearly is no longer working for the people. And in doing so, we do grievous harm to plants, animals, and watersheds, let alone the health of any critter with lungs or gills.

It is also obvious the big picture observations by experienced and trained science oriented people are no longer valid in that that kind of vision does not satisfy the wording of our laws, so we are more and more regulated and litigated on minutiae, which gives inordinate weight to a small slice of the whole picture. We lack visionaries. We lack landscape scale puzzle solvers. We lack the will to solve the huge problem of vegetation growing, maturing and dying, in wet years and dry, that material accumulating until it fires the whole of the countryside at great cost to all in many forms.

There is no one panacea, no magical fix. The answer is not unlike modern machinery: a whole lot of precise parts that work together to a wanted end, after the introduction of energy. If we don’t have the machine and we don’t have the energy, we will never solve the problem. Buy asbestos underwear until there is a united and majority approved effort to solve the fuel issue.

28 Apr 2009, 5:32pm
by Forrest Grump

Glad you pointed out Tillamook. An example of salvage and replanting in the dead shade after a fire.
And yeah, I guess Agee doesn’t understand that natural fire is a canard versus historic induced fires….
Let’s not forget that Rich Fairbanks, of not only USFS wildland fire, but FSEEE-founding fame (or was it PEER, I forget) is an “expert” for this series?

‘Scuse me while I go nurse my cynicism for a while. I sure wish some of Mister Fairbanks’ agency co-workers would weigh in here.

29 Apr 2009, 1:13pm
by Wes Hopper

It’s only April and we got our first fire here in AZ. It’s a 40 acre show only a mile from Pine. I’m glad we got some clearing done here on our property so we can probably get through anything less than another Rodeo fire. 80% of the properties still haven’t been cleared at all, though. Thinning from USFS proceeds at a snails pace, as usual. Should be an interesting summer.

29 Apr 2009, 4:34pm
by Larry H.

Don’t look now but, we’ve already passed 1,000,000 acres burned this year, regardless of the cool winter. WAY ahead of most years this decade. When we Compare acres, we need to start comparing them to the 70’s and 80’s, otherwise people won’t bat an eye over the big numbers of acres. It USED TO BE that 3,000,000 acres was a “normal” fire season.

Yes, we CAN destroy our forests! I call this the “Era of Green Lunacy”. When science loses, we all lose.

30 Apr 2009, 6:47pm
by Mary M.

Pushing ideology at the cost of all else is always destructive. Its like driving or hiking with your eyes closed. You have thereby bound yourself to continue without regard for consequences. Its so refreshing to see so many on the side of sanity and reality.



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