News

Forest health includes fighting fire with fire

The Lime Complex fire in Northern California's Trinity Mountains. (Photo: Paul Higley)

(Ed’s Note: The following is the latest in a series of articles on California water issues from experts convened by the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy).

California forests give us clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, lumber and recreation. But they are threatened by a maelstrom of environmental drivers of change, which have intensified across four years of drought.

Horrific recent events should inspire reform of not only wildfire management, but also of our overall forest-health stewardship and governance. We need a new vision for managing our wildlands with policies based on science and acting in the interest of the greatest public good.

Managed fire is the only viable alternative to cutting trees.

The incentives — and opportunities — for real progress have never been greater.  Federal agencies, which manage 57 percent of California forests, have a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The US Forest Service is writing nearly 150 new fire plans. Top federal officials recently asked Congress to adequately fund the soaring costs of wildfire suppression–an estimated half of the USFS budget in 2015.

But what is the right approach to forest management? Mechanical thinning, prescribed burning and defensible-space practices are known to be effective, but are deployed across a tiny fraction of California’s 37 million acres of forests. Why? There is social resistance to both logging and prescribed burns as fuel reduction practices.

The U.S. Forest Service is experimenting with management to re-establish historic patterns of mixed-density, relatively open forests that could be managed to reduce drought stress and wildfire risk. This management requires logging, something that generates mistrust and resistance. Managed fire is the only viable alternative to cutting trees.

People living in and near forests worry that prescribed fires will not only escape but also create smoke, with negative impacts on health and tourism. However, only a small fraction of prescribed fires burn outside their intended borders, and such fires significantly reduce the frequency and severity (including smoke) of catastrophic events such as the 2015 Butte and Valley fires and the 2013 Rim fire.

How should we manage human development in forests? While recent devastating wildfires may be some deterrent, the trend is for more and more people to live among the trees. Ironically, people feel safe in doing so partly because firefighters are so effective. Inherently dangerous rural forested landscapes are zoned for development. In addition, the insurance premiums these homeowners pay do not cover the true cost of their security: fire suppression.

The overwhelming scientific evidence shows that even where forest fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most ecologically diverse.

With half the USFS budget going to managing wildfire, taxpayers collectively shoulder that cost. Some fire experts say it’s time to treat California wildfires like other natural hazards, such as earthquakes, storms and floods: identify vulnerabilities, prepare, accept risk and co-exist.

In Australia, decisions about new housing in high-risk areas are overseen at the state level, and willing homeowners are trained to prepare their homes to survive fires. Homeowners become part of the solution, not simply evacuees. This also requires that homeowners begin to bear the true cost, and risk, of living in the woods.

Is really bad fire really bad for the forest? One approach to recovery is to  “salvage” burned trees, kill “competing” plants with herbicides, and “restore” the forest with plantations of commercially viable trees.

However, scientists are increasingly urging land managers to let the forest heal itself. The overwhelming scientific evidence shows that even where forest fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most ecologically diverse.

We have the unfortunate tendency to use personal experience to set our baseline of expectations.

In September, over 260 scientists wrote the U.S. Senate and President, asking them not to weaken laws that limit post-fire logging. Some of our most unique and interesting species, such as the black-backed woodpecker, depend on burned landscapes for habitat. These burned-over “moonscapes” are ecosystems. With appropriate oversight, nature will eventually create resilient systems that are appropriate for the climate and the fire regime.

Can we count on forests to generate carbon credits? California helps private timber owners make money by growing trees that store carbon, and then selling the carbon credits. Although we would like to think of our forests as storage sinks, wildfires release tons of carbon. It is unclear whether our forests, in aggregate, will be carbon sinks as envisioned, or net sources of atmospheric carbon.

The reality is that we have little choice; the future forests of California will look very different in 100 years than they look now. They look very different now than they did 100 years ago. We have the unfortunate tendency to use personal experience to set our baseline of expectations.

We need to let go of our notions of what a “good” forest looks like and embrace this new century of change. We need to empower forest managers to help achieve the future forest that allows our incredible diversity of species to survive.

Ed’s Note: Mark W. Schwartz is a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and director of its John Muir Institute of the Environment. He is an expert in plant climate-change adaptation strategies for mountain and coastal environments in California. Zack Steel is a graduate student at UC Davis studying the ecological impacts of fire in the Sierra Nevada.


  • Dancquill

    Both logging and burning have their political opponents and supporters, except that in California at least, the anti logging pro burning folks seem to have all the political clout. Logging also creates bio-diverse areas as well as salvaging timber from burned areas and removing diseased trees from formerly unmanaged areas. Logging roads act as fire breaks and make fire fighting more accessible when needed. I wish this article provided a more balanced perspective… but hey, this is California.

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