Fire is a natural force that has shaped the biodiversity of dry forests across the West for millennia. Fire is only catastrophic when it destroys homes or results in loss of life. Unfortunately, fire has been used as an excuse for opening up millions of acres of public lands to unabated logging based on the false premise that logging can prevent future fires and is needed to “restore” forests that have burned. We have chosen to work on fire as a key- stone ecological process because there is much public concern about whether it will increase during a warming climate and whether it is a significant source of CO2 emissions.
For over a decade, Geos Institute has been playing a leadership role in bringing cutting-edge science on the ecological importance of fire featured in top tier science journals, news media reports, and in efforts by partners to defend landmark environmental laws and policies. We continue to develop scientifically sound alternatives that advocate for let-burn policies under safe conditions in the backcountry and fuels reduction near homes and in flammable tree plantations.
By Joseph Serna and Susanne Rust Originally published January 14, 2020 at the Los Angeles Times
KANGAROO ISLAND, Australia — Sam Mitchell balanced himself on a eucalyptus branch 30 feet above the ground as his meaty left fist clutched a koala, which wailed like a pig with breathing problems. The dark gray marsupial batted its 3-inch black claws in the air helplessly, and minutes later Mitchell crawled down. He and the animal were safely on the ground.
Across much of Australia, volunteers and professionals are fighting to contain widespread blazes, with many also taking risks to save wildlife being killed by the millions. Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination and wildlife park off Australia’s southeast coast, has seen some of the worst damage to the nation’s biodiversity. Fires have overrun nearly half of the 1,700-square-mile island, and rescuers have been going tree to tree, trying to save what they can.
“There’s not much that isn’t threatening koalas at the moment,” said Mitchell, who has owned and run the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park with his wife, Dana, the last seven years. The couple started a GoFundMe campaign so people can help with the rescues. Without quick intervention, koalas that survived the fires “are going to die of starvation,” he said.
In terms of human fatalities, Australia’s blazes this year have been less severe than some previous bush fires — with 27 people killed so far this season, compared to 75 during the nation’s 1983 “Ash Wednesday” inferno. But the impact on wildlife this year has been far more devastating, a preview of what California could experience in future fire seasons.
Chief Scientist Dr. Dominick DellaSala testifies in the Oregon legislature on a proposal by state legislatures to provide $4 billion for logging Oregon’s forests, which would be a maladaptive climate change response.
Santa Fe Municipal Watershed at Black Canyon thinned on steep slopes in early 2000s and burned twice by the Forest Service – critics of the project say this is no longer a functional pine-mixed conifer forest. (Photo by Dominick A. DellaSala)
Santa Fe is blessed with magnificent national forests, wild rivers and some of the cleanest airsheds in the nation. Many people are here to be part of, connect with and heal through nature. It’s only natural that there is public outcry when forests are cut down or burned.
I was asked recently by local conservationists to take a hard look at the Santa Fe National Forest from the perspective of forest-fire ecology. I toured Santa Fe’s municipal watershed at Black Canyon and burned areas outside Los Alamos. I viewed forest “restoration” in the Jemez Mountains. What I witnessed was ill-informed tinkering with forest ecosystems that likely will continue for decades under the U.S. Forest Service’s new management plan currently in public review.
I am a conservation scientist with over 200 peer-reviewed publications including books on forest-fire ecology, climate change, and forest management globally and in Oregon. I also served on the Oregon Global Warming Commission Task Force on Carbon, and the Governor’s Forest Carbon Stakeholder Group. I have reviewed the report from the mitigation subcommittee and I write to provide input and a summary of the scientific literature on wildfires in a changing climate to help with your deliberations.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown got a progress report from her Council on Wildfire Response on Thursday, and it came with a hefty price tag.
The board is advising the governor on how to change the state’s wildfire policy in response to growing wildfire risks from overstocked forests, population growth and climate change.
Council Chair Matt Donegan told the governor that one of the major changes the board is recommending is increased investment in wildfire suppression.
“It just stands to reason that in an era of climate change, in an era of fuel buildup and in an era of population growth and increased wildfire activity that we’re going to have to spend more resources suppressing fire,” he said.
He said the state will need an estimated $4 billion in “a multi-decade initiative that will involve significant state, federal and private investment” to reduce wildfire risks through actions such as logging overstocked forestland.
“That number feels a bit overwhelming,” Brown said in response. “But I think it’s critically imperative that we bite off a significant chunk right now — immediately.”
The governor said she wants to spend more to improve wildland firefighting capabilities, increase controlled burning and help communities live with more wildfire smoke.
“There isn’t really a fire season anymore. It’s year-round. It’s increasing in Oregon and frankly around the entire globe,” she said. “I obviously know we need to do things differently and we need different tools and we clearly need additional resources.”
In September 2019, Dr. Dominick DellaSala (Geos Institute) and Chad Hanson (Earth Island Institute) published a peer-reviewed study in the science journal Diversity disputes the widely held belief that “megafires” in our national forests are increasing, preventing forests from re-growing, and that logging is necessary to prevent these wildfires. Read the Press Release
“This is the most extensive study ever conducted on the high-severity fire component of large fires, and our results demonstrate that there is no need for massive forest thinning and salvage logging before or after a forest fire” – Dominick DellaSala
A recent Los Angeles Times project explores the effectiveness of firebreaks across California, with satelite and drone footage showing the devastation caused by recent firest, including the Camp fire in 2018.
Post-conflagration photos of Paradise reveal row after row of houses reduced to heaps of ash, while nearby trees and vegetation stand green and largely untouched by flame. In the Camp fire, the primary fuel was houses, not vegetation.
Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service research scientist who studied ignitions and wildfire spread, said he’s been asked to explain the “unusual pattern of destruction” in Paradise.
His response: “It’s not strange and unusual — it’s typical. Every investigation I’ve done comes up with that pattern.”
“We do fuel breaks because the premise is we’ve got a wildfire containment problem” when in fact, Cohen argues, we have a home ignition problem.
Until firefighting agencies recognize that, he said, their efforts are doomed to “further failure at ever increasing cost.”
“MEGAFIRES” NOT INCREASING: NEW RESEARCH SHOWS LARGE HIGH-SEVERITY FIRES ARE NATURAL IN WESTERN FORESTS
Case Study Rebukes U.S. Forest Service’s Post-Fire Clearcut Methods
ASHLAND, OR – SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 – A peer-reviewed study by leading experts of forest and fire ecology recently published in the science journal Diversity disputes the widely held belief that “megafires” in our national forests are increasing, preventing forests from re-growing, and that logging is necessary to prevent these wildfires. While many policy and management decisions in U.S. national forests are based on these assumptions, research shows that large patches of trees killed by wildfires—known as high-severity burn patches—have not been increasing. These findings thus show that taxpayer-funded logging projects on public lands are not only unnecessary, they are also counter-productive, as related research shows that such logging often increases fire severity.
Researchers analyzed the most extensive contemporary and historical datasets ever collected on large (over 1,000 acres) high-severity burn patches across 11 western dry pine and mixed-conifer forests over three decades. The findings dispute the prevailing belief that increasing “megafires” are setting back post-fire forest regeneration.
“This is the most extensive study ever conducted on the high-severity fire component of large fires, and our results demonstrate that there is no need for massive forest thinning and salvage logging before or after a forest fire,” says Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, lead author of the study and Chief Scientist at the Geos Institute. “The perceived ‘megafire’ problem is being overblown. After a fire, conditions are ideal for forest re-establishment, even in the interior of the largest severely burned patches. We found conditions for forest growth in interior patches were possible over 1000 feet from the nearest low/moderately burned patch where seed sources are most likely.”
DellaSala and co-author Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project used computer mapping (GIS) databases to investigate vegetation and fire severity trends in large, severely burned forest patches, out of which grow “complex early seral forests” or “snag forest habitats”—unique and ecologically rich areas that are comparable to old forests in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance. They analyzed these patches in four equal time periods from 1984 to 2015 using U.S. Geological Survey fire severity datasets. They found an increase in large burn patches only during the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a flat pattern to the present day.
“We will use these findings to counter ill-conceived post-fire logging projects on the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada,” says Dr. Hanson. “The U.S. Forest Service, assisted by The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Nevada Conservancy, is proposing to clearcut several thousand acres of prime snag forest habitat based on their false assumption that the forest cannot rejuvenate on its own and is better off being converted to wood chips for biomass energy production, which worsens the climate crisis.”
The study concludes that over the past three decades, the interval between large, high-severity burn patches at the landscape scale averaged 12 centuries to over 4,000 years, allowing more than ample time for forests to regenerate and develop into old-growth areas. Evidence was found in historical records of even larger high-severity burn patches, countering claims that contemporary high-severity burn patches are unprecedented and forests cannot recover on their own.
“This paper is critical to wildlife conservation in fire-dependent forests, as it dispels notions that large, high-severity fires are unnatural and catastrophic,” says Monica Bond, a Ph. D candidate and researcher with the Wild Nature Institute, who was not involved in the study. “As a researcher, I have documented spotted owls, songbirds, and numerous woodpeckers using these large burn patches for both foraging and nesting. An entire community of under-appreciated wildlife depends on these large burns.”
Geos Institute is a science-based organization that is helping to make natural and human communities whole in the face of climate change. For information on their forest work, visit https://www.forestlegacies.org/.
About The John Muir Project:
John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org) is a forest conservation and research organization dedicated to ensuring that public forests are protected and managed for ecology and recreation, not commercial logging.
Dominick A. DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, says more scientists agree that forest thinning in the backcountry is futile.
At a presentation he gave Friday during a symposium on fire, DellaSala said that according to a 2017 study, less than 1% of areas that were thinned had a forest fire.
He said thinning doesn’t work well in extreme fire weather, it can increase wind speed and vegetation, it doesn’t last longer than 10 to 15 years before it must be redone, and it can make land more prone to fire.
DellaSala, speaking at the 100th annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said there’s just no way to tell where lightening is going to strike.
“A lot of it is in backcountry, in steep areas that you can’t get to it anyway,” DellaSala said. “In many areas you don’t have access, and there’s no way you can treat enough of the landscape to make enough of a difference.”