Fire Ecology

Defending Bedrock Environmental Laws and Policies

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.

Here’s to a new way to manage forests

By Dominick A. DellaSala Oct 5, 2019

Originally published October 5, 2019 at the Santa Fe New Mexican

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.

Chief Scientist Dr. Dominick DellaSala’s letter to Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s Wildfire Council on how the state can best prepare communities for wildfires

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.

Read the rest of the letter

Oregon Governor’s Council Projects Big Bill To Manage Wildfire

by Cassandra Profita | OPB Sept. 27, 2019 1:54 p.m. | Portland, Ore.

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.”

fire increasing study MDPI2019

Megafires Not Increasing: New Research Shows Large High-Severity Fires are Natural in Western Forests

fire increasing study MDPI2019

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

Links to the study

Press Coverage

Forest thinning projects won’t stop the worst wildfires

So why is California spending millions on them?

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.”

Wildfire – Forest Webinar

A recording of a recent webinar discussing the role of climate change in wildfires and how forests can help fight climate change. The webinar was held on July 18, 2019.

Panelists:

Climate change calls for new look at fire, experts say

By Caitlin Fowlkes of the Tidings

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.”

Conservation Today talks wildfires with Dr. Dominick DellaSala

Dr. Dominick DellaSala talks about fire, including how wildfire is beneficial to our ecosystems. Does thinning help reduce fire? Does it help the forest? It depends. In any case, Dr. DellaSala explains why salvage logging a burned forests is so destructive. Dr. DellaSala also explains the relationship between climate change and forests, and the carbon capture and release of a forest. Finally, Dominick summarizes the green-new-deal from congress.

Listen to more episodes from Conservation Today

Dotty Owl: Born in Fire

Dotty Owl travels back in time and visits young forests emerging from the charcoal after intense wildfire. Forest fires burn at varying severities leaving a mosaic pattern on the landscape. While burned forests appear stark immediately after a fire, one of the best kept secrets of fire is how quickly the young forests emerge and thrive after fire. Join Dotty and see with your own eyes how many plants and animals thrive in burned forests.

Watch Episode 1 here.

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