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.

2014 Meadow Fire, Yosemite National Park

A New Climate- and Human-Influenced Wildfire Era for Western Forests

By Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D.

2014 Meadow Fire, Yosemite National ParkWildfires are greatly impacting human communities in the West that every summer face the prospects of loss of life, homeowner damages, and smoke-filled skies. Legislators and many managers believe wildfire intensity and occurrence can be greatly reduced by removing environmental safeguards to allow more logging in the backcountry to avoid wildfire “disasters.”

Wildfires are not ecological catastrophes, rather, they are a keystone natural disturbance agent that has maintained the biologically rich and fire-adapted web-of-life in forests of the western United States for millennia. Wildfire area burned, size of large wildfires (>1,000 ac), and length of the fire season have been increasing in recent decades and these increases are at least partially attributed to the emergence of a new fire-climate era that is interacting with human-caused wildfire ignitions and logging related conversion of native fire-resilient forests to flammable tree plantations.

Proposals to radically increase logging of native forests to reduce “fuels” will not achieve their desired outcomes but instead may increase wildfire risks and impair the adaptive capacity of forests to respond to cumulative disturbances in a rapidly changing climate. Responsible wildfire management and climate change policies are needed to:

  1. reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning while storing more carbon in forest ecosystems;
  2. prioritize vegetation treatments in “fire-sheds” closest to homes;
  3. redesign the built environment with wildfire safety in mind, including limiting ex-urban sprawl, and
  4. manage wildfires for ecosystem benefits under safe conditions.

Download the full paper

(photo: Pbjamesphoto/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Summer of Fire, Smoke and Ash

Why has this year’s fire season in the West been so intense? Is this a precursor of what is becoming the new normal?

On Monday October 16, Dominick DellaSala was a guest on KBOO’s Locus Focus. In previous conversations they stressed the important role that fire plays in ensuring healthy forest ecosystems. But after this summer of fire, smoke and ash across the Pacific Northwest, and now Northern California, how do we reconcile our understanding of the need for forests to burn from time to time, with the horrific realities now in our faces.

Listen to the full interview at KBOO.fm

 

Credit: amissphotos / pixabay

Fire management faulted in Calif. disaster

By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter

Credit: amissphotos / pixabay

Originally Published: Friday, October 13, 2017 at E&E: Greenwire

The widespread damage from wildfires in California’s wine country could have been avoided with better fire management policies, researchers say.

A more consistent and thoughtful approach to defensible space around homes would reduce wildfire threats and is a better long-term approach than thinning forests far away from populated areas, said Alexandra Syphard, a senior research scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute.

Syphard, speaking yesterday at a forum sponsored by critics of the timber industry, said policymakers should stick to a “from the house out” strategy to protecting homes and businesses, and not rely on management of wildland areas to control fires.

wildfire town

Wildfire safety starts at home

By Annette McGee Rasch / for the Mail Tribune

wildfire townAfter such a smoke-filled summer, many are fatigued by wildfire and hope next year’s fire season will be less intense.

But fire officials and scientists say if future impacts are to be minimized, the public must take personal responsibility on their own properties, embrace common-sense rural development plans and support science-based forest policy.

“Especially in the wildland-urban interface zones, people need to become more responsible for their own survivability,” said Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke. “We can’t look for the government to solve everything. People should ask themselves, ‘What would it take to create the defensible space that can spell the difference between losing or saving my home if a wildfire runs through?’ ”

Geos scientist testifies in congress on climate change and forest fires

On Wednesday September 27, 2017 the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on wildfire policy. Geos Institute’s President and Chief Scientist Dr. Dominick DellaSala testified. You can read his full testimony here, read his Questions for the Record statement, watch a video of the hearing, and read coverage by E&E Daily below. 

Guest Opinion: We need responsible forest fire policies, not more logging

By Dominick DellaSala

Many people view large wildfires as only destructive. But fires in Oregon’s forests are exactly what these ecosystems need to thrive.

After wildfire, the forest is transformed into the earliest stage of forest growth that allows a completely new fire-adapted community of plants and animals to get their time in the sun. A hike up Grizzly Peak near Ashland or the Biscuit burn area near Cave Junction reveals a young forest remarkably being repopulated by a rich web-of-life that not only thrives in severely burned areas but also requires them to survive. Dead trees anchor the soils preventing erosion, provide habitat for scores of insect-eating bats and birds that keep destructive forest pests in check, and shade new seedlings from intense sunlight. Soil nutrients are recycled as the forest rejuvenates quickly.

Attempting to put out every wildfire in the backcountry disrupts these natural cycles, is unsafe for firefighters and, most importantly, diverts limited funding from protecting homes and communities. Logging to stop forest fires also does not work because large fires are not like campfires — they are mainly driven by extreme weather conditions, not fuels.

Let Wildfires Burn: Study Shows Forests Bounce Back on Their Own

Modern fire management practices of logging and seeding interfere with an ecosystem’s ability to restore itself, and does little to protect property.

The May sun was still below the mountains when a small group of biologists set out in the brisk morning air of the Sierra Nevada. Comparing contour maps and checking radio channels, Dr. Chad Hanson and his team from the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute spread out to explore the Stanislaus National Forest, about 160 miles east of San Francisco. The team was searching for black-backed woodpeckers, which are increasingly rare in the Sierra Nevada-Cascades region and which seek out forests that have recently burned with high intensity.

Keep reading the Yes! Magazine article here

Post-fire Logging Scientist Letter

In an open letter to the U.S. Senate and President Obama, 276 scientists expressed concern that current legislation in both the House and Senate would use fear and misunderstanding about wildland fires to suspend federal environmental protections to expedite logging and clearcutting of both post-fire wildlife habitat and unburned old forests on National Forest lands, removing most of the structure a forest ecosystem needs to properly function.

The proposed House and Senate legislation addresses the borrowing of funds from other programs to cover costs of fire suppression. However, both bills would increase funding for suppression of mostly backcountry fires in remote areas, and neither would focus on, or prioritize, protection of rural communities. The best available science has shown that effective home protection from wildland fire depends on “defensible space” work within approximately 100 feet of individual structures, and improving the fire resistance of the homes themselves. Unfortunately, neither bill recognizes the ecological costs of further suppressing fire in fire-adapted ecosystems.

View the letter

press release 20161026 figure1

Study: Protected Forests on Public Land Burn Less Severely Than Logged Areas

For Immediate Release, October 26, 2016

Contacts: Curtis Bradley, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 345-5710, cbradley@biologicaldiversity.org | Dr. Chad Hanson, John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, (530) 273-9290, cthanson1@gmail.com | Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Geos Institute, (541) 482-4459 x 302 or (541) 621-7223 cell, dominick@geosinstitute.org

TUCSON, Ariz.— A new study published in the scientific journal Ecosphere finds that public forests that are protected from logging burn less severely than logged forests. The study is the most comprehensive investigation of its kind, spanning more than 23 million acres and examining three decades’ of forest fire data in the West. Among the major findings were that areas undisturbed by logging experienced significantly less intensive fire compared with areas that have been logged.

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