Burning Our Forests to Save Them

A look into the Eldorado National Forest Wildfire, two-years later.

Written by Rebecca Lessner

Red dust clouds fill the air, every step consistently sends new puffs into the breeze. Looking down to my reddish-brown coated shoes I realize that no, that’s not a fresh spray tan but the color of West Coast, California dirt. I’m standing atop a mountain in the midst of Eldorado National Forest, where two years earlier a 98,000-acre wildfire licked through the land, devouring life and creating a vast dead zone as far as my eye can see.

For 20-miles, the fire rampaged through the Rubicon canyon, starting on September 13th and burning until the Forest Service could contain it, over two weeks later on October 10th, 2014.

eldorado-1Eldorado National Forest, two years after the King’s Fire burned 98,000-acres. Photo by Rebecca Lessner.

I think back to the healthy forest I stood in earlier at the Blodgett Forest Research Station just a few miles away, where sugar pine cones out measured the size of my head. This alien landscape was once as healthy as that forest, or even comparable to the lush forests I’m used to at home in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Now, the acreage is snags, blackened to their tips, like charcoal fire pokers-jutting out of the barren landscape.

Wayne Allen Huntsman, the man who also called the fire into 911 that day, pleaded guilty to setting it. Destroying 12 homes and 68 other buildings, the King’s Fire cost an estimated $117 million and took a crew of 8,002 personnel to suppress it.

As a resident of the east coast, the idea of water problems, let alone forest fires, is foreign.

“Those processes (of wildfires) are often driven by topography,” said Malcolm North, a forest ecologist at the USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station. “Steep slopes are much dryer, they burn more frequently and hotter. Places that are flatter with more moisture are going to produce bigger trees and more infrequent fire.”

Topography and moisture are two of the driving factors in wildfires, and now, reforestation.

Researchers are now looking to start ecosystems with “variable conditions,”  meaning moisture-rich areas will be planted with larger canopy covers, to support species like the spotted owl. While drier, arid places, like the southwest, will have more open forests. This reduced canopy cover will, in turn, discourage a fire from jumping from branch to branch.

eldorado-8Eldorado National Forest, two years after the King’s Fire burned 98,000-acres. Photo by Rebecca Lessner.

Letting Fires Burn

The United States Forest Service (USFS) is also considering “zones” into their fire suppression plans, whereas before the rule was 100% suppression on manmade fires, researchers are finding that letting some natural fires burn will help support forest health.

“There is room for letting fires burn in some of these places,” said North. “What’s been proposed is trying to create three different zones, a suppression zone for near homes, an intermediate area where sometimes you’ll suppress a fire and sometimes you won’t, and then a remote or backcountry area in which you would let a fire burn.”

The reason for letting fires burn comes from the reasoning that the more we suppress fires, the more fuel we allow to build up in our forests. Deadfall, underbrush and canopy cover grow thicker and thicker, year after year. As this greenery accumulates, so does the likelihood of a more severe forest fire.

eldorado-12Burn marks climb the sides of this pine’s bark, showing fire damage. Photo by Rebecca Lessner.

The Blodgett Forest Research Station at UC Berkeley is making strides towards better understanding and maintaining forest fires. On their property, they facilitate several “prescribed burns” of forest sections.

A prescribed burn is when a fire is intentionally lit, then monitored and contained. These fires target underbrush in an attempt to thin out the fuels a wildfire would potentially consume. It is through these prescribed burns that researchers hope to discourage events like Kings Fire happening again in the future.

“The fuels come back quickly over time,” said George Wuerthner, devout deep ecologist and writer.

Wuerthner doesn’t support the idea of prescribed burning outright but agrees that it would be helpful to communities that border larger forests.

“If you thin the forest, or you burn the forest, you reduce the competition (in vegetation), so you get a lot of the finer fuels coming back,” said Wuerthner. “You have to be committed to frequent maintenance around communities, it can’t be something you do as a one-time event.”

Wuerthner suggests that the Forest Service could be of help in maintaining the areas around communities, but doesn’t know their budget limitations.

“There are places that are going to burn, regardless of what we do. A lot of the responsibility for places like this rests with the homeowners,” said Wuerthner.

Homeowners might reduce flammability around their property by using metal roofs on their houses, or by creating a fire barrier with rocks in yards instead of grasses.

“This is something that will never stop because forests change all the time,” said Scott Stephens, Professor of Fire Science, UC Berkeley. “This is why the conversation of the forest goes on forever. It’s not like you fix it and you pat yourself on the back, this goes on for our kids and your kids and their grandkids. It goes on forever.”

Forest Recovery

While researchers and the forest service are seeing wildlife, especially in the woodpecker populations, return to the area, the Eldorado forest is still undergoing extreme recovery.

Hardwoods were seen resprouting immediately after the fire along with some wildflower populations. However, the conifers suffered more drastically.

“Maybe that tree that has some red needles on it, maybe that had some viable cones, so we already expect to see natural recovery from those trees now that it’s been two-years post,” said Becky Estes, central sierra province ecologist at the USFS Pacific Southwest research station. “But overall, this area, in particular, could take 100-years to recover.”

eldorado-10Central Sierra Province Ecologist at the USFS Pacific Southwest Research Station, Becky Estes, maps out the region of the Eldorado Forest burned by the King Fire in 2014. Photo by Rebecca Lessner.

Using the King Fire region as a reference in research, these scientists are hopeful that practices with fire management now, will help control the wildfires of the future.

“I’m hopeful, I think that forests are too important in this state,” said Stephens. “I look at the King Fire and I shed a tear for it, I think about what that did and I say we could do better, there is some hope.”

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