Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman & Jamie Ervin: Powerful tool for managing natural fires
Public interest in Sierra Nevada wildfires is at an all-time high. Recent fire seasons, which included everything from the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, to prolonged periods of unhealthy air quality and multi-day power shutoffs, have many wondering what solutions exist to change this.
The Tahoe National Forest recently introduced a forward-thinking proposal that would provide a powerful tool to allow for managing natural fires strategically to reduce hazardous fuels across larger areas. We commend the Tahoe National Forest for taking this approach and hope that it can be used to improve the safety and retain the resource values of this lovely part of California we call home.
There is no “no fire, no smoke” option for Sierra communities. Fire is a given throughout most of California and it will be a part of our lives whether we like it or not. We do have some say, however, in the kind of fire that we experience. Tahoe National Forest is amending its forest plan to allow fire managers the flexibility to let certain lightning-ignited fires burn under carefully evaluated conditions where (1) public health and safety are not threatened, and (2) the effects of the fire would be beneficial to forest health. This will help restore much-needed resiliency to the public forests in our area, and will make the effects of future wildfires less severe.
Prior to the Gold Rush, many Sierra Nevada forests burned as frequently as every five to 20 years, through lightning strikes or through intentional burning by Native Americans. However, after a century of fire suppression, many of our forests have missed so many fire cycles that they have become dense and fuels on the ground have accumulated to very high levels. On top of this we now have longer, hotter fire seasons, more development in fire prone areas, and a legacy of mining and logging practices that removed the large fire-resilient trees from much of our landscape.
The cumulative effect is that when modern fires do escape initial suppression efforts, they burn at higher intensities, cover larger areas, emit more smoke, and are more difficult and expensive to control than their historic counterparts. These “megafires” threaten our communities, as well as the forest resources — clean water, wildlife habitat, timber and biomass, carbon storage, and scenic value — on which we rely.
Scientists widely acknowledge prescribed fire and mechanical thinning of small-diameter trees as important forest restoration tools. However, considerable challenges exist for using either of these tools across large enough areas to be effective. Prescribed fire is limited by funding, workforce capacity, air quality concerns, favorable weather windows and more. A 2015 study found that only about 25% of national forest lands in the Sierra Nevada are even accessible for mechanical treatments due to steep slopes, legal constraints, and economics. Tahoe National Forest’s proposal would add a third tool — natural ignitions — to its fire management toolbox. This tool has proved highly effective at reducing fuels across very large areas on other national forests including the Sequoia National Forest south of us. During the 2015 Rough Fire, a fast-burning crown fire dropped down to a creeping surface fire when it met with an area previously burned as a “managed fire.”
Currently, the Tahoe National Forest has very little flexibility to allow natural fires to burn, even if they pose no threat to life or property and will likely improve forest health by reducing fuels. The proposed amendment simply allows the forest to consider this option and provides guidance on the social and ecological considerations used to inform their decision. Protecting firefighter and public safety will remain the highest priorities, along with minimizing the risk of loss of life, damage to property, or environmental resources.
As with a traditional full-suppression wildfire, adequate firefighting resources will be available to safely suppress a fire if needed. Fire professionals will closely monitor fire behavior and fire effects to ensure that desired objectives are being achieved. The Tahoe National Forest will continue coordinating with air regulators to minimize smoke impacts. The public will receive regular updates on all of these activities.
The Tahoe National Forest will also be hosting several public meetings, and we urge the public to support this proposal and to learn more about the beneficial effects of wildfires. Without this sort of thoughtful, strategic work, the forests that make our area unique and the critical services that they provide will remain at risk.
For more information, see the project webpage: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56983.
Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman and Jamie Ervin live in Nevada City.
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