AGAIN – Past Logging Makes a fire worse

As with the Creek Fire, logging, habitat clearance, and the creation of forest plantations by private corporations and the US Forest Service in the northern Sierra Nevada Bear Fire area are making the fire worse, and threatening lives as a result.

The Bear Fire area has been heavily logged over the past couple of decades – clearcuts, commercial thinning, “salvage” logging of snags, spreading flammable, invasive weeds, mostly on private lands but also quite a bit on national forest land too.

The consequence?

The Bear Fire dramatically expanded Wednesday (9/9) when it got to the massive area of heavy logging shown below. Importantly, these clearcut areas are similar to the types of “fuel reduction” projects Cal Fire and the US Forest Service continually claim will allow them to control a fire and protect communities. Time and time again, when it matters most, they don’t – please see map of Vegetation Management Projects/Fires in California at the end of this post.

Google Earth image showing the landscape at the heart of the Bear Fire in the northern Sierra Nevada. The irregular bare areas are clearcuts and dense, artificial tree plantations, both of which facilitated fire spread.

The Bear Fire is now over 200,000 acres (mostly from Wednesday), and at least three people have been killed (see perimeter map below). This situation is very much like the Camp Fire in terms of the direct threat of recent logging to lives and homes, by contributing, along with the dominant force of extreme weather and climate change, to very rapid rate of fire spread, giving people little time to evacuate.

Overlay (orange) of the Bear Fire showing the massive spread that occurred September 9. Note the clearcut area in the lower half of the area burned. Arrows indicate the fire’s direction.

None of this is being seriously discussed in the leading media stories on the current fires.

The Main Take Aways

  1. Logging and forest plantation forestry is a contributor to increased fire spread and fire severity (Zald and Dunn 2018, Bradley et al. 2016 – see below).
  2. Weather and climate change are the dominant drivers of fire behavior.
  3. Promoting logging as “fuel reduction” under the guise of fire risk reduction flies in the face of the facts.

“In the long term, California must address its history of mismanaging fire, the expansion of residential communities into natural areas, the greed and misplaced priorities of corporations, and the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We must also we acknowledge that not all wildfires burn in the forest. Wildfires are also burning through shrubland across Southern California and the oak woodlands that stretch across the state. In all environments, the best way to protect communities from wildfire is to focus on the communities themselves.”
– Senator Kamala Harris

More about how to make your home and community fire safe.

The Facts About Logged Forests

“Areas intensively managed burned in the highest intensities. Areas protected in national parks and wilderness areas burned in lower intensities. Plantations burn hotter in a fire than native forests do. We know this from numerous studies based on peer-reviewed science.”*
– Dominick DellaSala
From: Exploring Solutions to Reduce Risks of Catastrophic Wildfire and Improve Resilience of National Forests. Congressional testimony by Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Sept. 27, 2017.

* The research cited above analyzed 1,500 fires in 11 Western states over four decades – an overwhelming convergence of evidence. Some of those studies include the following:

1. Odion et al. 2004. Fire severity patterns and forest management in the Klamath National Forest, northwest California, USA. Cons. Biol. 18:927-936.

2. Zald, H., and C. Dunn. 2018. Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape. Ecol. Applic. 4:1068-1080.

3. Bradley, C.M., et al. 2016. Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere 7:1-13.

217 scientists sign letter opposing logging as a response to wildfires (we are signatories).

California Wildlands are Not the Unmanaged, Unburned Landscapes You are Led to Believe

California wildlands are far from unmanaged areas that haven’t burned in a century as is being implied in the media. Map shows areas cleared by logging, habitat clearance, and prescribed fires, in addition to fire history along with a 2020 wildfire overlay. This is not a comprehensive map because it is missing a lot of clearance projects that have taken place on private and non-federal lands that weren’t through timber harvest plans. Data assembled and map produced by Bryant Baker, Research Associate, California Chaparral Institute.

The Creek Fire: Made Worse by Past Forest Service Actions

The fire that is the biggest current threat to lives and homes right now is the Creek Fire on the Sierra National Forest. It is currently 135,000 acres.

The Creek Fire very rapidly raced through two earlier fires (French fire of 2014, and Aspen fire of 2013) that had been heavily post-fire logged by the US Forest Service, followed by planting tree plantations. They removed nearly all of the large snags in most of the higher-intensity fire patches under the guise of “fuel reduction,” claiming that this would curb future fires (see map).

Map produced by Bryant Baker, Research Associate, California Chaparral Institute

We, along with the John Muir Project, sent the Forest Service numerous scientific studies showing that the logging would not stop fires and would likely make them burn faster and with more severity, such that the logging would likely increase, not decrease, risk to people. The Forest Service ignored the science and we filed suit with the John Muir Project to try to stop these post-fire logging projects, back in 2013 and 2014, but the federal judges deferred to the Forest Service.

Just days ago, the Creek fire started in the Big Creek canyon and soon reached previously post-fire logged areas, including the post-fire logged area in the French fire of 2014, after which it raced over 12 miles north in a matter of a few hours on Saturday (similar to the Camp fire of 2018, racing rapidly through heavily logged areas in the first six hours before devastating Paradise), trapping over 200 people at Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The people were rescued by a daring National Guard helicopter operation, but it was a close call and there were dozens of injuries.

The Creek fire is now burning quickly through a large commercial thinning project area (Bald Mountain project) just east of Shaver Lake and dozens of additional hikers are reportedly trapped. The Forest Service has been told repeatedly that thinning would not stop a wildland fire and that thinning often makes fires spread faster, but they have continued to ignore the science. Numerous homes have burned down because of a preference for logging and habitat clearance over the implementation of real solutions like those in Senator Harris’ Wildfire Defense Act bill which focuses on home protection.

Overall this fire season in California, the great majority of the acreage burning is not in forests — it is in non-native grasslands, oak woodlands, and chaparral. Of the portion that is in forests, the fires that are spreading the fastest are in areas that the Forest Service and private corporations have heavily logged in recent years and decades (both post-fire logging and thinning) under the guise of “fuel reduction,” and the fires are mostly lower-intensity in unlogged areas (see research citations below).

Some logging interests continue to try to claim that the fires are spreading mostly because of dead trees and “overgrown” forests, but it’s the opposite. The overwhelming weight of science is clear that forests with more dead trees generally burn at equal or lower intensities relative to forests with few or no snags. Denser forests with the highest levels of environmental protection from logging burn at the lowest intensities. Fire behavior is driven mainly by weather and climate, not forest or snag density.

Information provided by:
John Muir Project

To learn more about how to to protect your home from wildfire, please see our webpage here.

The Facts About Logging and Forest Fires

“Areas intensively managed burned in the highest intensities. Areas protected in national parks and wilderness areas burned in lower intensities. Plantations burn hotter in a fire than native forests do. We know this from numerous studies based on peer-reviewed science.”*
– Dominick DellaSala
From: Exploring Solutions to Reduce Risks of Catastrophic Wildfire and Improve Resilience of National Forests. Congressional testimony by Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Sept. 27, 2017.

* The research cited above analyzed 1,500 fires in 11 Western states over four decades – an overwhelming convergence of evidence. Some of those studies include the following:

1. Odion et al. 2004. Fire severity patterns and forest management in the Klamath National Forest, northwest California, USA. Cons. Biol. 18:927-936.

2. Zald, H., and C. Dunn. 2018. Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape. Ecol. Applic. 4:1068-1080.

3. Bradley, C.M., et al. 2016. Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere 7:1-13.

217 scientists sign letter opposing logging as a response to wildfires (we are signatories).