Forest Fires in the Hills of Orange County?

Misinformation about California Wildfires
from those who should know better

As non-native grasslands and low-growing California sage scrub were being consumed by fires in Orange County this week, in areas that had burned a decade before, USA Today provided a solution – we need to manage these “forests” better and regularly burn off all that “fuel” that keeps accumulating. And they appropriated Native American culture to support the idea (Fig. 1).

  • The nearest forest is miles away.
  • Too many fires are already threatening the habitats that are burning.
  • Euro-Americans have long since paved over or damaged the lands in Orange County that once supported Native American families and their sustainable relationship with Nature.

The contrast between reality and what USA Today portrays is stunning.

Fig. 1. USA Today inserted this graphic and video into their story about the Orange County fires. It cites forest mismanagement with claims about how we need to burn the landscape as they think Native Americans did. The Orange County fires are burning non-forested landscapes that burned 12-years-ago and are consequently threatened by too much fire.

Let’s take a look at the fire suppressed, mismanaged forest USA Today suggests needs more fire.

Fig. 2. Chino Hills State Park is hardly an overgrown “forest.” Although much of this area was covered by non-native grasses prior to the current Blue Ridge Fire, there were healthy remnants of native habitat. However, those remnants are now at increased risk.

What has actually been suppressed is the ability and interest to question, to discover the truth.

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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.