Cal­i­for­nia can use fire to kill wild­fire

Gulf Times Community - - COVER STORY - By Ju­lia Rosen

A crew mem­ber mon­i­tors a pre­scribed burn at Yosemite Na­tional Park on Oc­to­ber 18, 2008. Fire helps re­cy­cle im­por­tant nu­tri­ents back into the soil and makes way for new grasses, wild­flow­ers and other plants.

If Cal­i­for­nia wants to get out in front of its wild­fire prob­lem, sci­en­tists have some clear but coun­ter­in­tu­itive ad­vice: Start more for­est fires. Decades of re­search shows that light­ing fires un­der safe con­di­tions not only clears out the dead plants and thick un­der­brush that fuel many se­vere wild­fires, it also re­stores a nat­u­ral process that once kept forests healthy and re­silient.

It can be tricky to pull off be­cause all fires, whether nat­u­ral or in­ten­tional, are in­her­ently dan­ger­ous and smoky. Even so, ex­perts say the ben­e­fits far out­weigh the risks.

Cal­i­for­nia’s over­grown forests came un­der scru­tiny when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump blamed them for the state’s re­cent fires and called for more ag­gres­sive man­age­ment.

Ex­perts say the di­ag­no­sis was mis­placed; the fires in both Par­adise and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia drew their deadly power from ex­treme weather con­di­tions ex­ac­er­bated by cli­mate change, not from the buildup of dense trees and brush.

Nev­er­the­less, sci­en­tists and land man­agers agree on the im­por­tance of re­duc­ing flammable fuel in Cal­i­for­nia’s vast conifer forests. And they say that fire is the best tool for the job.

“We re­ally have to un­der­stand that what’s re­ally needed on the land­scape is more fire, not less,” said Kelly Martin, the fire chief of Yosemite Na­tional Park.

Some fires will hap­pen no mat­ter what, sci­en­tists say. The ques­tion is: Do we want fires we can con­trol, or fires we can’t?

Un­til the 1800s, when set­tlers flooded into Cal­i­for­nia, many parts of the state ex­pe­ri­enced far more wild­fire than they do to­day. Nat­u­ral fires burned unim­peded, and Na­tive Amer­i­cans lit blazes to re­duce fu­ture risks and boost the growth of de­sir­able plants, as they had done for thou­sands of years. The state’s ecosys­tems evolved not just to tol­er­ate burn­ing, but to de­pend on it.

“Cal­i­for­nia land­scapes were re­ally truly born and bred of fire,” Martin said.

Then the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­ter­vened. Af­ter sev­eral mas­sive wild­fires ripped through the West in the early 1900s, the newly formed US For­est Ser­vice be­gan ex­tin­guish­ing flames as quickly as pos­si­ble. Man­agers be­lieved that sup­press­ing fires pro­tected both com­mu­ni­ties and forests, Martin said. And for decades, it did.

But over time, the plan back­fired. That was es­pe­cially true in conifer forests, which used to burn ev­ery five to 20 years and grew denser with each missed cy­cle.

Then came drought, tree-killing bee­tles and cli­mate change – plus a boom­ing pop­u­la­tion that kept ex­pand­ing into forested ar­eas.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans are all too fa­mil­iar with the con­se­quences: cat­a­strophic wild­fires that are nearly im­pos­si­ble to con­tain.

“If you want to re­ally, fully re­store the for­est, you have to get fire back in there,” said Mal­colm North, a re­search sci­en­tist at the US For­est Ser­vice’s Pa­cific South­west Re­search Sta­tion in Davis, Calif.

Be­yond re­mov­ing saplings and pine duff, fire cre­ates nat­u­ral vari­abil­ity in the spac­ing of trees, he said. It typ­i­cally leaves denser stands in wet­ter places and cre­ates gaps in dryer ar­eas that pre­vent flames from spread­ing.

“That’s one of the fea­tures which made forests so re­silient to fire and drought,” he said.

Fire also plays a crit­i­cal role in break­ing down ma­te­rial on the for­est floor and re­cy­cling nu­tri­ents.

Ex­cept near com­mu­ni­ties, the goal of pre­scribed burns is not to pre­vent fu­ture fires, but to al­low more wild­fires to burn safely, North said.

The 2013 Rim fire was a prime ex­am­ple.

It started with a run­away camp­fire on Na­tional For­est land east of Grov­e­land, Calif., and quickly metas­ta­sised. But then it spread into nearby Yosemite Na­tional Park, where for decades Martin and her pre­de­ces­sors had been light­ing pre­scribed fires and al­low­ing nat­u­ral ones to burn.

When the Rim fire hit pre­vi­ously treated ar­eas, it sud­denly be­came tamer. It dropped from the canopy back down to the ground, burned less in­tensely, and didn’t re­quire much sup­pres­sion, Martin said.

The con­trolled burns also pro­tected staff build­ings near the Hodg­don Meadow Camp­ground. “We didn’t lose any homes,” she said.

De­spite its ef­fec­tive­ness, pre­scribed burn­ing re­mains vastly un­der­utilised in Cal­i­for­nia and across the West.


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