An open Douglas fir forest in Sly Park near Placerville, California. The density of this forest has been reduced through a combination of prescribed burning and thinning by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) in cooperation with other agencies.
Seeing the forest through the trees
Fire suppression in SOME forests, such as dry ponderosa pine and Douglas fir stands, has led to fire exclusion. This in turn allowed undergrowth and shade tolerate trees to build up under the forest canopy. In the past, it appears these forests were dominated by surface-fire regimes where flames from lightning-caused fires cleared out the undergrowth every few years.
HOWEVER, it is important to understand that even in these forests, infrequent, huge, severe wildfires are a natural part of the system when the conditions line up (primarily long-term drought, heat, dry vegetation). The paper linked below does an excellent job describing this pattern:
In addition, there are new studies that raise questions concerning the impact past fire suppression practices have had on mixed conifer forests in California. Odion and Hanson (2008) and Odion et al. (2009) suggest that forested areas in California that have missed the most fire return intervals (i.e., the most fire suppressed forests) are burning mostly at low/moderate-intensity and may not be experiencing higher levels of high-intensity fire than areas that have missed relatively fewer fire return intervals.
In an effort to return some of these surface-fire regime forests to less dense conditions, land management agencies have worked to thin out the vegetation and add fire back into the system through prescribed burns. The trees survive and the area below the canopy opens up. The photo above shows such a forest near Placerville, California. Twenty years ago, the forest was impossible to see through. The soft green carpet under the trees is mountain misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa).
This is the model one often hears about when the evils of fire suppression are discussed. However, not all systems are the same and "one-size-fits-all" land management plans are not helpful in trying to manage the West's diverse landscapes. As discussed in other fire pages on this site, such a model does not apply to chaparral. Fire suppression has not led to "unnatural" chaparral overgrowth. Crown fires, where thousands of acres of vegeation are burned to the ground, are a natural part of the chaparral and many forested ecosystems. We have never been successful in preventing such fires within these systems, nor will we.
By now, practically everyone in the West has heard the story about forest fires. You know the story I mean: the one about the Forest Service suppressing fires for ninety years, leading to a massive build up of fuels just ready to explode. That's why we've seen so many severe fires in recent years, and why Congress had to give the Forest Service and Department of the Interior nearly $3 billion last year to put out fires and treat hazardous fuels.
Everyone believes this story. I believed it too. But when I tried to find data to back it up, I couldn't...
During the 2004 California, Nevada, Hawaii Fire Council conference in Reno, the organizers did an excellent job arranging several panels as well as a wide range of speakers. The firefighting community is a welcoming bunch filled with dedicated individuals more than willing to go out of their way to help others. A quality that obviously fits well with their job.
There was one topic presented, however, that was particularly troubling. Namely, wildfires have been increasing in size over the past century. The speaker (Thomas Bonnicksen) used a graph to illustrate his point and then suggested this trend has been caused by past fire suppression. Fire suppression, according to this speaker, has allowed unnatural levels of fuel to build up across all ecosystems. The speaker also implied huge, catastrophic fires are a modern phenomena and firefighting agencies (USFS, etc.) are to blame.
These conclusions are not supported by the data.
First, let's look at the fires before 1900. These were left out of the data the speaker used to construct his graph on increasing fire size:
1825 Miramichi fire in Maine; 3 million acres; 160 dead. 1846 Yaquina fire in Oregon; 484,000 acres. 1848 Nestucca fire in Oregon; 320,000 acres. 1865 Silverton fire in Oregon, 1 million acres. 1868 Coos fire in Oregon; 296,000 acres. 1871 Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin; 3.78 million acres; 1,500 estimated dead. 1876 Bighorn fire in Wyoming; 500,000 acres. 1881 Michigan forest fire destroyed 1 million acres, 282 est. dead. 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire, Orange/San Diego Counties, California, 300,000 acres est. total. 1894 The Hinckley fire in Minnesota; 160,000 acres; 418 dead.
Some pretty big fires prior to 1900. Now, the most devastating fires after 1900:
1903 The Adirondack fire in New York; 450,000 acres. 1910 Great Fire (Idaho & Montana) 3 million acres+, 85 dead. 1918 The Cloquet fire in Minnesota. Cloquet; 400 dead. 1932 The Matilija Canyon fire, Ventura, CA; 256 square miles. 1933, 1939, 1945 and 1951; Oregon coast range. 355,000 acres. 1947 Texas; in September and October, 900 fires; 55,000 acres. 1947 Maine; series of fires; 175,000 acres burned; 16 died. 1988 Yellowstone N.P., Montana and Wyoming; 1 million acres. 2003 Southern California Firestorm; 748,017 acres, 14 fires; 24 dead.
Obviously huge fires are not a modern phenomenon and have occurred long before fire suppression began. The fact that one of the largest fires in US History happened forty years before the government began its massive fire suppression efforts is an issue typically ignored by the "bash Smokey Bear" crowd. It is also important to note that some of the earlier fires were caused by poor logging practices. Logging slash (cut limbs, unusable wood) was left lying in huge piles across the landscape.
In relation to California, see the graph below showing the distribution of fire size in Los Angeles County (dominated by shrub fires rather than forest fires). The graph shows that fires have not been increasing in size over the past century in that region. Unpublished data analyzing fire size in the Sierra Nevada show similar results. This is important because the most destructive fires in the United States occur in California (according to insurance claims). Graphs attempting to demonstrate that large fires are an artifact of fire suppression throughout the past century appear to be constructed from highly selective data rather than a full set. However, something has been happening since the mid-1980's to increase the frequency of larger wildfires in certain areas. And it appears to be getting worse. See article below for more details.
Fire Size in Los Angeles County. Source: J.E. Keeley
Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity
So if huge wildfires are not a modern phenomenon and have not been caused by built up fuels from past fire suppression activity, what has led to the apparent increase in wildfire activity in the Western United States over the past twenty years? Anthony Westerling, a researcher from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, co-authored a paper in July 2006 that systematically documented the extent of recent changes in wildfire activity for the first time. What they found was,
"...that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and dramatically in the mid-1980's, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks, and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt."
And in relation to the demand by some to increase logging activity in order to reduce wildfire risk the researchers found that,
"...while land use history is an important factor for wildfire risks in specific forest types (e.g. some ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests), the broad-scale increase in wildfire frequency across the United States has been driven primarily by sensitivity of fire regimes to recent changes over a relatively large area.
The overall importance of climate in wildfire activity underscores the urgency of ecological restoration and fuels management to reduce wildfire hazards to human communities and to mitigate ecological impacts of climate change in forests that have undergone substantial alterations due to past land uses. At the same time, however, large increases in wildfire driven by increased temperatures and earlier spring snowmelts in forests where land use history had little impact on fire risks indicates that ecological restoration and fuels management alone will not be sufficient to reverse current wildfire trends."
For a copy of the entire paper, please download the .pdf file below.
Historical Forest Photos
You may have seen the first photo in the series below showing a 1909 forest with a park-like appearance. As succeeding photos of the same spot reveal, shrubs, and smaller trees slowly fill up the scene until in 1979 it becomes what is typically known as a "dog hair" forest - dense, cluttered, and full of fuel. This series, and many like it, are shown to demonstrate how fire suppression has supposedly caused forests to become unnaturally clogged with fuel. The USFS and other firefighting agencies are then castigated for doing their job. This has unfortunately caused a tremendous amount of self blame to creep into wildland fire agencies, undermining their credibility. Smokey Bear is ridiculed during presentations to get a good laugh. This perspective, now widely held by the public, may very well have helped fuel the animosity some San Diego County residents felt toward the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection after the devastating 2003 fires in Southern California; all terribly unjustified and based on gross oversimplifications.
The problem with the photo set below is that the first photo was taken after the forest had been logged. It was not a natural condition at all. In addition, the photos were taken in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, not California as was claimed by the USFS in an effort to help sell its Sierra Nevada logging plan in 1996 (see report below).
The same speaker I heard at the conference mentioned above used similar historical photos to demonstrate how a forest should naturally look. I asked him if there had been any independent verification of whether or not the photos he was using actually showed “natural conditions” or was the result of logging, grazing, or introduced burning. He failed to answer the question, but instead referred me to a book he had written on the subject.
We do not reject the notion that fire suppression efforts have been successful in excluding fire in SOME forests dominated by surface fire regimes. Those forests, such as dry ponderosa pine forests, have accumulated unnatural amounts of vegetation in some instances. But we need to be careful in applying a one-size-fits-all model to every landscape, especially when data or historical photos are subject to misinterpretation. And most importantly for us in California, forest models have nothing to do with chaparral.
A photo set supposedly showing how forests have become "unnaturally clogged" due to fire suppression. The problem is that the first photo (1909) was taken after the forest had been logged.
This is what the forest looked like BEFORE logging and the 1909 photo above. Definitely more open than the 1979 photo but nowhere near the 1909 post-logging view. This photo was left out of the USFS poster. See pdf below for full documentation.
POST-FIRE LOGGING Interferes With Forest Restoration
In the January 20, 2006 Science Magazine, Daniel C. Donato et al. published a short paper detailing several straight forward studies they did regarding the impact of post-fire logging on the natural regeneration of a burned forest. The political response was remarkable and illustrates how science often falls victim to the wrath of vested interests. The follow 3 articles detail the events.
1. The BLM reverses after lawmakers raise the issue of censorship over findings on logging after fires
Thursday, February 09, 2006
By MICHAEL MILSTEIN
The federal government on Wednesday swiftly restored funding for an Oregon State University study of logging in burned forests after lawmakers said a freeze of the money could leave "the impression of scientific censorship."
The move came hours after OSU asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reinstate the funding -- suspended last week -- and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he would hold a congressional field hearing to review the research.
Walden, a leading lawmaker on forest issues who heads the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, is sponsoring a bill with Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to speed actions such as logging and replanting on lands burned by wildfires.
The Bush administration supports the bill, which has brought national attention to the question of how to deal with lands swept by Western wildfires each summer.
OSU entered the spotlight last month when Daniel Donato, a College of Forestry graduate student, and five other scientists from the university and the U.S. Forest Service published results of a study of forests burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon. Their one-page report in the journal Science concluded that logging sets back recovery of burned forests.
The findings provoked swift and wide debate, and came under attack by professors in the College of Forestry who say logging and replanting speeds recovery of burned forests. Those professors, joined by three federal scientists, asked Science to halt publication of the report after it had survived a review by outside scientists.
The journal did not, but the appeal was viewed by some as a request to suppress controversial research.
OSU leaders took that point on more directly Wednesday. A joint statement by Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost, and Bill Boggess, president of the faculty senate, said the request to withhold the research was inappropriate.
The statement, sent to OSU faculty, congratulated Donato and his colleagues for reaching the pages of Science, a prestigious journal. It also reaffirmed "a culture of open query and expression, where diversity of opinions is valued and individuals are free to express themselves without the fear of censorship."
A three-year, $307,000 federal fire science grant paid for the OSU study. One year with about $93,000 of funding is left.
Last week the BLM escalated the furor surrounding the study when it suspended the funding to OSU. It said in part that research findings published in Science appeared to violate prohibitions on lobbying by referring to Walden's and Baird's bill.
Inclusion a mistake
The editor of Science said this week that the reference was left in by mistake and should have been removed.
The BLM said it acted only to enforce the terms of the research funding. However, another congressman on Walden's committee, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., questioned whether the BLM stopped the funding because the study findings ran against the Bush administration's position on logging.
Walden said in an interview Wednesday that he was not bothered by the OSU study, which provides only a snapshot of a few years in the forest's recovery. He said his bill would promote and fund further research into how forests respond to wildfires and other damaging events.
"The more science and the more research, the better," he said.
"The fact that somebody may have a little different result than somebody else is not worrisome to me," Walden said. He said he and Baird "support academic freedom, and we support research of all kinds."
Politicizing the issue
The two congressmen told BLM Director Kathleen Clark in a letter Wednesday that they respect the need to ensure that research is not politicized, but that freezing the funds "may lead to the perception that the agency is only politicizing it further."
They said the move "may even leave the impression of scientific censorship by the BLM."
Besides the question of improper lobbying, BLM officials said OSU scientists had failed to consult the BLM before publishing their results and failed to include a disclaimer saying their conclusions did not represent government opinion.
OSU told the agency in a letter Wednesday that the university team had presented its results to a BLM official in December and explained it was submitting the findings for publication.
The university apologized for not including the disclaimer and said it would do so in the future.
The BLM, facing mounting pressure and criticism, responded within a few hours by restoring the funds and saying any costs during the suspension would be covered. BLM officials said "it appears there was a miscommunication" on the requirement to consult the agency before publication.
"All sides agree that the research and science should continue," said Chris Strebig, a BLM spokesman.
Luanne Lawrence, OSU's vice president for university advancement, said the university would have found a way to pay for finishing the research even if the BLM had not restored the money.
Walden said Wednesday he would hold a hearing in response to a request from Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., for lawmakers to learn more about the OSU study. OSU professors with competing views have testified at past hearings of his panel.
Environmental groups have criticized Walden's and Baird's bill for promoting aggressive logging after wildfires. The congressmen said the goal is to let land managers make decisions quickly so logging and replanting -- if they're going to be done -- happen promptly.
They said the OSU study may support the idea of more rapid action because it concluded that logging two years after the Biscuit fire damaged trees that were resprouting on their own and littered the ground with tinder.
Baird, in an interview, echoed concerns by some at OSU who criticized the study for taking its conclusions too far.
"I, frankly, am chagrined by the editorial standards on this because of what I see as going well beyond what the data allowed," said Baird, a former professor and chairman of the department of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University. "That to me is a matter of scientific integrity."
Baird has hammered the Bush administration, claiming it uses science for political gain and saying research should never be stifled for political reasons. But he said the OSU report did not state the limits of the study before extending its findings to other forests.
"You can't just say, 'Is a medication good or bad?' " he said. "You have to say, 'Is it good or bad administered to certain people at certain times under certain conditions?' The authors didn't say that."
2. THE OSU FORESTRY CONTROVERSY: Another harsh lesson in political science
By Les AuCoin, Tuesday, February 28, 2006
At last week's oversight hearing on forest science in Medford, Daniel Donato, a graduate student at Oregon State University's School of Forestry, was taught a harsh lesson in political science: In today's climate, if a scientist follows his findings to wherever they lead, he risks sticking his neck into a congressional noose.
Donato's nationally recognized research suggested that commercial logging sets back recovery of forests in the first years after wildfires by crushing seedlings that grow naturally in the wake of fires and by creating tinder that invites future conflagrations.
Those findings are at odds with the official line of the Northwest timber industry and its supporters, including Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., who used the hearing to launch what bordered on a star chamber attack on the 29-year-old student's integrity as much as his research. That Walden and Baird are pushing a bill to expedite post-fire logging by easing environmental laws may be, of course, sheer coincidence.
Although Donato's findings are far from the last word on logging charred forests, they were peer-reviewed and published by the editors of Science magazine, one of the nation's premier scientific journals.
On the other hand, the spiritual sire of the Walden-Baird bill is a 2002 report by John Sessions, a professor at the OSU School of Forestry. Sessions' report contended that up to 2.5 billion board feet of timber could be commercially harvested in the area of the 2002 Biscuit fire in Southwestern Oregon -- in contrast to a 278 million board-foot cut that same year in Oregon and Washington combined -- with salutary effects on the Siskiyou National Forest. The Bush administration seized on those findings to propose one of the largest timber cuts in history.
The record shows that Sessions' academic specialty is road engineering, that he was hired by the board of county commissions of timber-dependent Douglas County, that his team did not include one forest conservation biologist, that his work was not subjected to peer review and that he tried to quash the Donato article before Science magazine printed it.
"It is unfortunate when people prematurely draw policy implications from single studies before the scientific process has finished its job," wrote Hal Salwasser, the dean of OSU's School of Forestry.
"Part of scientific integrity is making sure you don't make generalizations beyond the limitations of your data," intoned Baird.
But remarkably, the comments of Salwasser and Baird were not directed at the Sessions report, which wasn't peer-reviewed, but at the Donato report, which was.
Last week a lot of folks came to Medford not to praise Donato, but to hang him. And John Sessions? No noose for him. In fact, the congressmen didn't call on him to defend his research or his censorship efforts. But that may have been sheer coincidence, too.
Les AuCoin, a Democrat, is a former U.S. congressman from Oregon who served for 12 years on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service. He is a co-author of "Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy," to be published this spring by Island Press.
3. Original paper by Donato et al. and an independent analysis of the study by Greg Nagle can be downloaded from the .pdf below. Both are excellent.