Robert G. Ingram: Forest fuel management — the ugly truth

President Trump happens to be correct. Comprehensive forest management including targeted control burns, not fighting global warming, will better protect forest landowners. California’s forestlands must return to more historic forest densities and fuel loads.

California’s Mediterranean climate produces hot dry summers and cold wet winters. Both conditions prevent rapid fungal decay which means our prolific forests annually accumulate forest material. In late summer and fall when forest fuels reach their driest point, periodic hot dry winds occur. Lightning and other ignition sources are ever present. That’s our fire evolved forest and fire weather condition. We can’t change it. Historically, repetitive fire occurred once every 7 to 15 years in the oak woodland up through the mixed conifer belt and about once every 25 years in the higher elevation. On average, about four million acres in California burned every year. We stopped this process.

In 1911, the federal government proclaimed all wildfire as bad and vowed it could and would stop them. California state government soon followed suit. The problem — California’s fire evolved ecosystem didn’t get the memo. The ecosystem continued producing massive amounts of forest vegetation minus the cleansing mechanism (mainly low intensity ground fire). The original process maintained forest health and a balance between forest density and the accumulation of forest fuels. The new process created unprecedented ground fuel loads while brush, hardwoods, and hundreds of shade tolerant conifers like cedar and fir survived and slowly grew into unnatural and dense fuel ladders.

Fast forward to today. Instead of minimal ground fuel loads, open forests with 60 to 90 trees per acre and little fuel ladder connectivity, we’ve converted our forests into a powder keg. Today’s forests consist of 300 to 500 sickly trees per acre, dense fuel ladders and at least six times the normal forest fuel load. Global warming can create longer fire seasons but cannot create hotter fires. An ever-increasing fuel load does — basic fire physics. Try cooking with six times the normal number of briquets in your barbecue.

Fifty-plus years of tucking single-family dwellings within the wildland urban interface massively compounds the problem — thousands and thousands of homes in each forested county. In Nevada County, how many homes existed in Lake of the Pines, Alta Sierra, Lake Wildwood, Banner Mountain, Cascade Shores and Tahoe-Donner before 1968? A handful.

Firefighters must save lives, property (homes, etc.), then resources (forests), in that order. When firefighters rescue and evacuate victims ahead of a fire and protect homes and businesses in a fire, the wildfire progresses virtually unchecked. Dense smoke and winds in excess of 35 mph preclude the use of air resources thus further reducing suppression efforts.

Around 2% of the hundreds of annual wildfires occur during high-wind events. Devastating killer fires … think Paradise, Santa Rosa, Redding two years ago and the most destructive fires this year. Fast moving wind driven fires pre-heat and desiccates vegetation way ahead of the flames. Firebrands easily ignite dry punky material, like wood chips, hop-scotching spot fires ahead of the main fire. Wind driven fires continually supply all the oxygen needed to consume every burnable item in its path. Politicians, bureaucrats, federal, state, and local governments, fire agencies, communities and homeowners must redirect their focus to reduce the severity of these types of fires.

Masticating and chipping ladder fuels (expensively turning mostly live vegetation into dead fuel) then spreading it over the already way overloaded forest fuel load increases available fuel. Brush and hardwood trees quickly re-sprout and without constant maintenance the fuel ladder rapidly returns. Only minus strong winds and with constant maintenance can this method help. However, in wind driven fires, it’s virtually useless. Remember, wind driven fires supply unlimited oxygen and burn all available fuel. Adding more fuel to our already overloaded forest condition does not work against the wind driven fires that overwhelm and devastate communities.

Until we accept the biological reality of our severely altered fire evolved ecosystem, we’re just playing Russian roulette. Reducing forest densities and removing forest fuels takes sound forest management coupled with prescribed fire. Time to bite the bullet. Or just hope a wind driven fire never comes. Tick tock.

Robert G. Ingram lives in Grass Valley.

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