In the year 2021, in KYBURZ, California, a mountainside was engulfed in flames that quickly spread towards Lake Tahoe. The aftermath left scorched trees standing against a gray sky.
“During a tour of the damage caused by the Caldor Fire, Hugh Safford, a researcher in environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, encouraged the group to point out any living trees they could find. This fire is one of many large wildfires that have occurred in the past decade.”
Dead pines, firs, and cedars stretch as far as the eye can see. Fire burned so hot that soil was still barren in places more than a year later. Granite boulders were charred and flaked from the inferno. Long, narrow indentations marked the graves of fallen logs that vanished in smoke.
Damage in this area of Eldorado National Forest could be permanent — part of a troubling pattern that threatens a defining characteristic of the Sierra Nevada range John Muir once called a “waving sea of evergreens.”
According to scientific research, forests similar to this one are vanishing due to more frequent and severe fires, causing changes to the environment worldwide. This poses a danger to wildlife, hindering attempts to reduce carbon emissions and negatively impacting water resources.
Multiple factors have contributed to the issues in the western United States, including a long history of firefighting, the removal of Indigenous burning practices, the logging of larger trees that are resistant to fires, and other management techniques that have led to overgrowth of small trees, underbrush, and deadwood in forests.
Drought has killed hundreds of millions of conifers or made them susceptible to disease and pests, and more likely to go up in flames. And a changing climate has brought more intense, larger and less predictable fires.
Safford explained that the current situation involves dense vegetation and flammable materials in forested areas, which can cause a fire to continue burning for an extended period of time.
Although the past two wildfire seasons in California have been relatively mild, the state has still experienced 12 of its top 20 largest wildfires and 13 of the most destructive fires in the past five years. This year’s record-breaking rain and snow have helped end a three-year drought, but the resulting vegetation growth could potentially contribute to future wildfires.
A study published in the American Geophysical Union Advances journal revealed that California has experienced a loss of over 1,760 square miles (4,560 square kilometers) of tree cover since 1985, which accounts for nearly 7% of its total tree cover. Despite an initial increase in forest area in the 1990s, the state has seen a rapid decline in recent years due to larger and more frequent wildfires.
A recent investigation of the southern Sierra Nevada, where Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks are located, revealed that approximately 33% of the coniferous forest has changed to different types of vegetation due to fire, drought, or bark beetle infestations over the last ten years.
“We are witnessing a decline of alarming proportions that is not sustainable,” stated Brandon Collins, one of the authors of the research published in the journal Ecological Applications and a forestry professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “If this trend continues in the next 20 to 30 years, we will lose it completely.”
Chad Hanson, an environmentalist associated with the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, believes that there is a misconception about the severity of wildfires in order to justify logging. He has frequently taken legal action to prevent the removal of dead trees or the thinning of forests.
Hanson stated that young plants are emerging in areas of intense fire damage, and the deceased trees serve as a home for endangered spotted owls, Pacific fishers, and uncommon woodpeckers.
According to Hanson, his research revealed that forests consistently contain concentrated areas of trees and are susceptible to intense fires. He argues that these fires are becoming more severe due to changes in weather and climate, exacerbated by certain logging methods.
“If all the information being spread were accurate, there would be much more cause for alarm,” he stated. “However, the general population is being deceived.”
Some individuals are worried that inadequate forest management could lead to severe fires, which could negatively impact wildlife habitats, the storage of carbon in trees, and the quality of snowmelt from the Sierra mountains, which supplies 60% of the water for agricultural and urban areas.
Areas that have been burned are at a higher risk for experiencing floods and erosion. As a result of this, the runoff water may contain ash and sediment.
According to Christy Brigham, the chief of resources management and science at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, areas where a mix of conifer trees burned severely are at risk of losing their entire forest. The consequences for wildlife habitat, water cycling, and carbon storage are unknown. Additionally, the cherished qualities of forests are also at stake.
Following devastating wildfires in 2020 and 2021, approximately one-fifth of the giant sequoia population, previously thought to be resistant to fire, was destroyed. In response, the National Park Service has initiated a contentious initiative to aid in the recovery of these majestic trees by planting a substantial number of seedlings in one particular grove.
CHANGING FOREST LANDSCAPE
Several scientists claim that the upper layer of trees in the Sierra Nevada region has undergone significant transformations due to extensive logging during the Gold Rush era.
Up until the mid-1800s, large amounts of land were burned each year due to lightning strikes or intentional fires set by Indigenous communities. This helped control the growth of vegetation, allowing smaller fires to move through the ground and eliminate smaller trees that were competing with larger ones.
John Muir described the welcoming expansiveness of the Sierra woods as one of their most notable features, noting that a horseback rider could effortlessly navigate through the trees.
However, once Native Americans were displaced and forests were depleted due to logging, the focus shifted to preventing fires in order to preserve the valuable trees and homes built in more remote areas. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a policy to extinguish any fire by 10 a.m. the following day.
According to Safford, the presence of smaller trees that are not as fire-resistant has led to a four to sevenfold increase in forest density compared to the past. This is because these smaller trees, which were not typically harvested for lumber, now compete for water and enable fire to spread to the taller trees’ canopy. As a result, more destructive crown fires are fueled.
During the tour last October, Safford pointed to a cluster of closely spaced deceased trees and remarked, “John Muir wouldn’t be able to identify any of this. He wouldn’t even know his location.”
A tinderbox ignites very quickly
A tinderbox can easily catch fire.
Safford stated that the Caldor Fire, which blazed through the Sierra Crest and into the Tahoe basin, resulted in the destruction of 1,000 buildings. This fire also burned through forests that had not experienced flames in over 100 years. The combination of a warmer climate and years of drought had turned the area into a highly flammable environment.
Large areas of Eldorado National Forest were engulfed in high-intensity fires that resulted in the destruction of mature pine trees and the loss of their seeds. Unlike certain species like giant sequoias and lodgepole pines, which are able to release their seeds during a fire, the primary pine trees in the Sierra region are unable to reproduce if their seeds are destroyed by fire.
Manzanita and mountain whitethorn, which are common in lower elevations of California’s chaparral, have a tendency to thrive in areas affected by wildfires and can become the dominant species in the forest.
Research has shown that multiple fires or other forms of disturbance can cause significant changes in ecosystems.
A recent investigation of 334 wildfires in the Western region revealed that fire severity and dryness have been on the rise. This is due to the dominant conifer species becoming less likely to regenerate after a fire. The study predicts that this issue will only worsen with the effects of climate change.
Safford parked his SUV along U.S. Highway 50, near the Caldor Fire’s path towards Lake Tahoe. He climbed up a rocky knoll to show a treeless slope that had been previously burned in 1981 and now contained chaparral vegetation.
According to Safford, the Caldor wildfire, believed to be started by an irresponsible father and son, is expected to further confirm this situation. He also stated that the extent of damage from the intense burning will largely depend on whether another fire occurs in the upcoming years.
1. Methods for Managing Forests
2. Techniques for Preserving Forests
3. Strategies for Caring for Forests
4. Approaches to Maintaining Forests
5. Resources for Protecting Forests
6. Instruments for Sustaining Forests
7. Measures for Nurturing Forests
8. Solutions for Conserving Forests
9. Systems for Regulating Forests
10. Aids for Enhancing Forests
In order to address the issue of large wildfires, the federal government and the state of California reached a joint agreement in 2020 to decrease fuel levels on 1,560 square miles per year by 2025. This land, which makes up nearly 60% of California’s total forest area of 51,560 square miles, is owned by the federal government.
Although only a small portion of the land requires treatment, this is seen as a positive advancement after a period of inactivity. However, it is not without its detractors.
Fire experts recommend intentional controlled burning with low-to-moderate intensity to remove flammable vegetation and reduce the risk of large wildfires.
According to Safford, who served as the Forest Service’s regional ecologist for 20 years before retiring in 2021, the agency has always been cautious when it comes to taking risks. Instead of taking the risk of a fire becoming uncontrollable, officials have tended to put out flames before they can provide the benefits of a less intense fire.
Several weeks prior to the Caldor Fire, the Forest Service had been keeping an eye on a lightning-induced fire south of Lake Tahoe, while also handling more urgent situations. However, when the small fire rapidly grew and resulted in millions of dollars in destruction, politicians criticized the agency for not taking more action. In response, officials promptly announced that they would no longer allow naturally occurring fires to burn during that season.
The Forest Service will increase its efforts to thin forests in areas with the highest risk of wildfires to communities and infrastructure, thanks to over $4 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
This will involve trimming smaller trees and intentionally starting fires to remove built-up debris in the forest.
BATTLELINES OVER THINNING
In the autumn months, Safford guided two graduate students along a rough fire road that wound through a burned forest. Along the way, they stumbled upon an area teeming with life, where towering pines and cedars provided shelter and new seedlings were beginning to grow.
Safford referred to it as a “nirvana.” Prior to the fire, smaller trees that were susceptible to fire had been cut down and other plants were also removed. The distance between the remaining trees provided enough room for the fire to slowly spread, resulting in only a few trunks being charred.
In 2021, a group of conservation organizations in Sierra wrote to leaders in Congress, advocating for increased federal funding towards fire resilience. They referenced a widespread agreement among fire experts, land managers, and firefighters to prioritize thinning and prescribed burns.
Susan Britting, the head of Sierra Forest Legacy, one of the organizations, recognized that any logging activities may be met with doubt due to the past practice of loggers targeting the biggest and most valuable trees. However, she stated that selectively removing trees under a certain size is permissible, although she personally prefers controlled burning as a method of managing forests.
According to Britting, activities such as logging, tree removal, and reforestation have been commonplace in my experience. However, prescribed fire, which is necessary, often gets pushed back and neglected instead of being prioritized.
The purpose of controlled fires is depicted by a significant green zone on a fire severity map of the Caldor fire, which covers approximately 350 square miles (906 square kilometers). The green section, indicating minimal fire damage, aligns with the location where a fire was intentionally started within an established forest in 2019.
The possibility of a planned fire spreading beyond its intended boundaries, as occurred during New Mexico’s biggest fire to date last year, continues to pose a significant obstacle for the strategy.
Although managed fire and prescribed burns have strong backing from scientists and environmental organizations, thinning is a contentious issue and frequently encounters legal opposition.
In a letter addressed to Congress in 2020, The John Muir Project’s Hanson and over 200 climate and forest scientists expressed their opposition to logging. They stated that while some thinning may help decrease fire severity, these activities often require the removal of larger trees in order to be financially viable.
Safford, who is currently the chief scientist at Vibrant Planet, an environmental organization focused on public benefits, acknowledged that in the past, larger trees have been harvested. However, he stated that this is not the goal of current thinning projects, which are aimed at improving the overall health of forests.
According to him, even with the use of chainsaws, we will not have the ability to solve the problem by cutting our way out. Due to two-thirds of the difficult Sierra being either inaccessible or prohibited for logging, the fire will need to play a major role in addressing the issue.
However, there is a growing opposition to using fire as a method of management. Homeowners worry that prescribed fires may spread beyond their intended boundaries and cause damage to their homes. This concern also leads fire departments to suppress smaller fires that could potentially reduce the build-up of debris on the forest floor.
According to Safford, this is a common difficult problem where finding a solution will greatly impact other aspects of society and people’s desires. He fears that eventually, we will destroy all of our forests.
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