The politics of forest fires | High Sierra Topix  

The politics of forest fires

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Postby huts » Fri Jul 13, 2007 10:54 am

Hi, me again.

I am quite interested in what dave54 had to say about a fire making an end run around a 20 year old clearcut. It does make sense that newer growth could be more juicy, a higher ratio of greenery to wood but I think there are many other variables that could be involved.

I have seen mature stands survive where the neighboring area of dense second growth went up like a roman candle. I have been pondering what the differences between the two experiences may be:

lack of management of second growth leading to a thicket rather than a forest? The dense growth of "toothpick" trees often have very little green on them -

type of tree - one mature Jeffrey Pine forest I am thinking about was very open and park-like while the surrounding area was dense brush with smaller trees, slope aspect has something to do with this, also there are stumps present indicating that some trees were cut at one time and the sheep manure indicates that some four legged brush clearing may have occurred.

I have witnessed juicy green second growth going up in flames just like any other tree - it would appear that the juiciness of second growth can vary greatly.

I recall writing letters to protest some of the large acreage clearcuts that were being proposed as "fuel reduction". I do remember there were no provisions to manage the second growth, mitigation to prevent erosion and run off was vague and I would think I was not the only one who supported the concept of (how it was explained to me) staggered bands of cut areas which could slow progression of a fire.

I am not a forester but I do have a degree in botany and am well acquainted with the scientific process. I believe there are too many uncontrolled variables (wind, humidity both relative and field, terrain etc.) to say for certain that one thing or another would have prevented this disaster - except, of course, if some idiot had not built an illegal campfire. There, Mountaineer, is your "smoking gun".



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Postby dave54 » Fri Jul 13, 2007 8:40 pm

huts wrote:Hi, me again.

...but I think there are many other variables that could be involved...



Yes, there are. I did not want to create the idea that logging itself reduces fire intensity. Reducing fire intensity requires followup treatments for the slash, managing density, and other actions. Leaving the slash on the ground increases fire risk, even in low thinning operations. Treating the slash reduces the fire risk, regardless of the overall harvest method.

It used to be standard procedure to burn clear cut blocks for planting. The expression was 'whack 'em, stack 'em, and black 'em'. In the late 1980s or so the attitude shifted to start leaving the slash on the ground for nutrient cycling and erosion control. It was nice to the soils, and the slash enhanced regeneration and survival of shade tolerant seedlings (but hampered the regeneration and survival of shade intolerants, so pick your desired species). Unfortunately, the slash made the clearcut extremely flammable. It also made followup treatments like brush control and thinning more difficult and expensive. So now whether to treat the slash or not, or how much to treat, is decided on a case-by-case basis, trying to balance all the pluses and minuses. Harvesting to reduce fire risk means full slash treatment, driving up the cost of the entire project, which in turn feeds the argument that National Forest logging loses money.

In the examples I gave earlier in the Storrie Fire, the blocks that were treated for slash did not burn. A few blocks that did not get treated did burn.

Unmanaged forests are the same way. The most influential factor is surface fuels -- the fallen trees, brush, and young reproduction under the canopy. These can be natural, of course. Even Wilderness Areas that have never seen a chainsaw, bulldozer or cow can still be highly flammable and subject to high intensity stand replacing fires. Other factors are density, size distribution, and to a lesser degree, species mix. Year-to-year variations in weather is a major driver of fuel moisture (juiciness, as you called it). In drought years even the greenest, most careful managed forest can burn. The only way to completely fireproof the Sierra Nevada is to clearcut and pave over with concrete.

So it is all about managing risk and probabilities. Areas adjacent to communities are the priorities, but that is not saying areas 'far from homes' should not be treated ( I haven't looked at a map to measure, but how far from the nearest home did the Angora Fire start? 2 miles?). Fires in backcountry areas and wilderness areas still impact people and can negatively affect the natural resource values. That is why long term plans involve treating the forest as a whole on a mega-scale matrix, not just building defensive 'moats' around communities and letting the rest burn.

You mentioned the concept of scattered series of treatments across the forest reducing fire intensity. That was initially called the 'Finney Effect' after the researcher who first suggested that if approximately 30% of an area is treated, any large fire would have slower spread and lower intensity on a landscape scale. More than 30% has only minor reductions. The theory remained untested for several years, as it would take decades to set up a series of controlled experiments and burning tens of thousands of acres of forest. Then the 2000 and 2002 fire seasons happened and an analytical post mortem of several of the largest fires validated the theory. Experienced firefighters have known this intuitively for decades, with some early papers published in the 1930's discussing the concept, but did not quantify the amount of area that yielded optimum results. Now there are some firm numbers and accepted validations.
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Postby huts » Mon Jul 16, 2007 10:09 am

and now it seems the ambulance chasers (whoops, I mean "members of the bar" [which bar, I ponder]) are already after it - "If your house was burned in the recent Lake Tahoe Fire due to pine needles call us today"

or it could be said: "Step right up to the greatest show on earth, no need to take responsibility for your own actions, find someone to blame and make a million dollars, please stay behind the line, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, yes we will make a hell of a lot more than you off of your tragedy but you will feel so much better when you can point the finger at someone else

excuse me one moment :puke:
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Postby dave54 » Tue Jul 17, 2007 7:58 am

Yeah, my wife and I both saw that ad on TV (Reno law office advertising for clients on TV with the fire ad). We both started laughing and shaking our heads.
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Postby mikehike » Tue Jul 17, 2007 12:18 pm

I own a small slice of heaven on North Uppert truckee on 596 Kiowa Street, the fire missed our cabin by 400 yards.

First and foremost there are "Fires" and then there are "fire storms", this was a "fire storm" driven by 40-50mph winds, all the conservation in the world would not have stopped this fire. The fire spread from tree top to tree top.

2nd plant communites in california are fire-dependent to a certain degree, the giant seqouia requires fire to open the cones and release seeds. As you travel higher in elevation the plants become less dependent on fire to germinate.

The Tahoe basin was logged in the 1800's which gave rise to higher elevation firs(non-fire dependent) to dominate the forest rather than the Jeffrey pines and lodgepole pine (fire-dependent) species. I can walk in my backyard on kiowa and look at a jeffry pine and a fir which are the same height, lets say 40' tall. The Firs lower branches are 1-2' above the pine duff, the Jeffrey's first branches are 20' off the ground. If the pine duff in my yard caught on fire the fir would blaze and catch everthing on fire, if it was all pines the understory would just smolder.

Fir seeds germinate in repsonse to soil disturbance so in an area which is logged there seeds will germinate readily, while Jeffrey's and lodgepoles need the fire to survive. If you drive down Pioneer trail there is stretch of pine forest that is all jeffrey's this is how the forest should look at 6,000 feet, firs begin to dominate at 7,000 feet.

The TRPA has worked in conjuction with the forest service to control burn the area right around North Upper Truckee, in fact the fire started at Seneca pond which is a 1/4 mile walk from my cabin, this whole area had a controlled burn last year. I walked out there 1 day after we were allowed back into the our cabin and it actually looked fine, almost all of the pines survived, the manazanita burned but it will come back and the firs were torched....."Forest Succesion"

The areas on lower angora were torched becuase it still had not been thinned and burned. The cabins that survived were anonmilies, due to wind and the effort of brave fire fighters and (allowed) defensible space thinning and landscaping. I love the trees around my cabin and if the wind blew our direction nothing short of clear cutting would have saved us. I will be pruning up our fir trees and if I remove any trees it will be "Firs only".

The TRPA is doing its best to keep Tahoe Blue, I have done all of my BMP's which consists of gravel beds around the cabins drip line, it wasn't exspensive I did it all myself. The TRPA also buys up vacant lots keeps them as green belts I have two open lots across my street. The TRPA allows for defencible spacing around your property this includes removing tree's and landscaping.

I guess what I am saying here is the TRPA might consider selective species to be cut such as firs, in order to bring the tahoe forest back to a Pine forest which Via Succession would be dominant forest at this altiutde.
The whole worry about Pine needles would not matter because they were meant to burn to open the pine cones and germinate the pine seeds.

Probably boring but thats my 2 cents and I finally get to use my college education in Horticulture and forestry. Its obvious I wasn't an english major HA HA...
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Postby hikerduane » Tue Jul 17, 2007 7:26 pm

I don't know about Jeffrey pine needing fire to germinate. Maybe fire clears brush and excess needles allowing seed to take hold in the soil disturbed by rain. I gathered some seed from our dirt road 20 years ago from a neighbors Jeffrey pine tree and planted them one Fall. In the Spring I noticed some shoots coming up here and there then remembered what I had done. Now the trees are up to 10'-12' high and as short as 3'. Part of my reclaiming creek bottom type soil as tree borers loved the hybrid poplars I planted and which I have since killed off sticking with native trees or maples.
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Postby huts » Tue Jul 17, 2007 8:05 pm

Mike, Your statement was not boring. The truth about this fire is coming from people like you as opposed to the discord dependent media, the masters of "victimology" and (god help us) the legal "profession". I am glad your place survived.
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Postby mikehike » Wed Jul 18, 2007 10:24 am

Duane

I am just going bye what I read the Jeffrey's germination rates increase dramatically if the seeds are exposed to high heat from smoke, not neccessarily a direct burn. I don't no about sugar pines, or ponderosa'a I did read the lodgepoles also respond better to fire or high heat. The Giant Sequoias which at one time were a dominant tree from Colorado to the West coast requires fire to open its cones. I can tell you this about the pine needles, almost all the nutrients in a confiferous forest are tied up in the tree's, the forest depends on decomposition of fallen trees and pine needles to add nutrients back into the soil. So if you cleas cut, you have to use synthetic fertilizers in order to get newly planted tree's to grow. If you rake all the pine needles you are depriving the forest of nutrients, so its a catch 22. I still don;t think the pine needles are the problem, the fir tree's are unaturally abundant at this altitude.

I extended my irrigation to the perimeter of my property and I have Giant sequoias, red twig dogwoods and native maples than Im watering the native grasses.

Thanks Huts there was a few days there where we thought everthing was gone. I love the area, I love fishing and hiking in desolation and we have alot of memories with the Kids.
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Postby hikerduane » Wed Jul 18, 2007 5:14 pm

mikehike, I have read where lodgepole does better after a fire, but then I see it in thick groves too. Go figure. I understand the catch 22. I have a small creek flowing thru my property and I am maintaining half of it as is with removal of dead trees like willow and alder for firewood and a path thru it to walk down to enjoy. I love to hear the birds and it is so much prettier with the native trees and other flora growing and stays nice and cool when it gets hot. My piece of eye candy. A neighbor had some free fill brought in and I got a little, he knocked over all the brush, willows on his place and told me to do the same. No way. My greenbelt.
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Postby dave54 » Thu Jul 19, 2007 8:26 am

not necessarily.

Jeffrey pine, like all pines, germinates best on bare mineral soil, whereas true firs will germinate with a litter layer. But Jeffrey is not considered serotinous (needs fire to open the cones). Jeffrey, like most conifers, have 'cone years' where they produce a super abundant cone crop. They produce some cones every year, but about every 3-4 years on a fairly regular cycle the tree will covered in cones. If this cone crop coincides with some other event, like a nearby fire, people will credit the fire with stimulating the cone crop, but it may be just the natural cycle.

There are several different varieties of lodgepole pine (3, 4, or 5 depending on which botanist or taxonomist you talk to). The Rocky Mtn variety is serotinous. The Sierra Nevada variant is not. The giant sequoia is serotinous, its cousin the coast redwood is not. Knobcone pine is.

Ceanothus spp are not serotinous, as the term refers to conifers, but the ceanothus seeds, sitting dormant in the soil for years, will open after fire scarification. This is the reason ceanothus spp. is often the first woody shrub to revegetate a burn, and grows in very thick.

Fires don't always recycle nutrients. Even a low to moderate intensity fire results in a net loss of soil nitrogen. All the nitrates go up in smoke. Ceanothus is a 'nitrogen fixer' that will grow in low nitrogen soils, and begin to replenish the soil nitrogen. Hence it is often the first and only woody plant to re-colonize a burn for several years, until enough nutrients are restored for others to move in. Lupines are a member of the nitrogen fixing legume family, like peas and soybeans. Ever notice the abundance of lupines and fireweed the year after a fire? The only plants that will initially grow there. You also see lupines in road cuts, because the soil in a road cut is new soil with little to no organic material supplying nitrogen.
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Postby mikehike » Thu Jul 19, 2007 3:04 pm

Thanks dave I stand corrected, from what I gathered the higher in elevation you go the less fire dependent the plant selection becomes.
I have heard on occasion people saying the Fir as non-native to Lake tahoe, which all my native plant books say otherwise. My point was the firs seem to be more abundant at lake level than they probably should be because of the extensive logging back in the 1800's.
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Postby dave54 » Thu Jul 19, 2007 10:00 pm

mikehike wrote:Thanks dave I stand corrected, from what I gathered the higher in elevation you go the less fire dependent the plant selection becomes.
I have heard on occasion people saying the Fir as non-native to Lake tahoe, which all my native plant books say otherwise. My point was the firs seem to be more abundant at lake level than they probably should be because of the extensive logging back in the 1800's.


As elevation increases in the Sierra Nevada the longer the historic mean fire return interval. The return interval across the entire region varies greatly from one location to another, so as a general rule, fire frequency decreased with elevation, but do not assume this holds true across the entire Sierra as a hard and fast rule. As fire frequency decreases the less fire adapted species increase. And when a fire does occur at the higher elevation stands the fire tends to be a higher intensity with high mortality.

White and red fir are native to the Sierra, but historically was in lesser numbers than commonly found now. West Side Sierra forests historically had a lot less old growth than most people assume -- 25-30% is the most commonly held figure. The rest was young- to mid- aged forest, with as much as 1/2 of the area as natural openings, meadows, brushfields and young reproduction patches. The forest was not the classic multi-aged forest, but was mostly a mosaic of small even-aged patches created by fire and other disturbances. These patches were often, but not always, a single species or a few closely related species. Multi-species mixed age stands were uncommon. Pine was dominant with true fir as a small minority. True fir is relatively shade tolerant and pines are shade intolerant. This is why as you look at typical Sierra west side forests today you see fir understory with a pine overstory. Pine does not regenerate well in the shade, and fir does quite well. This is another reason individual tree selection is not always a good choice as a harvest method and often group selection or clearcutting is better. You need a canopy opening large enough to let in enough sunlight to allow pine to regenerate rather than fir. Larger openings also replicate the historic disturbance patterns and over time will lead to the historic even-age mosaic. But clearcuts are ugly to look at so people oppose them.
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