Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Mon Jan 14, 2019 11:20 am

Fires have both benefits and negative impacts. The same fire that creates more browse for ungulates can also destroy a fisheries. A fire regime that maintains meadows and keeps tree density low reduces habitat for cover dependent species like the spotted owl and martens. One may as well argue earthquakes are beneficial because they relieve seismic stresses and hurricanes are good because they redistribute oceanic heating.
As much as many would like to, the negative impacts on humans cannot be disregarded. Loss of homes is not the only impact. Fires impact municipal watersheds far from the edge of town. Smoke filled the entire central valley last year, causing a great deal of hardship and medical problems.
Whether the benefits outweigh the negatives or vice versa often involves subjective values. Is the benefit gained from an entire wilderness area allowed to burn worth a nearby tourism dependent town losing most of its economy until the area recovers? Is the loss of an endangered plant colony worth the gain in elk habitat? These are decisions made by land managers and fire specialists every year.
Armchair so-called 'experts' often fail to consider the entire big picture.
The media does this too. Right now newspapers up and down the state are demanding more control burning on their opinion pages. Note this. I am making a prediction. The same newspapers will demand heads roll when a control burn escapes and burns private land outside the intended perimeter. They will rail against the fire manager who 'was so reckless and disregarded the risk of burning'. You can bet on it.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by gdurkee » Mon Jan 14, 2019 11:54 am

Prior to the arrival of the first euro-Americans, fire was definitely one of the major influences of Sierra -- and much of California's -- ecosystems. Individual trees and plants show adaptation to surviving and thriving during and after fires: Giant Sequoias, of course, require fires to reduce the ground litter under their trees for the seeds to become established; they also have incredibly thick bark to resist even large fires. Until fire was returned by the park service to the Giant Sequoia Groves beginning in the late 60s, sequoia reproduction from seeds had almost stopped for decades. That Sequoias have existed in California for tens of thousands of years shows how long this adaptation has existed and, thus, how long fire as influenced our ecosystems.

Some Lodgepole Pine -- and several other species -- have what are known as seritonous cones. They cover themselves in thick resin which don't open at maturity but, when a fire comes through, the fire's heat will soften the resin and the cones open to release the seeds. A number of brush species, Manzanita for instance, will sprout from the root crown. So when a hot fire moves through, the crown is rarely destroyed and will sprout the following year. Such adaptations and, really, dependence on fire are very common in Mediterranean climates such as California. Witness the incredible flower blooms that almost always occur the spring following a fire. Ground is cleared and even certain types of seeds are affected by the heat, such that they can sprout. It is not uncommon for species to reappear that haven't been seen in decades. As I mentioned in my original post, fires under natural conditions burn and create a mosaic pattern -- areas of forest, areas of open meadow -- allowing a wide variety of both plant species, birds and other animals to occupy different ecological niches.

Finally, Native Americans definitely recognized the role of fire in maintaining open space -- thus more meadows which supported deer and other game -- and especially in being a factor keeping conifer species from taking over areas occupied by oak, which provided acorns, their basic food. They deliberately set fires in Yosemite Valley and elsewhere to maintain that balance.When settlers moved in, they stopped the fires and confers have taken over much of what was formerly Black Oak (also, they blew up the Bridalveil Moraine and created ditches to drain the meadows, both actions lowered the water table which allowed more conifers to come in).

I question Muir being such a strident supporter of fire suppression in Yosemite. From direct observation, Muir clearly recognized the role fire played in the Sierra's ecology:
By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs - now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life....
- "Mt. Shasta" in Picturesque California (1888-1890)
Excerpt from Chapter 9 of Our National Parks: (1901) by John Muir:
"In the forest between the Middle and East forks of the Kaweah, I met a great fire, and as fire is the master scourge and controller of the
distribution of trees, I stopped to watch it and learn what I could of its works and ways with the giants [Giant Sequoia]. It came racing up the
steep chaparral-covered slopes of the East Fork cañon with passionate enthusiasm in a broad cataract of flames, now bending down low to feed
on the green bushes, devouring acres of them at a breath, now towering high in the air as if looking abroad to choose a way, then stooping to feed
again, the lurid flapping surges and the smoke and terrible rushing and roaring hiding all that is gentle and orderly in the work. But as soon as
the deep forest was reached the ungovernable flood became calm like a torrent entering a lake, creeping and spreading beneath the trees where
the ground was level or sloped gently, slowly nibbling the cake of compressed needles and scales with flames an inch high, rising here and
there to a foot or two on dry twigs and clumps of small bushes and brome grass. Only at considerable intervals were fierce bonfires lighted,
where heavy branches broken off by snow had accumulated, or around some venerable giant whose head had been stricken off by lightning."

"Fire attacks the large trees only at the ground, consuming the fallen leaves and humus at their feet, doing them but little harm unless
considerable quantities of fallen limbs happen to be piled about them, their thick mail of spongy, unpitchy, almost unburnable bark affording
strong protection."
That said, Muir did seem to recognize the destructive nature of fire and did call for protection from them, along with logging, mining and other destructive activities. I've also wondered at the seeming increase in destructive fires around the late 1800s and thought there might be a connection between the huge amounts of slash left by lumber companies and the sheep people deliberately setting fires as they left their mountain pastures in the fall -- the worst time to burn. (This is why I'm really suspicious of some of the data cited in mrphil's original link.) Muir seems to recognize the difference between the more natural fires of his early Sierra experience and the later ones as logging, mining and grazing became dominant:
The legitimate demands on the forests that have passed into private ownership, as well as those in the hands of the government, are increasing every year with the rapid settlement and up-building of the country, but the methods of lumbering are as yet grossly wasteful. In most mills only the best portions of the best trees are used, while the ruins are left on the ground to feed great fires, which kill much of what is left of the less desirable timber, together with the seedlings, on which the permanence of the forest depends. Thus every mill is a centre of destruction far more severe from waste and fire than from use. The same thing is true of the mines, which consume and destroy indirectly immense quantities of timber with their innumerable fires, accidental or set to make open ways, and often without regard to how far they run. The prospector deliberately sets fires to clear off the woods just where they are densest, to lay the rocks bare and make the discovery of mines easier. Sheep-owners and their shepherds also set fires everywhere through the woods in the fall to facilitate the march of their countless flocks the next summer, and perhaps in some places to improve the pasturage. The axe is not yet at the root of every tree, but the sheep is,or was before the national parks were established and guarded by the military, the only effective and reliable arm of the government free from the blight of politics. Not only do the shepherds, at the driest time of the year, set fire to everything that will burn, but the sheep consume every green leaf, not sparing even the young conifers, where they are in a starving condition from crowding, and they rake and dibble the loose soil of the mountain sides for the spring floods to wash away, and thus at last leave the ground barren.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by gdurkee » Mon Jan 14, 2019 4:45 pm

Dave54 et al: As far as prescribed burns go, yes, there's a lot of considerations that absolutely need to be balanced before using fire as a tool to reduce fuel loads in an attempt to protect communities. This can, and often is, quite different from using fire to maintain a certain fire-adapted ecological community. The NPS, especially Yosemite and Sequoia Kings, have been using fire since the late 60s and have extensive experience with determining the right conditions (relative humidity, fuel moisture, winds, height of smoke column expected and, of course, the reason for putting fire in a particular place). The main rate determinant step nowadays is working with an area's air pollution control district. I've read that getting the right conditions with them limits burning to about 20 days a year.

The editorials I've seen are not necessarily demanding a reintroduction of fire but, based on CalFire and USFS emerging policy, asking that it be considered among a lot of other mitigations to protect communities. So, while you might be quite right that they'll reverse course and ask for the heads of mangers who screw up a burn, is the alternative, then, doing nothing to reduce fuels in large areas? Mechanical clearing and expecting timber companies to do it is not practical -- way too expensive and timber companies are not interested if there's no merchantable timber. Nor does the latter even address the primary problem that most catastrophic fires have nothing to do with timber/conifer forests. Neither USFS or CalFire have the money to do such large scale clearing. I suspect, though, they're looking at initial mechanical clearing near structures and, once a safe zone has been established, larger burns.

The northern California fires this fall created major unhealthy air for a couple of months all the way south to the Bay Area and through the Central Valley. Smoke is definitely an annoyance and, as you say, a hit on tourism to say nothing of health. But the real problem is when do you want it to burn? Using prescribed fire can we limit and control smoke release, direction and reduce fuels to protect communities? NPS and other's experience suggests that prescribed fire can be used and is effective. Several wildfires (Rim, Ferguson, Detwiler) that came up against previous burns -- especially in Yosemite -- had reduced rate of spread and intensity. It's an incredibly complicated problem with a lot of moving parts but what we've been doing is clearly not working. Calling for prescribed fire, among many other mitigation, is more than reasonable.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by freestone » Mon Jan 14, 2019 6:11 pm

Not sure if this has been mentioned in this very long thread, but add to the list of causes: The invasion of nonnative grasses brought in by early settlers then much later, mass aerial seeding of nonnative grasses on top of recent burn areas to control erosion. Now what happens after a major burn is an explosion of weed growth that primes the area to be burned yet again before the natives have a chance to kick in. I have seen this on recent burn areas below Taboose and Baxter passes where Scotch Broom (I think) has displaced the native sage in size and density. The reality is our flora landscape is evolving into a weedy mess that builds up a huge seed bank in the soil that's ready to germinate, grow up to six feet then die, all in one season, to become fuel for the next burn.
What was once considered sound scientific and economic advise to prevent fire is now proven to be complete a complete brainwashing and rubbish.
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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by mrphil » Mon Jan 14, 2019 9:27 pm


Your research is really impressive and is adding a lot to this thread and our understanding of the topic. I'm wondering what your basis is; are you gathering it for your own edification, or are you going to create some sort of usable thesis or set of recommendations with it?

Just to be clear, the first link I posted by no means represented my own views, nor did I vet the statements at all (nor could I have with such limited knowledge). It just seemed like somewhat of an opposite viewpoint from Brown's seemingly 100% anthropogenic causation statements. All in all, it's some of everything adding to the problem.

As for Muir, what struck me in what I read was that the Valley held a special set of circumstances in his eyes. I never was quite able to reconcile how someone that was so tuned to nature wouldn't get the benefits of fire, and then be able to not see that it was also necessary for one particular place when it was for others. Maybe I misunderstood, but I more or less came away also wondering how his views on tourism for the sake of preservation awareness and a draw for so many might have conflicted with what he respected and understood about natural processes : ie: since the valley was a central tool of sorts in his efforts and, let's face it, nobody wants to visit burn scars, was he willing to sacrifice one beneficial process for one that bolstered his cause (ie: tourism for public opinion and involvement)? Afterall, he had a solid handle on politics and what it took, and he was essentially considered a travel writer in his day. Did he take it at face value as being what it was at the time as being just the way it was naturally, without having been subject to intervention, or did he get that it was only that way because of the natives making and keeping it that way, whatever their reasons? We still sort of have the same dynamic today: we're largely ambivalent about the frontcountry (non-wilderness), but very protective of the backcountry/wilderness....throw in another Starbucks vs LNT. Two completely opposite philosophies and levels of acceptance. One under the bus, the other absolutely sacrosanct.

I was also wondering about another comment you made about the correlation between the need for controlled burning and air quality. Assuming that burns are conducted at the right time of the year, the amounts and magnitude of burns that are required to catch up and keep up with the need might quickly run afoul of air quality standards. You burn a forest or even a chaparral, and it's green fuel, so lot's of smoke. I suppose you could mechanically control fuels and eventually reduce it to slash and over time allow it to dry and then burn it with less particulates, but realistically, we're talking about agencies that, as you mention, don't even have the money to burn it in situ, much less chop it down, pile it up or leave it lie, come back later to torch it when it dries... all the while, taking green vegetation and turning it into an even bigger mass of even more dried tinder on the ground until that happens (drawn out as opposed to torch it and move on...done). It strikes me that for the sake of existing fuel loads and the costs/needs of fire prevention we need to forget air quality issues as being a part of the considerations at all and just realize that providing communities with N-95 masks and telling people that toughing it out for the greater good is just part of the deal if they don't want their houses to burn down.

Finally, what you say about the Ferguson fire is absolutely right. I followed the progression and strategies of the Ferguson fire fairly closely. Even from a layman's perspective, aside from suppression efforts that were either active or inactive along the entire perimeter using terrain and/or roads and direct suppression in developed areas, the entire northern line was not only was counted on, but successfully did, rely entirely on the strategy of using the burn from the Rim fire to stop it: what had burned already took almost no resources at all, thereby freeing them up to focus on all the other areas that had huge amounts of unburned fuel. And looking at it from the flipside, where the line was most seriously questioned and compromised to the one of the greatest and most dangerous extents was on the eastern side of Hwy 41, due almost entirely to there being enormous amounts of unburned fuel still on the ground. With that said, I think the case for controlled burning is made.

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