Returning to a Natural Cycle of Wildfire
Fire is as natural as rain in the mountains of Northern California. Forests have been shaped and influenced by fire for millennia. In fact, of all the acres that burn in forest fires most often less than 10% burn at high severity, meaning that 90% burns at low and moderate severity, clearing and opening the forest floor.
People continue to move deeper and deeper into Northern California’s forests and balancing the needs of private landowners with effective wildfire management techniques is not easy. However, working with state agencies, local fire safe councils, regional Indian tribes, and other community members, we look to form a holistic approach to wildfire management that addresses the needs of the land and the people who call it home.
Northern California is fortunate that fire is still a vital part of the living culture here today, as shown by the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. It is spreading more widely as understanding and cooperation grows. Traditional burning practices are helping to guide the strategies of our future. Fire rejuvenates and helps to balance forest ecosystems. The ecological benefits are immeasurable.
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Forests Need Fire, Not Destructive Salvage Logging
Post-fire landscapes are alive and vibrant. They are more biologically diverse than unburned forests and provide for an array of plant and animal species. Post-fire landscapes are considered to be one of the rarest and most ecologically important forest habitats in western forests, and the stand-transforming fires that create this habitat are not damaging the forest ecosystem. Rather, they are advancing ecological restoration.
Multiple plant and animal species depend on post fire habitats. Fire maintains the quality and quantity of foraging habitat for wide-ranging species such as deer and elk. Damaged and dead trees (snags) are important structural forest components and are key habitat for numerous species. They provide forage, cavities for nesting and protection, perch sites, and den sites. Large snags are one of the most distinctive features of an old-growth forest and contribute shade, providing cool microclimates and future soil nutrients.
New plant life blossoming in a post-fire landscape.
Logging roads in a post-fire area.
Fire suppression and the military style of fire fighting can be more environmentally destructive than wildfire itself. Suppression tactics often include cutting down large snags, bulldozing miles of ridgetops and lighting high severity fires to “control” fire behavior. Furthermore, it is often natural elements such as rain, topography or weather that ultimately put the flames out.
While suppression may be justified around homes and communities it can often lead to devastating negative environmental effects far from human life and property. It is well know that creating a defensible “fire-safe” area and building with fire resistant materials is the best way to prevent loss of homes and structures.
Post-fire logged area.
Tree sprouting in a post-fire landscape.
Post Fire Logging
Fire and tree mortality are essential elements in a forest ecosystem. Logging on fragile post-fire soils inhibits and damages natural growth and recovery. Logging of large snags and trees within post fire landscapes does not contribute to recovery of forest habitat. The best available science indicates that post-fire logging may result in significant impacts to soils, wildlife, late-successional characteristics and hydrology.
Post-fire logging, euphemistically referred to as “salvage logging,” is the practice of cutting and removing both live and dead or damaged trees following a large-scale natural disturbance to a forest like wildfire, floods, or insect kills. Post-fire logging is sold as a way to recover at least some of the economic value of timber the trees can be made into. But, while private timber companies do profit from the cheap raw materials logging provides, the costs to the public and to our forests are immense. Not only is it an economic ripoff, post-fire logging is also an ecologically disastrous practice that does not protect us or forests. As we face the effects of a changing climate, including more intense wildfire across the west, it is essential that we invest our limited resources into programs that will both increase wildfire resilience and protect habitat.
Timber interests seek to justify post-fire logging with the belief that standing dead trees simply “go to waste.” In fact, post-fire forests are some of the rarest and most important habitats in western forests. Wildfire has played a role in the forests of the west for hundreds of millions of years, and dead trees are an essential component of a healthy forest ecosystem. Standing damaged and dead trees, or snags, form important habitat for a variety of species, such as the black-backed woodpecker and the spotted owl. Trees that survive wildfire are critical seed sources. If these survivors are immediately logged, there is no opportunity for the forest to recover on its own. Dead treefall boosts soil fertility by bringing less-weathered soil up to the surface, where fallen logs and root mounds then provide places for trees and other plants to sprout. By removing dead and damaged trees and compacting soils, post-fire logging prevents the natural recovery process of a forest ecosystem.
We are working to incorporate the traditional ecological knowledge of the region’s native people with a new scientific approach to wildfire management. Prescribed burning, selective thinning and similar measures are tools that can begin changing the way state agencies think about wildfire and return our region to a natural fire cycle.
EPIC participates in both the Smith River Collaborative and the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP). The goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, in part, guide both of these efforts. Completed in 2014, the National Strategy represents a push to work collaboratively among all stakeholders and across all landscapes, using best science, to make meaningful progress towards three goals: resilient landscapes; fire adapted communities; and safe and effective wildfire response.
Based on 20 years of collaborative work between diverse partners, WKRP formed in 2013. The partnership is a watershed and fire management effort between EPIC, the Karuk Tribe, Six Rivers National Forest, the Mid-Klamath and Salmon River Watershed Council, community fire-safe councils, local stakeholders, and other agency and non-governmental organizations. The mission is to establish and maintain resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies guided by cultural and contemporary knowledge through a truly collaborative process that effectuates the revitalization of continual human relationships with our dynamic landscape.
As a society, we must understand that fire is an essential element in maintaining healthy ecosystems.