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Returning to Natural Cycles of Wildfire

Fire is as natural as rain for most of California’s forests. Prior to European contact, fires burned much larger areas of California than they do todayIndigenous Californians have always understood this and, prior to European contact, regularly conducted cultural burns that helped maintain balance. White settlers used violence to stop this millenia-old practice, and today we are living with the consequences.

Post-fire landscapes are alive, vibrant, more biologically diverse than unburned forests, and considered to be one of the rarest and most ecologically important forest habitats in western forests. Wildfires restore nutrients to the soil, clear decaying brush, help plants germinate, and provide for an array of plant and animal species. The forest-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.

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Native plants have adapted to survive fire. Some trees attempt to withstand the flames by developing thick, fire-resilient bark; others, like lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), have serotinous cones that require fire to open and release their seeds. Fires cause wildflowers to superbloom and benefit woodpeckersEven coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), endemic to California’s dank, moist temperate rainforests of the North Coast, are adapted to fire. Walk through an old-growth redwood forest and you’ll notice the evidence: burn scars, bearing witness to historic burns either deliberately set by humans or naturally caused. Fire may look destructive to us, but without it our forests wouldn’t be as magnificent as they are.

Nevertheless, wildfires can be scary. A normal reaction is to look for solutions and ways to keep families and homes safe. But when we do so, it is vital that we search out solutions that actually work and don’t just make us feel better. Our current strategies aren’t working, and now it’s time to try something different. For more on reimagining wildfire management, check out the documentaries Catching Fire and Elemental, which powerfully depict alternatives to our current fire management regime.

The Fire-Industrial Complex

The dual policy of extinguishing fires and logging forests by government agencies and private contractors is sometimes referred to as the fire-industrial complex.

Fire Suppression

Although California’s forests are born to burn, for many decades we have aggressively attempted to put out every fire as soon as possible. As a result, many forests have conditions that make high-severity fire more likely to occur: ladder fuels, dense thickets, and a pileup of undecomposed “fuel” on the forest floor. Unfortunately, the mismanagement continues. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Forest Service still prioritize extinguishing fires instead of letting them (safely) burn.

Fire suppression and the military style of firefighting 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. Nevertheless, it is often natural elements such as rain, topography or weather that ultimately put the flames out.

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While fire suppression may be justified around homes and communities, the decision to fight wildfires is a costly one. CAL FIRE budgeted $2.1 billion dollars on wildfire response for the 2020-2021 season, and federal fire suppression costs have been climbing for decades. Unfortunately, as firefighting costs have soared, our land managers have had fewer resources to spend on other vital programs. A lot of the money goes to so-called “heavy metal” suppression resources such as bulldozers and airplanes. But the evidence indicates that these methods are not only financially costly, but environmentally destructive as well.


One common modern firefighting tool constructing dozer lines by using a bulldozer to cut through forests and areas of vegetation, with the hope that the cleared area can act as a fire containment line. However, bulldozing through forests has detrimental ecological impacts. In order to construct a dozer line, all surface vegetation is removed and the soils are disturbed, which permanently damages the environment. Even long after vegetation has recovered in areas burned by the fire, dozer lines remain as open wounds, oozing soil and mud into mountain streams. Dozer lines can also become superhighways for invasive plants to colonize new areas of the forest after a fire. These invasive species, which are often far more flammable than natives, can then ironically make the next fire more severe. Not to mention, dozer lines create unmonitored access routes to our public lands that are often taken advantage of by illegal off-road vehicle users and marijuana growers.


The effectiveness of dozer lines has become a controversial subject with some firefighters arguing that money and lives are being wasted in a fruitless effort. During particularly windy days, fires can spot more than a mile ahead of the fire. Large fires have been known to 

jump wide barriers including large rivers and wide freeways. In these situations, dozer lines provide little defense. It would be one thing if this technique was used solely to protect people’s homes, but firefighters often bulldoze these lines deep into the hearts of our forests and wilderness areas. For instance during the 2018 Carr fire, numerous dozer lines were carved into the hills and ridgelines north, south and west of Redding in an attempt to stop the spread of the fire, but almost all of them were breached by flying embers that lofted over the gaps in hot, dry, fast-moving winds.

Air suppression tactics are another costly fire fighting measure. CAL FIRE and the Forest Service spend millions of dollars fighting fires from the air. In 2020, the federal government and state agencies dropped over 56 million gallons of fire retardant, which costs an average of $3.10 per gallon. Phos-Chek, the chemical compound most commonly used in fire retardant, is known to be harmful to aquatic life including Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). If these financially and ecologically costly techniques are to be used, they should be reserved for situations where fires are close to people’s homes.


Concurrently with fire suppression, over the last century most of our forests have been logged and replaced with plantations of densely packed, equally-sized trees that burn fast and hot when ignited. Logging the most profitable (i.e. largest) trees from a forest leaves behind smaller, more flammable trees that burn more quickly and spread fires faster. Logging also opens the forest canopy, allowing drier conditions and more sunlight to increase the growth of brushy vegetation, and produces highly flammable slash piles that act as kindling during wildfires. 


In recent years across the U.S., fires have burned with the least intensity in areas with the most protections from logging; logged forests burn more intensely than conserved ones. The Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California in 2018, burned through a logged forest. EPIC has challenged numerous forest projects that are advertised as “fire prevention” but actually entail standard logging practices that are known to exacerbate wildfires. By letting wildfires burn when they don’t threaten people’s lives and property, and by increasing the frequency of prescribed fires, we can help return the land to a natural cycle of wildfire. This includes allowing


Indigenous Peoples to have more control over their lands so that they can reintroduce traditional burning practices. This will decrease the overall fuel level on the forest floor, and reduce wildfire size and severity.

Salvage Logging

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 that logging provides, the costs to the public and to our forests are immense. Not only an economic ripoff, post-fire logging is also an ecologically disastrous practice that does not protect our forests or communities. 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 forest 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 (Picoides arcticus) and the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Trees that survive wildfire are critical seed sources. 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.


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. 


Development in the Wildland Urban Interface

Another part of the problem is that we’ve continued to expand building homes in the

Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the zone of transition between natural ecosystems and land

developed by human activity. Since 1990, we’ve built a large percentage of all new homes in

California in the WUI. As more and more people live deeper and deeper in previously

undeveloped areas, firefighters are faced with more structures and lives to protect in more

difficult areas. For example, folks who live on narrow, one-way roads are incredibly difficult to

evacuate during emergencies.

The more people living in the WUI, the more likely human-ignited wildfires are to occur.

Despite knowing that development in the WUI makes fires more damaging to people’s lives

and property, the Board of Forestry recently attempted to change the rules regarding new

development in order to permit even more development in the WUI. Luckily, those rules

were shot down by a coalition of environmentalists and wildland firefighters.

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We can’t afford to keep expanding developments deeper and deeper into wildfire-prone areas. That means constructing more dense infill housing within the perimeters of existing towns, cities, and developed areas. Allowing more walkable housing in existing communities is one of the best things we can do to increase wildfire safety while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Infill development gives wildland firefighters fewer acres to protect, and allows wildfires to burn naturally and safely away from people’s homes.


For homes that are already established in the WUI, it is important to create defensible space. For example, the mid-Klamath watershed has a prescribed fire program, which provides funding and services for landowners to do prescribed underburns that burn slowly through dense underbrush and leave mature trees standing.

By retrofitting homes to be designed to survive wildfires, we can greatly reduce the risks associated with fire. Fire planning also requires making sure people have the ability to evacuate quickly and safely. This will allow firefighters to focus on defending defensible structures, not struggling to stop blazes far from populated areas.

EPIC is encouraging a different plan of action...

We are working to incorporate the traditional ecological knowledge of the region’s native people into 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. Wildfires can be scary. But with these changes we can learn to live with fire instead of constantly battling against it. Our current strategies aren’t working, and now it’s time to try something different.

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