The Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab (SNARL) hosted Dr. Malcolm North last Tuesday as part of its spring lecture series. North is a Research Scientist at the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, and Affiliate Professor at the Department of Plant Sciences, U.C. Davis.
He gave a Q&A that proceeded a screening of Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests, and The Future.
The film explained the modern forest fire landscape, how it got to be this way, and what Americans can expect going forward.
The film centered on the Rim Fire of California, a so-called “megafire.” The moniker “megafire” refers to the scale of the fire’s destruction. Malcolm North, the film’s producer, stands at the “Rim of The World” park near Yosemite early on in the film. He says that there is not a live tree for seven miles behind him. Fried conifers with brown needles stand emulating the life they once had. In this case, 7 miles of scorched earth is enough to warrant the denomination “megafire.”
With these trees went many of the fauna that fire affects: goshawks, fishers, martins, northern flying squirrels, and spotted owls.
Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation, Kelly Martin, said that when she found out the the fire was moving at a rate of 50-70,000 acres per day, she knew there was little that her agency could do.
This film states that these giant fires are becoming more common due to a few factors.
One factor is the shortsighted fire suppression model spawned in the middle of the 20th century.
The U.S., along with the rest of the developed world, held the intuitive belief that all fires should be put out immediately or better yet prevented altogether. The pagan icon of this misguided doctrine was Smokey Bear.
During the film, a member of the Yurok Tribe of California named Tommy Wilson said that Smokey Bear and his policies have choked out more bears than they have saved. We now know that forest fires play a vital role in fuels reduction and soil restoration. The California natives burned the landscape regularly to help cultivate the land. Wilson said his grandmother would hand he and his siblings each a box of matches and send them off to burn hillsides.
The police eventually made sure this practice didn’t continue. Now the forests of the American West are overrun with fuels, a term for any flammable object, but mostly fallen timber. Yosemite’s Kelly Martin has dissented against the old doctrine of Smokey. Now she can’t get enough of controlled fire.
“The Middle Fire is one of my favorite fires this year,” she said as she happily watched her forest burn.
Climate change is the other big factor. As drought increases, trees lose their natural defenses. Bark Beetles make their homes under the bark of conifers, cut off water’s pathway from the roots to the canopy, kill the trees, and thereby create more fuels.
These combined factors have made forest fires equal to the transportation industry as global emitters of carbon. The film also described the heavy costs created when these fires reach urban areas like Sonoma County or Malibu.
There is only one question that we must ask in the face of this new problem, according to North: “What kind of fires do we want and when do we want them?”
“If you realize that fire is inevitable and smoke is inevitable, we can take a proactive approach to bringing fire to the landscape,” North said.
Controlled fires are the best solution, in his opinion, to stem the tide of “megafires.” This is because the environment has evolved to deal with fires well. Clear cutting doesn’t help. It only spurs the growth of cheat grass and other flora known to aid the spread of fire. Removing small trees and underbrush works, but is inefficient and costly.
One spectator in the crowd at SNARL asked what was being done to decrease the spread of Bark Beetles.
North said that Bark Beetles are endemic to the forests and should not be choked out entirely. The majority of the work being done on beetles involves disruption of the bug’s pheromones. Beetles release a pheromone when they are in an attractive tree telling other beetles to come join them. Some scientists are trying to put a damper on the bugs abilities to spread these pheromones.
North wanted to make clear, however, that Bark Beetles are not the main problem. The main problem is simply that there are too many trees. Bark Beetles will always finish off what drought starts, but the density of trees can be controlled.
North concluded by saying that the current government funding is just not enough, but that there is a ray of hope. The State of California has committed billions of dollars to the prevention of future “megafires.” Other states and the federal government, however, do not appear to be as forward thinking.