Fire Ecology

Defending Bedrock Environmental Laws and Policies

Fire is a natural force that has shaped the biodiversity of dry forests across the West for millennia. Fire is only catastrophic when it destroys homes or results in loss of life. Unfortunately, fire has been used as an excuse for opening up millions of acres of public lands to unabated logging based on the false premise that logging can prevent future fires and is needed to “restore” forests that have burned. We have chosen to work on fire as a key- stone ecological process because there is much public concern about whether it will increase during a warming climate and whether it is a significant source of CO2 emissions.

For over a decade, Geos Institute has been playing a leadership role in bringing cutting-edge science on the ecological importance of fire featured in top tier science journals, news media reports, and in efforts by partners to defend landmark environmental laws and policies. We continue to develop scientifically sound alternatives that advocate for let-burn policies under safe conditions in the backcountry and fuels reduction near homes and in flammable tree plantations.

Guest Opinion: All the king’s horses can’t make wildfires go away

Published in the Medford Mail Tribune on December 31, 2017

By Dominic DiPaolo, Dominick A. DellaSala and Dennis Odion

State Sen. Alan DeBoer recently convened town hall meetings in Medford and Ashland on last summer’s wildfires and actions under consideration at the state Legislature. What we hoped would be an informed discussion became a venue for DeBoer to promote unfounded theories, point fingers and dismiss real dialogue. As ecologists who have studied forest ecosystems for decades, we realize that wildfire is alarming, smoke unhealthy, and everyone is looking for solutions. However, we take issue with DeBoer’s unhelpful ideas and offer caution about using forest thinning as a panacea to all issues surrounding wildfires.

DeBoer started both meetings by giving the floor to William Simpson, who proposes introducing feral horses to control flammable vegetation in the Siskiyou Mountains. In doing so, DeBoer privileged a position that is not only unscientific and unworkable, but already proven ineffective. In the 1910s, the Forest Service studied livestock use of shrub-dominated areas in the Siskiyous and found that livestock were unsuccessful at converting large swaths of shrubs to grass. Simpson’s proposal is unlikely to pass the federal permitting process and valuable time should not be wasted on it. Yet, Congressman Greg Walden and Curry County Commissioner Court Boice have endorsed it.

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The thinning debate: Does logging help or hurt fire mitigation?

Politicians say thinning forests will help prevent ‘catastrophic’ fires. But ecologists say this season wasn’t the worst, and logging won’t stop it from happening again.

According to peer-reviewed studies on the overall likelihood of a thinned area of forest being hit with fire and on historical fire trends, the argument that thinning is the best way to address future fire seasons like the one we just had is profoundly flawed.

For one, proposals to remove trees, or “fuels,” are based on the idea that fires burn more intensely in unlogged forests, making them more severe and quicker to spread.

But a recently published examination of the intensity of 1,500 forest fires over the past 40 years in 11 Western states found the opposite. Its authors, scientists at the Project Earth Institute, Geos Institute and Earth Island Institute, found fires burned most intensely in previously logged areas. In contrast, in wilderness, parks and roadless ares, the fires burned in mosaic patterns – which maintain healthy, resilient forests.

Both sides of the thinning debate frequently point to one-off incidents to show how thinning either is or is not effective.

“You have to be careful about anecdotal information,” warned Dominick DellaSala, a renowned fire ecologist and chief scientist at the Geos Institute. “Wind speed can change, humidity levels can change, and if you don’t account for all those factors, you could conclude either way. Either the thinning helped, or the thinning didn’t help, depending on what was going on with the fire climate.”

Read the full article at streetrootsnews.org

A New Climate- and Human-Influenced Wildfire Era for Western Forests

By Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D.

2014 Meadow Fire, Yosemite National ParkWildfires are greatly impacting human communities in the West that every summer face the prospects of loss of life, homeowner damages, and smoke-filled skies. Legislators and many managers believe wildfire intensity and occurrence can be greatly reduced by removing environmental safeguards to allow more logging in the backcountry to avoid wildfire “disasters.”

Wildfires are not ecological catastrophes, rather, they are a keystone natural disturbance agent that has maintained the biologically rich and fire-adapted web-of-life in forests of the western United States for millennia. Wildfire area burned, size of large wildfires (>1,000 ac), and length of the fire season have been increasing in recent decades and these increases are at least partially attributed to the emergence of a new fire-climate era that is interacting with human-caused wildfire ignitions and logging related conversion of native fire-resilient forests to flammable tree plantations.

Proposals to radically increase logging of native forests to reduce “fuels” will not achieve their desired outcomes but instead may increase wildfire risks and impair the adaptive capacity of forests to respond to cumulative disturbances in a rapidly changing climate. Responsible wildfire management and climate change policies are needed to:

  1. reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning while storing more carbon in forest ecosystems;
  2. prioritize vegetation treatments in “fire-sheds” closest to homes;
  3. redesign the built environment with wildfire safety in mind, including limiting ex-urban sprawl, and
  4. manage wildfires for ecosystem benefits under safe conditions.

Download the full paper

(photo: Pbjamesphoto/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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