Some Thoughts on Fire…

Raging flames, burning homes and evacuating communities make great headlines, but the ecological reality of fire and it’s vital role in shaping the landscape of the West is poorly covered in the mainstream media.    With this in mind we offer a few thoughts…

California is a fire-adapted landscape.  Fire has played a central role in shaping the ecology and landscape of California and the West for thousands of years.   Fire cycles nutrients, thins vegetation, increases biodiversity, disrupts pest-pathogen lifecycles and increases browse for wildlife.

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Mosiac pattern of burning, Marble Mountain Wilderness

 

Not all fires are “catastrophic”.   Fire burns across the landacpe at varying intensities.  On average, most wildland fire burns at lower intensities and fulfills the vital roles described above.  The size of a wildland fire is typically in the thoudands or ten of thousands of acres.  While this sounds dramatic, (and sometimes is), bear in mind that it represents the entire footprint of the fire over time, typically several weeks or months.  When you read about a fire that is 10,000 or 100,000 acres, consider that it represents the total area burned over a period of time, and that, often the majority of the land in the fire’s footprint has benefited from the positive role of fire.

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Native people have used fire as cultural tool and ceremonial practice for time immemorial.  Cultural burning is used to produce basketry materials, increase food and medicine production, reduce pests in food crops, create browse for wildlife, and reduce fire hazards.   Most native tribes are struggling for the right to manage ancestral territory using eco-cultural techniques such as burning.

 

100 years plus of logging and fire suppression have altered the fire regime of the entire West.  More than 100 years of fire suppression and the “Smokey the Bear” campaign has resulted an accumulation of fuels in forests and a poorly informed public.   Clearcuttting has resulted in overstocked, even aged stands that are more prone to crown fires.

The fire cycle is part of the water cycle.  The link between drought and large scale fires is apparent and widely covered.  What gets less attention are the ways in which fire can mitigate drought conditions.  The smoke from wildland fire is often held in the region of the burn under an inversion layer, resulting in cooler temperatures, reducing heat stress on vegetation and lowering stream temperatures, providing a critical relief to migrating salmon and steelhead.  Increases in stream flows have been noted during wildland fire, a phenomenon many link to the reduced evapotranspiration losses during inversions.

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Pyrocumulus clouds over the 2013 Corral Complex

 

What Does “Good Fire”  Look Like?

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Prescribed fire is a crucial tool for protecting rural communities, restoring historic fire regimes and bringing forests and watersheds back into balance.  Learn more about the Mid Klamath Watershed Council Presribed Fire Program.

 

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In 2006 lightning started a fire in the Pearch Creek watershed across the river from Sandy Bar Ranch.  A fire management team was able to guide the fire across 17,500 acres in an excellent example of a “good” burn.  Despite the fact that it was summer, most of the fire burned at low intensity, consuming fuels and leaving the forest canopy intact.  Few signs of fire are visible today, the fire footprint has less fuels, and the town of Orleans was left more fire safe.

As Professor Jim Agee said in the film Cathching Fire: Prescribed Burning n Northern California:  “Fire is going to do most of the heavy lifting on our landscapes.”