What Should We Do About Forest Fires in the USA?

Source
Giant Sequoia tree
Giant Sequoia tree | Source
Yosemite NP
Yosemite NP | Source
Smokey Bear
Smokey Bear | Source

Evolving management philosophies

Many centuries ago, Native Americans practiced firestick farming in our forests, in order to increase natural food plants for populations of game animals like deer and elk. During cool moist weather, they set fire to the understory.

This had an interesting side benefit. These fires burned mainly in the duff (dried leaves and other forest litter), and consumed fallen tree branches. This practice decreased the load of easily burned fuel, and prevented highly destructive fires during hot dry weather the following Summer.

The European-Americans who came later did not understand the ecology of fire. This led to tragedies. Loggers in the Midwest were keen on maximizing lumber production. They did not understand the long-term need to burn the logging slash (mainly sawed off tree limbs) in a safe and timely fashion. The result: mega forest fires, which killed thousands of people.

The worst forest fire in the history of the USA was the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in Wisconsin and Michigan. It burned 2400 square miles and killed more than 1200 people. The causes were drought, high heat, and especially land use practices that did not take fire danger into account.

A safe method for disposing of logging slash is to move the tree limbs into one (or more) manageable piles in the cleared area. Then cover most of the pile with plastic, and let the wood dry out. Return in the Fall shortly after after the first good rain. Poke a hole in the plastic at the top of the pile in the center. Add kerosene. Light it with a match. Then babysit your slash burn, shovel in hand. I know about this, because I've done it.

The same principle applies to trees that you've cleared to create either farm land or a railroad right-of-way. Of course, people back then did not have clear plastic sheets to work with. However they could have taken reasonable precautions if they had known about the danger.

Anyway, Peshitigo and other mega-fire tragedies in the upper Midwest was the historical impetus for the US Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression through the middle of the 20th Century.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But there were unintended consequences.

Example: The population of the keystone tree species in Sequoia National Park decreased. Why? Because periodic small fires in the past conferred a survival advantage on Giant Sequoias over competing tree species with thinner bark.

Moreover the larger load of fuel on the ground gradually led to bigger and more destructive forest fires over time.

These days, we have a much greater understanding about the ecology of fire. Even though the zillions of tourists who flock to Yosemite every Summer don't appreciate it, there is now a controlled burning program in this iconic National Park.

I'm not saying that fire suppression is always a bad thing. Many big forest fires are man-caused.

Some examples. A careless driver flicks a half-burnt cigarette out his window into the forest. People using chainsaws without spark arresters to cut dead-and-down trees for firewood sometimes contribute to the fire hazard. There's also deliberate arson.

If we laid off all of the ground crews, our precious forests would receive a huge overdose of fire, which would dramatically increase particulate air pollution in some areas, endanger people in nearby communities, increase soil erosion, create horrendous eyesores, and destroy millions of board-feet of merchantable timber.

Many years ago, Smokey Bear was the symbol of healthy forests. His famous motto:

"Only you van prevent forest fires."

However the underlying theme was: All forest fires are bad. In light of our present understanding about fire ecology, Smokey's message is out of date. Some lightning strikes should be allowed to continue burning, unless they get out of hand. Some forest areas can even benefit from controlled burns. First and foremost, we need to protect the lives and property of people who live in or near our forests. We need to strike the proper balance between total fire suppression and letting Nature do its thing. We are striving for a balanced fire management policy. And that effort is a work in progress.


Timber Stand Improvement

When the funding is sufficient, TSI is almost a no-brainer for many district rangers in the Forest Service. Why?

In places, the density of young trees is too high. Such dog hair thickets are more vulnerable to fire than mature stands of timber with wider spacing between trees. Dog hair thickets are also more vulnerable to Bark Beetles. A few years after the insects kill the small-diameter trees, they dry out to become over-sized matchsticks.

The solution? Do a thinning operation. When the young trees are farther apart, they are less tempting to Bark Beetles, and less vulnerable to fire. And since the competition for water and sunlight is less, they grow more quickly. Sometimes the ranger district will hire a TSI crew for the Summer. At other times, they'll take competitive bids on these projects.

My understanding is that TSI is often underfunded when Federal budgets are tight. In that respect, it's similar to funding for public libraries, when counties struggle with budget crunches.


What's the most productive approach to forest fire management?

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Golden Trout Wilderness, Kern Plateau.
Golden Trout Wilderness, Kern Plateau.
Head of Pulaski tool.
Head of Pulaski tool. | Source
Diammonium phosphate
Diammonium phosphate | Source

The nuts and bolts of fire fighting

Many years ago, during one of my seasonal jobs with the Forest Service, we flew in by helicopter to put out lightning strikes on the Kern Plateau, just South of the High Sierras in California. The contrast was interesting.

We were transported by expensive sophisticated machines. Then we put out the relatively small fires, using low-tech tools, like shovels and Pulaskis. The latter is similar to an axe, but the head of the tool has an axe blade on one side, and a small hoe blade on the other side.

In retrospect, this effort was probably overkill. Lightning tends to strike trees on ridge tops during small storms, which make the ground wet. And the slow-moving ground fire burned downhill.

In contrast, fires that burn uphill preheat and dry out the fuel above the fire. This is why forest fires travel faster in the uphill direction.

This is also why crews on the ground fighting a large fire, will typically start their fireline at the base of the fire, and then progress up the flanks.

If necessary, air tankers will drop water on the uphill head of the fire, in order to slow it down, and buy time for the crews on the ground. Fire retardants like DAP (diammonium phosphate) may be added to the water.

In building a fireline, ground crews--and bulldozers when they can get in--will cut the brush and trees, and then scrape the duff layer down to bare mineral soil. This prevents the fire from spreading along the ground.

On very hot dry windy days, there is sometimes a risk that the fire will travel in the treetops, and jump across firelines. This extremely hazardous situation is called a crown fire.

Wind is another risk factor for people who fight wildfires. Even when the terrain is flat. Suppose that the fire starts when the wind is blowing in one direction. Then at 3pm, the wind suddenly changes direction, and 'pushes' the fire away from its previous direction of spread. A formerly safe flank can instantly become the new head of the fire. And crews working there may need to evacuate quickly.

That's why it's important to keep tabs on what the wind is doing. If the fire is a multi-day project, the crew leaders should become aware of the local daily wind patterns, so that they can be proactive about the safety of the people they supervise.

After the fire has been completely surrounded with fireline, it is said to be contained. However that's not necessarily the end of the story. For example, asmoldering pine cone could roll downhill, and start a secondary fire below the fireline.

For this reason, shallow trenches may be added to reinforce the lower part of the fireline. With luck, they will catch any smoldering pine cones or smoldering logs that roll down the hill.

After containment, the mop-up phase begins. This involves water, elbow grease, shovels, and lots of dirt.

The most dangerous wildfires in the USA are in the hilly chaparral country (dense chest-high shrubs and bushes) of Southern California. In a worst case scenario, a wildfire there can advance faster than a man can run.

Copyright 2013 by Larry Fields

Chaparral near Santa Barbara, California
Chaparral near Santa Barbara, California | Source

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Comments 12 comments

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

I was so interested reading that, when you finished I wanted to carry on reading! lol! how fascinating! I never thought about where the fire started, as burning from the bottom of the hill would make it go up faster etc, I remember seeing on tv years ago about how the native americans started the fires to keep it safe, but didn't realise what was involved, great hub larry, and really interesting reading, voted up and shared, nell


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Nell,

Nice to hear from you, as always. And thanks for the share.


bac2basics profile image

bac2basics 3 years ago from Spain

Hi Larry. This hub caught my eye as we had a devastating and huge fire that burned for 6 days in the area I live and caused the destruction of 50.000 hectares of once beautiful countryside. I was evacuated and wasn´t officially allowed home for 6 days. This fire was caused by negligence, someone using a welder on an extremely hot and very windy day. I don´t blame the persons responsible , it was just an unfortunate accident in my view, stupid yes but still an accident. I do however blame the government for cutting back on the forestry budget so that this was allowed to happen, I also blame whoever for leaving this fire to burn for 4 hours before fire crews attended and the government also get a second slap from me for not calling in the Huge fire planes from Madrid until day 5 of the fire, they didn´t want to pay the bill, very short sighted in my view because had they been called in on day one the bill would have been millions less. You can read this hub if you wish, it´s called " Huge wildfire in Valencia´s beautiful countryside - Why didn´t it make the news outside of Spain". I think it was covered up personally.

I hope it´s OK with you larry if I link this hub to mine, people should be made aware of how destructive forest fires can be, and how to guard against them.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi bac2basics,

Thanks for your comment.

Yes, your right. I hadn't heard about this particular fire in Spain. It's even more surprising, because I read BBC News online to keep up on what's happening outside of the USA. And the UK is a lot closer to your country than we are.


bac2basics profile image

bac2basics 3 years ago from Spain

Hi Larry.

Considering there are so many Brit expats living in Spain, and this fire was so huge and went on for 6 days I can only think it was a cover up and a blockade was put on reporting it. Non of my family or friends in the UK knew about it until I phoned home and despite looking at the news for reports it still wasn´t mentioned. The fire was going in Colorado at the same time, and this was on the news but not the one closer and affecting a huge amount of British people. So much money has been wasted in Valencia over the years and the forestry budget reduced so much or scrapped altogether, it was a disaster on a gigantic scale just waiting to happen. To add another sour note, we were promised compensation from the government funds but then once our town hall got the money , about a quarter of a million euro´s all told, they invented an excuse to keep most of it in the village kitty and hardly anyone saw one centimo of this promised compensation including me. It´s an absolute scandal.

By the way , the terrain and plant life here is much the same as Chapparal in California, and that is a fact because I have had visitors staying in my villa twice from California and they told me.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Hi Larry,

I have also heard that many species need fire to germinate, including the giant sequoias. Some say it's to crack the seed pod and other say it's to clear the forest floor.

Interesting Hub.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Will,

Yes, I'd read something similar. Apparently the seeds of competing tree species have an edge over the Giant Sequoias seeds when there's a lot of organic 'litter' on the forest floor. Thanks for stopping by.


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 3 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

I agree that natural fires, from lightening strikes, can be a good thing. To much debris on the floor of a forest can cause a huge uncontrolable fire. (My dad was a fire fighter for 30 years.) Sometimes nature needs to clean house. Great hub with lots of very good information. Voted up and interesting! :)


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi sgbrown. Thanks for stopping by.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 21 months ago from Mississauga, ON

I never wanted this article to end, this is how interesting it was.

I knew that natural fires are a blessing in disguise for a majority of times, but never understood the whole mechanics. Thank you for writing about many attributes if fire management. It was very educating indeed.

I also learned a lot from the comments by bac2basics.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 21 months ago from Northern California Author

Hi Suhail,

Thanks for stopping by. And thank you for educating me about livestock guardian dogs.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 21 months ago from Mississauga, ON

Come to think about that Larry, LGDs can also warn us of approaching fire in advance :-) I know of this lady whose LGDs started barking late in the night over a forest fire some 10 kms away. The only caveat is that humans won't get the clue.

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