The Rim Fire one year later: a natural experiment in fire ecology and management

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

99th Annual Meeting
The Ecological Society of America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 31, 2014
Contact:
Ecological Society of America: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org
U.S. Forest Service: Jon Heil (707) 562-9004, jheil@fs.fed.us

 

The enormous conflagration known as the Rim Fire was in full fury, raging swiftly from crown to crown among mature trees, when it entered the backcountry of Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada in late August 2013. But inside the park, the battle began to turn, enacting a case study in the way management decisions and drought can combine to fuel large, severe fires.

“When the Rim Fire hit the park, it eventually encountered lands where fire had been used as a management tool, rather than immediately suppressed,” said Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service based out of Vallejo, Cal. “When the Rim Fire hit these areas, the amount and continuity of forest fuel became a limiting factor,” he said. “There just wasn’t enough fuel in the system to keep it going.”

Safford will lead a group of visiting ecologists on a two-day excursion into the Rim Fire’s path this August during the Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting  to view the effects of the fire on adjacent landscapes that have been managed very differently over the last century.

Fire ecology is a hot topic at this year’s meeting, which will bring 3,500 environmental scientists to Sacramento on August 10-15th to discuss the most recent advances in ecological research, education, and policy.

Day one of the field trip will take visitors to sites in the Stanislaus National Forest, and day two to the National Park.

“The minute you leave the park, you’re on lands that get used by a lot of people for a lot of things,” Safford said. “The Forest Service is dealing with places that have had a lot of human impact and occupants.”

The Rim Fire: a natural experiment

Rim Fire, California 2013. Mike McMillan, USFS.

Fire Line. The Rim Fire blazes in tree crowns of the Stanislaus National Forest, California, in late August, 2013. Credit, Mike McMillan/ U.S. Forest Service.

The Rim Fire is in a sense a natural experiment. Yosemite, set aside in 1864, is mostly old growth forest, in which lightning-ignited fires have often been allowed to burn since the 1970s. The National Forest is a working landscape that includes private lands, major highways, dams, power lines, and communities, which the Forest Service protects by suppressing wildfire.

“I’m not suggesting one’s right and one’s wrong, but it presents an interesting contrast,” Safford said, “It’s a good case study to look at the effects of large, severe fires on watersheds subject to different management regimes.”

The fir, cedar, and pine forests of the high Sierra are adapted to frequent fires ignited by lightning.  Fire scars on older trees, including the 2000-year-old giant sequoias record a history of low intensity fires recurring every 10 to 20 years. Fires that burned at low intensity through the understory tended to kill few of the mature trees, on the order of 5 to 10 percent. Recent studies have found that wildfires in the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra often run out of fuel and go out when they encounter sections of forest that have already burned within the last decade.

Though it smoldered on into October, by September 3rd, 2013, the Forest Service was reporting that the Rim Fire was 70 percent contained. Most of the acreage burned in the first week. The blaze that began as an alarming, out-of-control monster became just another big fire that managers were using to do ecological work.

Ignited by a hunter’s illegal campfire near the Rim of the World Vista in Stanislaus National Forest on August 17th, the fire ultimately burned for three months, consuming 257,314 acres of trees and $127 million taxpayer dollars. Smoke from the fire prompted air quality warnings from the Bay Area to Reno, Nev. It was the largest recorded fire in the Sierra Nevada.

A trend toward mega-fires

In the past few decades, ecologists have noted a trend toward intense “mega-fires” in the mountain forests of the western states. Recent record-breaking fires in Arizona and New Mexico join the  2013 Rim Fire, the 250,000-acre Carlton Complex fire currently burning in eastern Washington State, and the even larger Buzzard Complex fire in Oregon.

According to Safford, increased fuel on National Forest lands resulting from the long-term lack of fire is one of the principal drivers of recent increases in the size and severity of wildfires, trends which appear to be absent in the National Parks.

“The Rim Fire is not random occurrence. It’s part of a trend in big fires, and a real wake up call,” Scott Stephens agreed. Stephens, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, authored a recent review on the characteristics and challenges of mega-fires with fellow fire specialists from Australia, Canada, Spain, and China, as well as the western U.S. in the March 2014 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Large fires are a problem facing many of the world’s temperate and boreal forests. As was the case with the Rim Fire, mega-fires are often driven by a combination of drought, heat, wind, fuel from fire suppression, budget cuts, and encroaching development, Stephens said.

These big fires are more expensive to contain and to recover from than the more frequent but less destructive fires that used to characterize the Sierra’s mixed conifer forests, and they are dangerous for firefighters. They char enormous swaths of land, leaving large areas of up to 30,000 acres with no mature trees to seed a new generation.

“Most of the trees died in the Rim Fire. Not just the little guys. We’re looking at multiple patches of high severity fire that are of thousands of acres in size,” said Safford. “Where are the seeds going to come from? The landscape will be dominated by brush for a long time.”

Prelude to a habitat regime change

Very large, intense fires can take out entire habitat ranges, and, in combination with the pressures of land use change and development, leave nowhere for animals to retreat and await regrowth (while at the same time benefitting species that thrive in snag fields). Forest is slow to return, topsoil erodes, and quick-spreading opportunistic exotics capitalize on the disturbance.

In concert with warming climate, which is increasing water stress on forest species, there is potential for a permanent change in habitat type, from forest to brush or to grassland.

“After severe fire, mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada are replaced by chaparral stands. When chaparral burns, it burns hot, and with the increasing frequencies of severe fire that are predicted, we expect to see progressively more forest converting to brush and not returning. With continued high fire frequencies, brush can convert to grassland as well,” said Safford. “We’re seeing that type of thing happening in southern California already, mostly in chaparral lands that are turning to fields of exotic grass.”

Questions of forest management are really questions about our priorities for the function and appearance of our landscapes—juggling priorities to protect property and respiratory health, esthetics, habitat, carbon sequestration, and water availability.

Given the difficulty of managing fire in proximity to homes and businesses, the Forest Service is considering mechanically thinning forests where it can, but these initiatives remain small in proportion to the huge fuel reduction backlog, and are currently expensive compared to controlled burning. Safford thinks it is an effort that all stakeholders should prioritize.

“We need to think about our grandkids,” said Stephens. “When I think about climate change, I look at the opportunities to do more to change the structure of the forest before big fires hit, and create the conditions so that when it does burn, we can have a party.” In 50 years, he said, opportunities are going to get squashed between the management history of the forests and an increasingly warm, dry climate. “If we begin the transformation now, we give future managers options.”

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Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting, August 10-15th, 2014, in Sacramento, Cal.

Main * Program * Press Information * App

FT 18: The 2013 Rim Fire – Forest Management Influencing Fire Ecology
Friday, August 15, 2014: 7:00 AM-7:00 PM
Organizer: Hugh Safford, U.S. Forest Service, Region 5
Co-organizers: Eric Winford , Gus Smith , Jan van Wagtendonk , Kent van Wagtendonk , Becky L. Estes and Susan L. Ustin

More fire ecology at the upcoming meetinghttp://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#fire

 

Additional Resources:

Safford, Hugh D.; Van de Water, Kip M. (2014). Using Fire Return Interval Departure (FRID) Analysis to Map Spatial and Temporal Changes in Fire Frequency on National Forest Lands in California. Res. Pap. PSW-RP-266. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 59 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_rp266/

Scott L Stephens, Neil Burrows, Alexander Buyantuyev, Robert W Gray, Robert E Keane, Rick Kubian, Shirong Liu, Francisco Seijo, Lifu Shu, Kevin G Tolhurst, and Jan W van Wagtendonk (2014). Temperate and boreal forest mega-fires: characteristics and challengesFrontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 115–122. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120332

Online Special Issue: Prescribed burning in fire-prone landscapes. (2014). Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11 (August). http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/11/s1

 

Journalists and public information officers can gain access to full texts of all ESA publications by contacting the public affairs office. Email Liza Lester, llester@esa.org.

 

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

The control of nature: stewardship of fire ecology by native Californian cultures

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

99th Annual Meeting
The Ecological Society of America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, July 25, 2014
Contact:
Ecological Society of America: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org
U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Station: Sherri Eng (510) 559-6327; sleng@fs.fed.us

 

Before the colonial era, 100,000s of people lived on the land now called California, and many of their cultures manipulated fire to control the availability of plants they used for food, fuel, tools, and ritual. Contemporary tribes continue to use fire to maintain desired habitat and natural resources.

Frank Lake, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Station, will lead a field trip to the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge during the Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting in Sacramento, Cal., this August. Visitors  will learn about plant and animal species of cultural importance to local tribes. Don Hankins, a faculty associate at California State University at Chico and a member of the Miwok people, will co-lead the trip, which will end with a visit to California State Indian Museum.

Lake will also host a special session on a “sense of place,” sponsored by the Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of the Ecological Society, that will bring representatives of local tribes into the Annual Meeting to share their cultural and professional experiences working on tribal natural resources issues.

“The fascinating thing about the Sacramento Valley and the Miwok lands where we are taking the field trip is that it was a fire and flood system,” said Lake. “To maintain the blue and valley oak, you need an anthropogenic fire system.”

Lake, raised among the Yurok and Karuk tribes in the Klamath River area of northernmost California, began his career with an interest in fisheries, but soon realized he would need to understand fire to restore salmon. Fire exerts a powerful effect on ecosystems, including the quality and quantity of water available in watersheds, in part by reducing the density of vegetation.

“Those trees that have grown up since fire suppression are like straws sucking up the groundwater,” Lake said.

The convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was historically one of the largest salmon bearing runs on the West Coast, Lake said, and the Miwok, Patwin and Yokut tribal peoples who lived in the area saw and understood how fire was involved.

California native cultures burned patches of forest in deliberate sequence to diversify the resources available within their region. The first year after a fire brought sprouts for forage and basketry. In 3 to 5 years, shrubs produced a wealth of berries. Mature trees remained for the acorn harvest, but burning also made way for the next generation of trees, to ensure a consistent future crop. Opening the landscape improved game and travel, and created sacred spaces.

“They were aware of the succession, so they staggered burns by 5 to 10 years to create mosaics of forest in different stages, which added a lot of diversity for a short proximity area of the same forest type,” Lake said. “Complex tribal knowledge of that pattern across the landscape gave them access to different seral stages of soil and vegetation when tribes made their seasonal rounds.”

In oak woodlands, burning killed mold and pests like the filbert weevil and filbert moth harbored by the duff and litter on the ground. People strategically burned in the fall, after the first rain, to hit a vulnerable time in the life cycle of the pests, and maximize the next acorn crop. Lake thinks that understanding tribal use of these forest environments has context for and relevance to contemporary management and restoration of endangered ecosystems and tribal cultures.

“Working closely with tribes, the government can meet its trust responsibility and have accountability to tribes, and also fulfill the public trust of protection of life, property, and resources,” Lake said. “By aligning tribal values with public values you can get a win-win, reduce fire along wildlife-urban interfaces, and make landscapes more resilient.”


Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting, August 10-15th, 2014, in Sacramento, Cal.

Main * Program * Press Information * App

 

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.   Oct. 2010. Photo, Justine Belson/ USFWS.

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Elk Grove, Cal. Credit, Justine Belson/ USFWS.

FT 4: Tribal Land and Resource Management in the Sacramento Valley-Delta: Fire and Culture
Saturday, August 9, 2014: 9:00 AM-5:00 PM
Organizer: Frank K. Lake, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station
Co-organizer: Don Hankins, California State University, Chico

SS 10: Sense of Place
Monday, August 11, 2014: 10:15 AM-11:30 AM
Organizer: Frank K. Lake
Co-organizer: Ronald A. Trosper
Tribes represented include: Pomo, Coastal Miwok, Plains Miwok, and Miwok.

More fire ecology at the upcoming meeting: http://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#fire

 


The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

 

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

Wildfires and Climate Change

 
New York Times Logo
Galbraith, Kate. “Wildfires and Climate Change.” New York Times 4 Sep 2013.
 
 

“Global studies of wildfire patterns are rare. But a paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere predicted that climate change would have an effect on wildfires that varies widely, especially in accordance with a given region’s precipitation patterns.”

“The paper — which focused on climate change but not other variables, like changing land management — projected that dry parts of the middle latitudes and Australia are likely to see more fires over the long term. The American West, already a tinderbox, will become more fire-prone. So, too, will high-latitude areas, the study found, partly because the carbon-rich peat soil there will burn under extreme weather conditions.”

 
 
national geographic logo
Profeta, Tim. “Using the Clean Air Act to Regulate Carbon Emissions.” National Geographic 5 Sep 2013.
 
“A paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere came to a similar conclusion. It suggests that climate change’s effect on wildfires would vary widely, especially when precipitation patterns were factored in.”
 
 
Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity Max A. Moritz, Marc-André Parisien, Enric Batllori, Meg A. Krawchuk, Jeff Van Dorn, David J. Ganz, and Katharine Hayhoe. Ecosphere 2012 3:6, art49