Meet a maverick fire chief in the Sierra Nevada who says California’s forests are actually not having enough fire, or, the right kind of fires.
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You would think managing a wildfire would involve trying to contain the flames but it can actually involve starting fire.
That’s what this fire crew is doing today. They’re walking around the forest with drip torches, fuel cans with flames on the nozzle, and drawing half circles of flames around the bottom of each tree.
“The challenge will be to keep up with these guys,” Taro Pusina tells me. Pusina is the fire chief for the Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierra and my guide today at this wildfire. It was started by lightning two weeks ago. But now, this crew is managing it, even actively adding flame to the ground, to push it along.
Don’t think “Backdraft.” It’s mostly just pine needles burning. And some lower tree branches here and there. But then, a pile of fallen sticks under a tree catch fires and shoots flames up the trunk. Then the entire tree is on fire. “You're getting the full effect now,” Pusina says. “Smoke and everything.”
And he tells me: the crew could have easily put this fire out when it started, but that would be the short-sighted approach.
The long term approach, according to Pusina,is to manage wildfires, letting them run their natural course if they don’t pose a hazard, instead of immediately suppressing them. Because, Pusina says, fire is a normal and healthy part of California’s forests. And he wants to spread this gospel to whoever will listen.
“I think he is rightfully a zealot on this issue,” Kristen Shive, Science Director for Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco told me. “Our only way out of our fire problem is with fire.”
While it feels like the last few years have had an extreme amount of fires, California actually used to way have more wildfires. According to Shive, about four and a half million acres would burn annually. (By comparison, last year, during California's deadliest fire season on record, about one and a half million acres burned.) These were both naturally-started fires as well as fires lit by Native Americans to manage the land. “In California, smoky skies were the norm historically,” Shive says.
But when Europeans arrived, they killed or kicked Native Americans off their land and put an end to the management of forests with fire. They also immediately suppressed naturally started fires. So even though it seems like the last couple of years have had a lot of fires, Shive says we’re exactly in a fire deficit. “What’s really shifted is the type of fire that we’re getting.”
Fire suppression actually leads to more severe fires. When the forests don’t have regular fire all the stuff that would burn, like fallen trees and brush, builds up and becomes fuel. They’re like matchsticks waiting for a match. Then when something like a lightning storm finally comes along, it results in a severe and often destructive fire, where whole swaths of trees burn down. Historically, California would occasionally get these patches of severe fire, but now we’re seeing severe fire over many acres of land. It’s hard for a forest to recover from a fire like that. Tree seeds don’t disperse very far, so when all the trees in a big area burn down, the seeds can’t disperse and grow. A fire like this can radically change the landscape. “Something will grow back after one of these severe fires but it may not be forest,” Shive says.
Fire ecologists have known for a long time that fire can be good for the environment. National Forests and Parks have policies in place that encourage managing for healthy wildfires. But still, most lightning-started fires in California just get put out immediately. A lot of fire managers view them as too risky. All fire, even a well managed one, has some risk. It’s taking a fire chief Taro Pusina and a handful of mavericks in the state to go out a limb and manage these lightning-started wildfires in remote areas, to do what they believe is best for the forests ecologically.
Like at this fire we’re at today.
Pusina takes me to the origin of the wildfire. A single lodgepole pine that was struck by lightning two weeks ago. The tree has completely burned up and all that’s left is a hole in the ground. The soil in this area is so soft from all the ash, you have to be careful where you walk because your foot could easily sink into the ground and it’s still very hot below the surface.
The thunderstorm that started this fire started seven other fires across the Eastern Sierra. Some of those fires were so small they put themselves out after a few days. Some of them were too close to towns and firefighters put them out immediately. But this fire seemed like a good candidate to be managed instead of suppressed.
Pusina had to act quickly to make his decision. He met with a bunch of specialists at the Forest Service — wildlife biologists, forest archaeologists, hydrologists, scientists who study air quality. They used computer modeling to predict where the fire would spread and the smoke would blow. They looked at how the fire might impact roads and towns. They considered nearby cultural resources like a Native American historical site and natural resources like a goshawk, a sensitive bird species, that was nesting nearby. One of the things they had going for them was that it was an extremely wet winter so the chances of the fire getting out of control were less likely than in a dry year. Plus, because it hasn’t been a busy fire season, there were crews available to manage it.
After considering all these factors, Pusina recommended to his supervisors that the Inyo National Forest manage this fire instead of suppressing it. Now firefighters are even actively adding flames to the ground as a way to precisely control and expedite the fire’s footprint predicted by the computer modeling.
Residents in the nearby towns that have to breathe smoke are the ones that bear the brunt of the fire. If it gets too smoky, tourists may not visit and that can hurt local businesses. “It can be controversial,” Pusina says. “Some people will ask, ‘Why didn't you just put it out?’”
But Pusina thinks that would just be kicking the can down the road. He would rather have more frequent but less severe fires, than see the severe and destructive fires that are a result of fire suppression.
“Smoke and wildfires are part of California's fabric,” he says. “They always have been and they always will be. No smoke and no fire is simply not an option.”
He wants Californians to prepare for more smoke in our wildlands, but hopefully also healthier forests.