By Nicola Twilley
Throughout the twentieth century, federal policy focussed on putting out fires as quickly as possible, but preventing megafires requires a different approach.
Six of the ten worst fires in California’s history have occurred in the past eighteen months, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than seventeen thousand homes destroyed. Experts have warned that this year’s fire season could be even worse, in part because record-breaking rains early this year spurred the growth of brush and grasses, which have since dried out, creating more fuel. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a wildfire state of emergency in March, months before fire season would normally begin.
The tools and techniques capable of stopping megafires remain elusive, but in the past few decades a scientific consensus has emerged on how to prevent them: prescribed burns. When flames are kept small and close to the ground, they clear the leaf litter, pine needles, and scrub that fuel wildfire, and consume saplings and low-level branches that would otherwise act as a ladder conveying fire to the canopy. With the competing vegetation cleared out, the remaining trees grow larger, developing a layer of bark thick enough to shield them from all but the hottest blazes. California’s state legislature recently passed a bill earmarking thirty-five million dollars a year for fuel-reduction projects.
“And yet no one is actually burning,” Jeff Brown, the manager of a field station in the Tahoe National Forest, told me when I visited him there recently. Although prescribed burns have been part of federal fire policy since 1995, last year the Forest Service performed them on just one per cent—some sixty thousand acres—of its land in the Sierra Nevada. “We need to be burning close to a million acres each year, just in the Sierras, or it’s over,” Brown said. The shortfall has several causes, but, some fifteen years ago, Brown set himself the almost impossible task of devising a plan for the forest he helps maintain that would be sophisticated enough to overcome all obstacles. Now he is coördinating an urgent effort to replicate his template across the Sierra Nevada.
By Emily Cadei
The Trump administration’s wildfire plan would ease environmental restrictions in national forests to speed clearing, thinning and the removal of dead trees. He’s chided California for its forest management.
The Trump administration is proposing new regulations it argues could help prevent wildfires — but could also open up more federal land to logging and mineral exploration.
The U.S. Forest Service released proposed regulatory changes Wednesday that would exempt several new types of forest management projects from the typical review process under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
The changes are part of an ongoing push by the Trump administration to speed forest management projects — things like clearing brush, removing dead trees and thinning smaller trees from overgrown forests.
As three major fires blaze in California, we consider some of their causes, both human and meteorological. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been filming a NOVA documentary on megafires and witnessed the Camp Fire not long after it began. He joins William Brangham to describe that stunning experience, along with the broader scientific context around these destructive phenomena.
By Guy Kovner
Sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees and 100 million more may be infeceted, according to new research.
A dry winter curtailed the presence of a deadly forest pathogen this year in Sonoma County and 13 other Northern and Central California counties, but experts still expect the oak-killing disease to spread and warned landowners to be vigilant.
Since the mid-1990s, sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees from Big Sur to southwest Oregon and is entrenched in the woodlands, spreading rapidly after wet winters and slower during dry years.
“It’s constant, it’s emerging,” said Richard Cobb, an assistant professor of forest health at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “It’s probably going to get a lot worse.”
Cobb said Monday he’s about to publish his estimate of tree mortality, 90 percent of which are tanoaks and most of the rest coast live oaks. Another 100 million trees may be infected by the insidious pathogen that typically takes one or two years to produce symptoms in the infected trees, he said.
The pathogen can be spread by human footprints and nursery plants, but in nature it rides on water droplets blown from the leaves of bay laurel trees, a host species that abounds among the oak and tanoak trees susceptible to the disease.
“We know there’s a lot of disease out there,” said Matteo Garbelotto, director of the forest pathology and mycology laboratory at UC Berkeley, which has organized annual sudden oak death surveys, known as the SOD Blitz, since 2008.
This year’s survey found the estimated rate of infection — based on lab analysis of leaves collected from bay laurels and tanoaks — at 3.5 percent throughout the 14-county region, a marked decline from 12.8 percent last year.
Sonoma County, divided into three areas, also showed sharp declines, which Garbelotto said were anticipated because the 2017 survey, conducted in the wake of two straight wet winters, found the highest infection rate ever recorded in 11 years.
But the survey conducted in May found another consequence — the presence of oaks showing symptoms of infection had increased to 12.2 percent throughout the region, up from 9.4 percent last year.
Next year’s rate should be higher, Garbelotto said, coming two years after the 2017 rains and matching the time it takes for symptoms, such as bleeding cankers in oak tree bark, to appear.
By Thomas Fuller
After a three-year restoration project, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park has reopened, with less asphalt and more concern for the health of the trees.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — John Muir, the naturalist who was most at home sleeping outdoors on a bed of pine needles in the Sierra Nevada, called giant sequoias the “noblest of God’s trees.”
For three years, some of the most striking examples of these towering marvels were off limits to visitors in Yosemite National Park. After a $40 million renovation — the largest restoration project in the park’s history — the Mariposa Grove, a collection of around 500 mature giant sequoias, reopened last week.
What Muir called a “forest masterpiece” is now back on display.
The renovation addressed a problem that the park has struggled with for years. On the busiest summer days, more than 7,000 cars may converge on the park, which is about a four-hour drive from San Francisco. The gridlock they create amid the stunning chutes of water running down the steep granite slopes of Yosemite’s glacier-carved valley results in a kind of drive-by naturalism that frustrates many.
By Christine Souza
Despite the wet winter and far-above-average Sierra Nevada snowpack, California forests remain at risk from tree mortality, bark beetle infestations and overgrown landscapes, according to presentations at the 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference.
During the event, foresters and forest landowners discussed all those issues and communicated concerns directly to Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest regional forester, who participated as a guest speaker.
Shaun Crook, a timber operator and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, emphasized to Moore the need for effective forest management and that it be included in the agency’s updated forest plans, to reverse the damage happening in the national forests. The Forest Service is currently working on forest plans to serve as the land management framework for the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra national forests, which are expected to serve as blueprints for other forests in the Sierra and across the country.
“As we go forward with the forest plan revisions and the (tree) mortality, we need to be more proactive with the green and timber sale program to start getting the forest back into that state that it was 100 years ago, before we can just let fire do its thing, or we’re going to continue to have the catastrophic fires like the King Fire and the Rim Fire,” said Crook, a contract logger and grazing permittee in the Stanislaus National Forest. “We need a guaranteed harvest level coming off of the national forest because without that, we won’t get this private infrastructure back.”
Scientists say more low-intensity wildfires are needed to clear out overgrown forests to help prevent bigger fires. Deciding where and when to let fires burn is tricky.
Dangerous wildfires made a lot of news across this country last year. But there are scientists who say we need more fires, low-intensity ones that clear out overgrown forests and help prevent the bigger fires. Deciding where and when to let fires burn is tricky, and so the U.S. Forest Service is working on a new approach.
Fires aren’t all bad. Some fires help forests become healthier, but scientists say they’re sorely lacking in California.
Sierra Nevada forests are adapted to low-intensity fires that clear the underbrush and prevent trees from getting too dense. After a century of fire suppression, many forests are overgrown, which can make catastrophic fires worse.
So forest managers are piloting a new policy designed to shift a century-old mentality about fire in the West.
The idea is to let naturally-caused fires burn when they aren’t a threat to homes or people. But actually making those decisions on the ground isn’t easy in a crowded state like California.
There are killing machines on the loose in California and the entire Western region.
They’re found in packs and look for the weak but they’re not the scary predator you’d imagine. In fact, they’re about the size of a rice grain.
They’re called bark beetles.
A June 2016 Cal Fire report stated the ongoing drought in combination with the tiny insects are responsible for killing about 66 million trees in California since 2010. That’s up from 29 million trees in 2015 and 3.3 million in 2014, according to the report.
Pine trees in California forests will die out and give way to brush and chaparral, forestry experts warn, unless agencies undertake what one analyst called a “massive effort” to reduce fuels and replant trees. Otherwise, the conversion to chaparral could further increase risk of wildfires and affect the state’s water supply.
A U.S. Forest Service survey, released in June, revealed that 66 million trees—mostly pine species—have died in the southern Sierra alone, due to bark beetle infestations, drought, wildfire and climate change. One question now, experts say, is what will replace those dead trees.
“We know in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests east of Fresno, the beetles have killed at least 85 percent of the entire pine vegetative type and at least 20 percent of the mixed conifer type, which is pine and fir,” said Steve Brink, California Forestry Association vice president of public resources. “By the end of this summer, essentially 100 percent of the pine type will be dead in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests, and you are going to have a massive conversion to chaparral.”