An image of the Dixie fire from Cal Fire SCU Unit
(Via Cal Fire SCU)

Exploding California wildfires rekindle debate: Snuff out blazes in wilderness areas or let them burn?

A U.S. Forest Service directive to put out fires in remote, roadless California forests has angered foresters and firefighters, who say doing so will put lives at risk and fuel worse fires in the future.

It was the afternoon of July 4, and in a few hours, fireworks would crackle over drought-parched California, raising concerns about possible fires. But hours earlier, along the California-Nevada border, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and far from any large fireworks displays, lightning struck, and seven wildfires ignited in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

A few of those fires expanded, burning a couple of hundred acres before being contained. One, the Tamarack fire, smoldered for more than a week in a roadless wilderness area before taking off, burning thousands of acres and destroying several homes. As of early August, hundreds of firefighters were still working to fully contain the fire.

Wildfires typically earn attention when they encroach on human settlements, and communities suffer the trauma of sudden evacuations and homes reduced to ash. But a study published in Environmental Research Letters last month suggests that wildfires burn more frequently and at a slightly higher level of severity in remote, roadless areas, like that where the Tamarack fire began. The study analyzed 30 years of wildfire on U.S. Forest Service Land.

The findings speak to a longstanding debate over firefighting tactics that has grown fiercer this summer as the fire season has erupted into major conflagrations.

Politicians — and much of the public — advocate for the quick suppression of wildfire to protect people, property and crucial watersheds. But fire researchers, while they recognize the importance of such protection, argue that most fires in remote wilderness areas should be allowed to burn, if conditions allow, to avoid bigger fires in the future and greater risk for firefighters in the rugged terrain.

“When we suppress fire, we aren’t preventing fire,” said James Johnston, a research associate at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry and the lead author on the study. “We’re just deferring fire.”

The Tamarack fire’s dramatic turn from smoldering tree to out-of-control wildfire has yielded widespread criticism of the Forest Service’s decision to not immediately snuff out the blaze. Last week, in response to a public admonishment of the Forest Service by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the agency said that suppressing small wildfires, as opposed to monitoring their movement, would be its top priority during this current fire season, which is outpacing last year’s catastrophic summer and fall. The federal government also said last week that it would supply more resources to California to help with wildfire mitigation.

Some fire scientists greeted that news with concern. “Basically what this policy is going to lead to is a higher firefighter body count,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a nonprofit focused on reforming wildfire policy. Sending firefighters and pilots into remote, roadless terrain to suppress every small fire, he said, will spread resources too thin and increase the chance of firefighter injury or death. “This will push crews to take unnecessary risks.”

Managing fires in roadless areas is difficult. And climate change will only increase the likelihood that vast, roadless areas, some as big as Rhode Island, will burn, releasing smoke that can travel great distances. A small percentage of those fires will burn toward populated regions.

Johnston’s study highlights coastal Southern California as a place where roadless swaths of forest sit perilously close to dense, urban areas. Chapparal that grows in Southern California forests burns easily and often, and there’s little to prevent that, Johnston said.

For decades, wildfires have been quickly attacked and suppressed, out of fear that they would explode in size, potentially harming people and property. But many scientists say relying heavily on that strategy has resulted in forests crowded with trees. In the southern Sierra Nevadas, over the past 100 years, the average forest canopy cover doubled in mixed conifer forests and quadrupled in ponderosa pine forests. To help reverse the legacy of suppression, the scientists urge federal and state public land managers, like the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, to allow naturally occurring fires to burn when they don’t threaten communities, infrastructure or important resources, and ramp up burning practices devised over centuries by Indigeneous people, as well as those formulated more recently by foresters.

“We’ve excluded fires from the landscape for 100 years. So there’s lots of fuel. And we’ve been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Johnston said. “It’s hotter, drier. There are longer fire seasons. So we are locked into a more fiery future.”

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California is a tinderbox

The Tamarack fire’s emergence as a focal point for the debate over fire suppression came several days after lightning hit a single tree, starting the blaze.

At first, the Forest Service chose not to fight the fire, partly out of concern for firefighter safety, the agency noted in a Facebook post. Instead, fire officials monitored it, hoping that a nearby lake and the bulky granite rock around the fire would hem the flames in. And for several days, that seemed to be the case, with only a small cluster of trees lazily puffing smoke. Lightning ignites many remote wildfires, and most remain small, perhaps a couple hundred acres, Johnston said.

“There’s so many fires burning in the American West these days that the Forest Service is going to devote their resources to fires that are threatening communities,” he said, adding that fires in roadless forests pose great challenges. “It’s often dangerous to deploy firefighters to remote areas. There are lots of snags (dead trees that can fall on firefighters.) It’s really steep. There are few escape routes. It’s just not good to stick crews into those areas.”

On July 16, however, strong winds pushed the fire toward the small community of Markleeville, California. The Forest Service deployed air tankers and helicopters. Flames still pushed forward. Over the next several days, conifer trees, chaparral and dry brush fed the fire. Hundreds of people living in California and Nevada were evacuated, and vacationers in Tahoe had to endure unhealthy, smoky air.

As the Tamarack fire grew, residents in its path voiced their frustrations with the Forest Service on social media. “Are they even trying to put this fire out or are they just going to let all the forests burn down?” one commenter posted on the Humboldt Toiyabe’s Twitter feed. Nevada state assemblyman Jim Wheeler, whose district has been affected by the Tamarack fire, tweeted his dismay at the Forest Service’s choice to let the lightning strike smolder. Rep. Tom McClintock of California requested answers from the Forest Service’s chief, Vicki Christiansen, about the agency’s decision.

Ken Pimlott, the retired director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, questioned the Forest Service’s actions as well. In an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Pimlott called the Forest Service response to the Tamarack fire “timid.”

He believes that during severe drought, and especially in a populated state like California, aggressive suppression is the safest tool.

“California is a tinderbox right now,” Pimlott said. “The sheer ability to keep a fire in check under these conditions, it’s proven to be a challenge.”

A spokeswoman for the Forest Service said the agency was working on a response to McClintock’s letter. Christiansen retired this month.

The country’s largest active fire, the Dixie fire in California, has burned nearly 500,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and has threatened thousands of residents. In early August, the fire tore through the historic town of Greenville, California. (The Dixie fire’s cause is still under investigation, though Pacific Gas & Electric has said its equipment might be to blame.)

In a recent meeting between President Joe Biden and western governors on the topic of wildfire, California Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced the Forest Service’s “wait and see” culture, citing the Tamarack fire. “This was a federal fire and they waited, and what we saw was the fire took off because we didn’t put enough initial assets,” he said.

“We need your help to change the culture in terms of the suppression strategy,” Newsom told Biden. (In California, 57% of forest is federal land. Last year, nearly half of all the acreage burned in California and throughout the West was on Forest Service land.)

A few days after the meeting, the Forest Service’s new chief, Randy Moore, said in a letter that because of the West’s ongoing drought and a fire season that could be serious through October, the agency would not manage fires for “resource benefit.” In other words, rather than letting small, naturally-ignited fires burn for the good of the ecosystem, the Forest Service would pivot to quick suppression.

A firefighter at the Dixie fire
A firefighter surveys the Dixie fire.
(Via Lassen National Forest)

Nature’s housekeeper

Perpetually suppressing wildfires makes many fire scientists uncomfortable, nervous about what will come when the trifecta of cluttered forests, drought and fire ignitions hits again. Some are angry.

Crystal Kolden, a wildfire researcher at UC Merced, tweeted after the Dixie fire destroyed Greenville: “I’m beyond 💔- I’m furious. We KNOW how to mitigate these disasters: prescribed fire, fuel reduction, structure hardening, etc. Politicians REFUSE to fund it, empower the right people, and change policies to support it. We CAN live with #wildfire, even under climate change.”

Kolden and other fire experts recognize that the West needs fire to thrive.

Before Euro-American settlement, an estimated 4.5 million acres or more would burn in California every year. Last year’s historic fire season charred a little more than 4 million California acres, and nearly 10 million acres throughout the West, the second most acreage burned since 1960.

“This was a fire adapted ecosystem. The higher up you went in the mountains, the more there was an influence from lightning,” said Susie Kocher, forestry and natural resources advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But lower down and on the coast, it was mostly Native burning.”

For thousands of years, Indigenous people recognized the benefits of fire and smoke, how smoke fumigated pests from forest, and a spring burn in chaparral would spur growth of basket-weaving sticks. Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok fire expert and professor of geography at California State University, Chico, said that fire was even used to create moisture.

“Smoke provides the scaffold for water to condense onto,” said Hankins. “By reading the environment, Indigenous peoples traditionally burned to create rain, snow.”

Fires across the landscape prevented thick clusters of trees from growing and cleared forest debris from the ground. With less vegetation competing for water, trees that remained standing were able to weather drought and heat more easily.

Beginning in the late 19th century, western settlers forcibly removed Indigenous people from the land and stopped cultural burning. The “Great Fire” of 1910, which burned more than 3 million acres across Idaho, Montana, Washington and British Columbia and killed more than 80 people, galvanized the movement towards suppressing fire.

Will Downing, a research assistant at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, said that largely eliminating fire from forests over the last century has resulted in a cycle of suppression of small fires, followed by mega-fires that burn fast and hot in both remote and more accessible landscapes. Since 2000, a yearly average of 70,600 wildfires have burned about seven million acres in the United States, more than double the acreage burned in the 1990s.

Downing used to work as a smokejumper. He recalled how in 2015, he plunged into a roadless wilderness area along the border of northeast Oregon and Washington to help extinguish a small lightning fire. He remembers thinking, he said, that the surrounding forest would benefit from a controlled burn.

About a month later, more lightning hit the same wilderness. Downing jumped in again, but was chased out by high winds. Those ignitions led to a fire that spread over 80,000 acres and destroyed two homes.

“This little anecdote represents the fire paradox well,” Downing said. “We catch 95 to 97% of fires when they are small, before they can do ecological good or socio-economic harm. But because we are so good at eliminating fire during those mild to moderate conditions, when fires do escape initial attack it tends to happen when fire weather and fuel conditions are extreme.”

The large, severe fires, like many of the fires that have recently scorched California and Oregon, will have lasting impacts. Kocher said those fires have damaged old conifer trees, plants that play an important role in carbon sequestration.

“That is a very bad thing,” said Kocher. “All the trees in a patch die because the fire is so intense. Most of our conifers don’t resprout from the base. They can’t seed from 100 miles away. They need living seed trees nearby.”

A fiery, smoky future

Roadless forests might be difficult to reach, but Kocher points to the National Park Service as a model for how to better manage these landscapes. For several years, the Park Service has organized prescribed burns in low-lying areas of Yosemite, and, for the past 50 years, when lightning has sparked wildfires in remote, roadless high-country in Yosemite and the conditions are right, firefighters have managed the fire to help clean the landscape and improve the ecosystem. Two other national parks have similar regimens.

According to a recent paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, the Forest Service recently adopted similar practices to the Park Service. But when the authors looked at total area burned, they determined that both agencies remain “far short of what is required to return these ecosystems to anything close to their natural fire regime.”

As the climate warms, many fire experts say intentionally burning land will be an increasingly tricky pursuit. Pimlott, the retired director of Cal Fire, says spring, fall and even winter aren’t as cool, wet and predictable as they used to be, leaving fewer opportunities for prescribed burns. “The window to get out on the ground is so narrow,” he said.

Although the Forest Service shifted its focus to suppression this fire season, a spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency still supports practices like thinning of forests and prescribed burning “in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.”

Kelly Martin, the retired chief of fire and aviation in Yosemite National Park, said anger that has erupted over the Tamarack Fire, as well as several damaging fire seasons, is likely to make public land managers more cautious about pursuing prescribed and managed fire. “There are more critics (of fire) and less advocates,” she said. “Even if we said, ‘Hey, we need to increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire,’ that’s all good, but it’s theoretical. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the capital. We don’t have the political capital.”

On top of accepting fire, the public would have to embrace more smoke outside of the summer and fall months typically associated with fire seasons. While wildfire smoke is considered a natural emission, and therefore unregulated under the Clean Air Act, smoke from prescribed burns is regulated.

Tiny particles in smoke, when inhaled, can cause lung inflammation, respiratory and cardiovascular damage. Preliminary research shows smoke from last year’s historic wildfire season could have caused hundreds of premature deaths in California.

“A lot of people are so sensitive to smoke,” said Martin. “People see the immediate effects in front of them. They see the smoke and smell the smoke after huge fire seasons. They don’t want more of it.”

But Martin and Kocher, who is based near Lake Tahoe, think prescribed burns could offer a more palatable haze, versus the thick blankets of smoke released from unmanaged wildfire. “It would be nice someday if someone came to a wedding in Tahoe on a Saturday and said, ‘Look at that great prescribed smoke’ while taking wedding portraits,” she said. “But right now that’s not where we’re at.”

Johnston and his co-author, Chris Dunn, believe it’s time to stop framing fire as good or bad, and instead as something that will undoubtedly shape life in the West. It’s impossible to put out all wildfires, no matter how hard the Forest Service or any other agency tries, Johnston said.

“Some are going to escape,” he said. “That’s the directive of Mother Nature.” His study showed that fires that broke free of suppression efforts in roadless areas grew to be one-third larger than fires that escaped in areas with roads, and that of the 20 largest fires in national forest land in the last 30 years, three-quarters began in roadless areas.

Wildfire will never disappear. More managed and prescribed burns could soften their blow. And thinking ahead, Johnston said, should help ease the smoky, fiery future that awaits.

“Smoke is a real thing. We are going to have more smoke in the American West. We have to be prepared to spend more time indoors, to outfit houses with air filtration systems, and most importantly, we have to learn to use fire in moderate conditions,” said Johnston. “Accept a little smoke now to prevent a lot of smoke later. The only way to fight fire is with fire.”

Adds Dunn: “I like to remind people we are talking about adaptation here, not solutions. A solution would be vacuuming carbon out of the air. We’re talking about adaptations. Fire is forcing our hand to make those adaptations.”