Friday, September 29, 2023
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Prescribed Burn Delays, Drought Brings Alarm as Wildfire Season Kicks Off

A series of prescribed burns were called off even as wildfire season began a month early in California due to ongoing drought conditions, causing distress for Californians beleaguered by four years of devastating wildfires.

(CN) --- Rich Adams, a forester with California State Parks, stood at the ready to initiate a prescribed burn within the boundaries of Buron Creek State Park. 

The relatively small park on the outskirts of Tahoe City is important for forest managers because it lies within what they call the urban/wildland interface. Heavily forested lands near human habitation are particularly important to keep thinned, the theory goes, to prevent fires that occur naturally or otherwise in wilderness areas from spreading into towns where they destroy property and lives. 

So Adams and his cohorts of firefighters stood ready to perform an understory burn, which is both a novel and an ancient theory of forest management predicated on introducing fire into the landscape in a controlled manner to eradicate excess shrubbery and young trees and prevent the type of large out-of-control fires that have charred California landscape over the last decade and longer. 

“All of the desired conditions were in alignment except for one,” Adams said. 

The day was perfect in terms of lack of wind, fuel moisture content for the surrounding vegetation, temperature, humidity. But one factor caused the whole thing to be called off. 

“The day before the burn, we discovered a mother bear and at least one really small bear cub living in the burn plot,” Adams said. “They were well hidden, and it became apparent that they wanted to stay exactly where they were.  I canceled the burn for protection of wildlife.”

It would be hard to find someone to disagree with the decision, but it underscores the difficult complexity of prescribed burning in the forests of California, even as the state appears poised on the brink of an active fire season. 

On the South Shore, Tod Flowers, the hazardous fuels program manager for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, was set to undertake a prescribed burn in and around aspen stands in the forests outside of the unincorporated town of Meyers. 

“Aspen stands are a fire-adapted species, but they are in decline in the Lake Tahoe Basin because of a lack of naturally occurring fire,” Flowers said. 

In natural conditions, prior to the arrival of European settlers to the Sierra Nevada, the forest experienced frequent bouts of low-intensity fire. But since people have suppressed fire in the forest, overgrowth of trees has occurred so that --- though fewer fires occur overall --- when fires do spark they do so with a higher degree of intensity in terms of heat and reach. 

For aspen, fire suppression means conifers that would normally be cleared out by low-intensity ground fire are allowed to flourish.

A prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service in December 2015. (Photo by Olivia Rahman / USFS)

“Absence of naturally occurring fire, shade-tolerant conifers encroach and overtake aspen stands and the aspens will die out,” Flowers said. 

So Flowers has secured a federal grant to carry out a combination of pile burnings and understory burn around aspen stands in the Christmas Valley, near Genoa Peak and the Big Creek Meadow, all within the Lake Tahoe Basin. 

The only problem was California had a dry winter. The forest is experiencing very dry conditions that make such burning difficult. 

“We can’t operate in conditions that potentially threaten surrounding communities,” Flowers said. 

And when Flowers and his crew prepared to carry out the burn on May 12, that is exactly what they faced --- threatening conditions. 

The classic example of what prescribed fire managers are trying to avoid occurred in Nevada in October 2016. The Nevada Division of Forestry conducted understory burning and believed the fire was out after buttoning up mop-up operations. However, overnight a fire sparked and spread by high winds, leaked into a neighborhood between Reno and Carson City and destroyed 23 houses and 17 other structures. 


“There’s a long history of undesirable outcomes with prescribed fire,” Flowers said. 

But it requires balancing as California has acknowledged that better forest management practices, which include the introduction of high-frequency low-intensity fires, are crucial to prevent the kind of destructive blazes that have wracked the state recently. 

The Camp Fire, which broke out near the Butte County town of Paradise in 2018, killed 85 people, making it the deadliest fire in state history. 

Three of the five deadliest fires in California history have occurred since 2017. Seven of the top 20 occurred during the same timeframe. Five of the six largest fires in state history occurred last fire season, the worst in terms of overall acreage that burned in a single season. 

The upcoming season could easily be worse. 

“Already this year, we have had almost 1,800 fires to date, well above what it was last year,” said Thom Porter, director of the California Division of Forestry and Fire Prevention, during a press conference May 5. 

At the time, Porter said 13,500 acres had burned throughout the state in 2021, representing a substantial increase over the previous year. 

“We are 700% above last year in terms of acreage for this time and last year was our worst year ever,” Porter said. 

The dry winter has exacerbated conditions. 

Flowers was slated to perform controlled burns only a few miles away from Echo Summit, where the California Department of Water Resources measures snowpack throughout the winter. 

On April 1, when the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is typically at its height, water managers measured the snowpack at 59% of average. 

Lake Oroville, one of the largest reservoirs in the state, is currently at 50% of average capacity. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor released its report that showed extreme drought conditions grew 8% in California over the span of a single week. 

The entire state is in at least moderate drought, while exceptional drought --- the most severe category --- covers 13% of the state. 

Governor Gavin Newsom has declined to declare a statewide drought, preferring to issue declarations regionally as conditions worsen, but more counties are being added to the list every week. 

The governor added 40 counties on Monday

“The hots are getting a lot hotter in this state, the dries are getting a lot drier,” Newsom said Monday. “We have a conveyance system, a water system, that was designed for a world that no longer exists.”

In the Sierra Nevada, the dry conditions mean fuel moisture content is so low that Flowers had to call off his prescribed burn, preferring to wait until the fall --- hopefully after an early rain. 

“It’s so dry right now that from a fire danger standpoint, we are four to six weeks ahead of where we would normally be by this time of year,” Flowers said. 

In other words, the forest in May looks as dry as it normally is in July. 

The delays experienced by both Adams and Flowers show that dry conditions create a vicious cycle that not only primes the forest for big fires, but shortens the season during which forest managers can prepare with thinning techniques and prescribed burns. 

“This delay is a direct consequence of how dry the fuels are right now,” Flowers said. 

Flowers and other forest managers are busy updating their management techniques. Understory burns like the one he had intended to carry out were frequent when Native tribes occupied the forest. And lightning meant fires naturally occurred in the forest throughout. 

Managers are eager to mimic those conditions to bring the forest to a more manageable condition, where a spark from a power line doesn’t raze a town like Paradise to the ground. 

But they need more precipitation to get there. And since California is a Mediterranean climate where the vast majority of rainfall and snowfall occurs in just three winter months, forest managers must look ahead and hope the fire season that is already here is different than the past few. 

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