Surrounded by Fire

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El Portal fire in July 2014 by Kirk Keeler

There are few elements, few phenomena that can inspire long talks of life and philosophy beside a hearth, fill a home with warmth and ambiance, or suddenly take one by surprise—instilling fear or dealing a blow of heartbreak. It is most certainly true that there are few elements in the world that can do what fire can do.

In California and along the western coast of the United States, a surge in wildland fires is being observed—not just in their numbers, but also in their intensity. It is hard to imagine that after most of the United States spent the majority of its winter pinned down due to record freezing temperatures and stunning winter snowfall—that much of the west did not share in the bounty of the Polar Vortex winter, specifically, its water.

In fact, California is experiencing a record drought—with some of the hottest temperatures on record, experienced throughout the state in the last three years. And this is one part of an intricate story that actually began, “A long, long time ago…”

In California, and specifically in the Sierra Nevada, many of the forest ecosystems evolved with fire as an important aspect of their natural processes. Some species of trees, shrubs and flowers actually depend upon fire as a part of their natural history or thrive after disturbance by fire.

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Smoke from the Rim Fire in August 2013 reached the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias a significant distance away. Photo by Kirk Keeler

The natural fire cycle within the Sierra Nevada was due in most part to lightning strikes and appears to have occurred in five to ten year spans of time. This frequency of fire occurrence served several key ecological purposes. First, it prevented significant fuel build up on the forest floor—in a forest, trees drop limbs, needles, leaves, cones, and other woody debris, grasses die and this results in an accumulation of materials that can fuel a fire. Thus, this material is commonly referred to “fuel” or “fuel loads.”

Second, with frequent fire and reduced fuel loads within the forests, when fires did occur the fire intensity was lessened, meaning it did not burn as hot or with as much severity as we experience today. The terms “intensity” and “severity” are key when discussing fire behavior. These terms help fire officials and land managers understand the implications of a fire on a particular landscape.

Another benefit of fire on the landscape is the recycling or release of nutrients back into the ecosystem. Often forest duff or debris is rich in carbon, nitrogen or other elements that are locked up and unusable until the material decomposes and can be reused through natural processes either in soil, through living organisms, in the air or taken up by animals. When a low intensity fire moves through a landscape it can release these nutrients, making them available to be taken back up into the ecosystem.

Thus, fire is a healthy and natural part of forest ecology in the Sierra Nevada but, you may be asking yourself, “What happened? That doesn’t sound like the fires I see today.”

That’s a great question.

When Euro-Americans settled in the American west, they brought a cultural perspective with them that changed the landscape we live in today. The perspective at the time and which can sometimes still be observed today, is that fire is—take your pick—“bad,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and the list goes on.

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El Portal fire at sunset. Photo by Shauna Potocky

This perspective is very one-sided, human-sided, yet, it is understandable how and why people felt this way. One example to consider is how many times the City of San Francisco burned down prior to having a dedicated and established water resource. There are countless examples of fire being seen as thoroughly destructive.

The result of this cultural norm is that as people settled in forested areas of California, when fire did occur, it was suppressed—put out. This single act, of suppressing fires for decades, turned into accumulations of generations of trees and shrubs and subsequently shifted the fire regime in these ecosystems. Today, many of the forests in the Sierra Nevada are overgrown. The trees are crowded and densely packed and have significant fuel loads residing beneath them.

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Rim Fire at night with stars. Photo by Kirk Keeler

Last summer, the Rim Fire jarred everyone to attention. From private citizens, land owners, public lands managers, fire professionals, ecologists, wildlife biologists, restoration experts, researchers, politicians and many, many more. On August 17, 2013 the Rim Fire began in the Stanislaus National Forest. This fire grew to become the third largest in California history and involved 257,314 acres. The fire was so massive its plumes could be seen in the Central Valley communities of Fresno and Merced. It burned with various levels of intensity and severity, resulting in various impacts on the landscape and subsequently the viability of the soil.

The fire also generated its own weather, creating pyro-cumulus clouds. It was nothing short of stunning.

French Fire Pyro-cumulus cloud as observed during July 2014.

French Fire pyro-cumulus cloud beginning to form during July 2014. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The Rim Fire burned into October 2013. Upon reaching areas of the forest where active fire management strategies had been put in place, such as management fires to reduce fuel loads or areas where forests have been thinned, the fire was slowed and burned with less intensity. Thus, demonstrating the value of proactive fire management strategies.

Fast forward to today. California is another year into its significant drought—perhaps the most severe in California’s recorded history. Communities are struggling to manage water resources, reservoirs are shockingly low, and California’s forests are drier than they were last year—it seems we are in a remarkably challenging place.

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San Luis Reservoir at Pacheco Pass, California. Note the “bathtub ring” which indicates previous water levels. Photo by Shauna Potocky

And where there is a significant challenge, there is also a significant opportunity.

In one small community, situated on the edge of the Sierra National Forest and between the recent El Portal (4,689 acres) and French Fire (13,835 acres), something remarkable happened. These neighbors came together and utilized this intense fire season as an opportunity to do a few empowering things.

First, they got together to build a community of support, to ask and answer questions. They learned first-hand about where they live, the natural fire ecology of the landscape they live in, and the current fire regime shift. They learned how to minimize their fire hazards, how to live more in alignment with the native ecosystem and how to conserve water in order to use it where it is really needed. They also went further.

These citizens empowered themselves—by embracing each other as a neighborhood, as a team. So, instead of living in fear, they can be mindful of how to live in the landscape as well as be prepared. The community created a communication strategy to share information and look out for each other. They have meetings featuring experts in their field who have knowledge of the neighborhood landscape and can provide real input on what people need to know. They are seeking out opportunities to create their own Fire Safe Council and most importantly, they also help each other. When one neighbor needs a hand with fire clearance or hauling, they get to work helping each other.

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Current status of fire hazard is posted daily. Photo by Shauna Potocky

As many communities in California sit surrounded by fire, holding their breath as the last weeks of the California fire season eek by, there are things that can be done—it is an opportunity for citizens to learn and engage in the important aspects of fire ecology, to understand the historic role of fire on the landscape and the factors that have created the dynamics we see today, as well as understand important elements of fire behavior. It is also a time to empower people to come together to learn about their local ecosystems, deepen their sense of place by learning how to live in those ecosystems, as well as seek and support management strategies that will reduce fuel loads and return fire to the ecosystem—such as through prescribed or management fire.

In the long term, management strategies that help restore balance to forests ecosystems and embrace our understanding of fire ecology will also protect natural and cultural resources, wildlife, people and property. Ultimately, it will take every single one of us doing our part to help empower shifts in our historic ways of thinking.

Who knew fire could be so inspiring?

Resources:

CalFire: Wildfire is Coming Guide

CalFire: Fire Safe Council

Incident Information System (InciWeb): Current incidents

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2 thoughts on “Surrounded by Fire

  1. Shauna, fire is such an important environmental topic. I appreciate that this post informs people of the ecology of fire, and that it reminds us that humans can come together in a positive way, in reaction to such ecological events. Sometimes we put ourselves in the path of “destruction” and sometimes we just need to move out of the way. Thanks, Neva

  2. Pingback: Surrounded by Fire Part 2: Building Resilient Communities | The Ecotone Exchange

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