Fighting Fire with Fire

Fighting Fire with Fire: A Case for Giant Sequoia and Community Protection

 

Today, I want to express my deepest concerns and sympathy for residents in the mountain communities experiencing the Pier Wildfire. As a wildlands resident for 15 years and recent Pier Fire refugee, I want to extend gratitude to the teams of volunteers and professionals who responded to a wildfire that remains completely unpredictable. At times, this fire almost outwitted our crews…almost. These heroes have worked tirelessly to keep communities safe while maintaining ecological health in the Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sequoia National Forest-- exactly as the 2012 Giant Sequoia Management Plan intended .

It’s critical to understand that when Giant Sequoia received its national monument designation, it was done with thoughtful consideration to wildfire risk. Its management plan specifically supports a number of fuels reduction activities-- including prescribed burns, managed wildfires, fuel reduction by hand, fuel reduction by mechanical treatment and removal of felled trees. These actions include both public safety and ecological benefits. The plan even allows timber removal if it cannot serve an ecological purpose for the forest. This carefully-crafted management plan is the best option for a healthy and safe Giant Sequoia system. In fact, for all practical purposes, this is the only plan that is demonstrable and fully-approved. Unfortunately, it’s still barely funded. This is a huge concern for community safety and habitat health. 

With climate revealing patterns of more wildfires and increased devastation severity, we need to address a time-sensitive and grave concern-- how we shift away from expensive and dangerous wildfire responses toward better prevention that deals with fuels ahead of disaster and danger. It’s about personal responsibility paired with the use of this strategic management plan-- one that doesn’t create scenarios of more severe, future devastation.  

Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliott acknowledges that the current management plan successfully restores and manages 33 giant sequoia groves. Its tactics provide healthy watersheds, homes for unique wildlife and unparalleled recreation opportunities for Americans.  Any reduction in size, status, or protection of the Giant Sequoia National Monument scraps years of efforts placed in this cohesive, collaborative management effort-- one attempting to actively reduce the threat of wildfire.  

Certainly, it will take a deliberate effort to educate communities about wildfire safety and benefits of natural fire. For starters, a key difference between the natural fires that have shaped Sierra Forests for thousands of years and modern megafires is that a much higher percentage of many modern fires burn at a high severity. Most modern fires are extremely hot-- killing even the larger old trees. In contrast, natural fires burn at a mix of low, moderate, and high severities, creating  plant communities of varying height, size and densities. This would naturally limit the spread of dangerous megafires while providing a mix of benefits to the forest. The careful use of fire is a necessary part of the mix-- keeping California landscapes fire resilient and health for our children and safe for those of us living in it. And that’s just scientific fact.   

We further need to debunk the myth of clearcutting or harvesting large trees  as a solution. According to CalFire, over 48% of the logged Sequoia National Forest has burned at least once in comparison to just 25.3% of the unlogged Giant Sequoia monument.  In the same recorded period, only 3% of Sequoia National Park burned in places where they prohibited logging entirely.  Chopping large trees and old growth forests is not the solution to reducing wildfire risk. These types of species have less surface area. They’re naturally fire-resistant and do not ignite as easily. 

In fact, logging leaves behind fine woody material and dry leaves on the ground-- opening up the canopy which encourages the growth of sun-loving shrubs and consequently decreases humidity. This spikes megafire risk. When the trees are chopped, it leaves lighter grass and shrubs-- causing fire to move across the landscape faster. The 2016 Erskine Fire started this way. With the influence of exceptionally high winds, it destroyed over 285 homes long before it crested the Piute Mountains and burned any of the forest ecosystem. 

Misinformed politics, slashing conservation budgets and reducing protections to the Giant Sequoia National Monument only moves us backward. In the short term, fire prevention dollars should be focused on areas where people live and work. The U.S. Forest Service cannot sustain robbing Peter to pay Paul-- transferring money from conservation efforts to wildfire suppression. It puts communities in danger when they need emergency suppression funds while also undermining sustainable management practices.  The long-term safety of our communities relies on carrying out the Giant Sequoia Management Plan-- ensuring forests are healthy while reducing air pollution and climate disruption. Giant Sequoia National Monument needs better funding for fire management - not a reduction in size - to make the landscape fire resilient.