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Catastrophic Wildfire

Catastrophic wildfire destroys all life as well as the habitat that supports it. Soper-Wheeler's Haphazard Creek property, 2008.

Catastrophic wildfire kills practically all vegetation and can devastate entire watersheds, resulting in deposits of ash and other sediments in fish spawning and rearing habitat.

Forests throughout the West were shaped and maintained by wildfires of various intensities. After decades of successful suppression, fire no longer plays the natural role it once did in maintaining the numbers and types of trees best adapted to particular sites. A result has been overcrowded stands of trees poorly suited to their sites. This encourages insect infestations and disease epidemics that weaken and kill trees, creating hazardous fuel conditions and severe wildfires.

There is a school of thought that considers these events “natural” and argues that we should take a hands-off approach.

Our direct experience in over 100 years of land management clearly indicates otherwise.

Because human activity has changed the historic fire cycle and forest composition, we must accept the responsibility to manage our forests in order to benefit ecosystems and to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Concow 2008. Back fires started by CalFire personnel on public lands burned over onto Soper-Wheeler property, destroying 640 acres.

All too often, fires have started on fuel laden public lands and have burned over onto Soper-Wheeler lands, destroying years of effort.

A century of aggressive fire suppression and decades of harvest restrictions have created forestlands dense with unnatural fuel loads. Roughly 10 million California acres stand at high risk of catastrophic wildfire, choked with ladder fuels that quickly turn ground fires to crown fires, the most devastating type of fire. Today’s high-intensity wildfires can feature 200-foot walls of flame and reach temperatures in excess of 2,000°F.

California taxpayers now spend more than $1 billion annually to fight wildfire. Meanwhile post-fire rains degrade watersheds, impacting salmon spawning habitat and increasing the cost of delivering clean drinking water to millions of Californians.

There are other costs as well.

Wildfire smoke can pollute the air for thousands of miles and aggravate asthma and other medical conditions. Chemical reactions in wildfire smoke often cause significant increases in ozone levels. While Sacramento was shrouded in smoke during the 2004 Freds and Power fires, Trinity County residents endured 87 unhealthy air days from wildfire in 2008. The 2009 Station Fire wreaked havoc with Southern California air quality for weeks.

Jackson Ranch 2008. Though partially green in the photo, none of these trees survived.

Catastrophic wildfire has devastating effects on wildlife and aquatic species habitat. While smoke inhalation is the top wildlife-killer during intense blazes, perhaps the most significant post-fire impact comes from scorched soils that bury spawning gravels during post-fire rain.

Finally, wildfire has become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Managing forests to prevent catastrophic wildfire lowers emissions by reducing the amount of carbon burned, and helps keeps carbon removed from the atmosphere by trees through photosynthesis fixed in the forest. Allowing forests to grow dense and succumb to wildfire can undo broad-based efforts to reduce California’s carbon emissions.

The only way to prevent catastrophic wildfire and the lasting damage it leaves is to actively manage forests.


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