The ecological truth is that California is not burning, and it hasn’t burned for a long time. Science is uncovering an unlikely pattern emerging across the ecological mosaic of our state’s floristic province, west of the Sierra Nevada. While California has experienced its most costly and most massive fires in recorded history over the past few years, California, as an aggregate system of fire-evolved landscapes, is woefully fire-deficient. The Fire Return Index shows that most of the state’s forestland has burned 67% less than its historic fire regime. For millions of years, California’s wildlands have been evolving with fire, the patterns of its Mediterranean climate and the structure of it physiogeography have not only made it so, fire is the language that it speaks. The forest is not only able to deal with fire, it needs fire. The forest here IS fire, fire held in a stasis of conservation as potential energy, waiting to burn.
The ecological truth is that without fire, California is not California. In the terrible and beautiful moment before the hammer strikes, in the autumn it is the season of fire and in the spring, it is the season of flood, when we stand both made and unmade, holding hands and holding the line, always relearning how to let go. A lesson that will get more intense in the century to come. How do we let go of our absolutes, in both politics and wildland management? Our pain comes from the nature of our human form, our mind and our sensibility, unable to reconcile with the larger scale of the living networks that are always imploring us to look deeper into the secrets of health and resiliency in the forest and to take our cue from there. It is estimated that 4.5 million acres burned annually in California prior to European settlement. Most of those fires, that routinely averaged about 500 acres for a single fire-event, had high-severity burn patches of about 10 acres. The Rim Fire near Yosemite in 2013 had a high-severity burn patch of 30,000 acres. We want to find the answer to the question why? As if burning is a problem to be solved, as if with enough will, things could be somehow better.
The ecological truth is the logging makes wildland fires worse. Thinning a forest through logging does not remove the fire threat, but by adding slash and post-cut debris, we increase the combustible surface area of particulate fuel. Logging and burning clear the forest in different ways. Logging takes the biomass that does not burn and leaves what does, fire takes the debris and leaves what does not burn. While there is a cocktail of prescriptions necessary to defend development, and that does, at times and in strategic locations include burning, grazing, thinning chipping, masticating, greenbelting, and even logging, forest management employs more tools than chain saws.
The ecological truth is that these devastating fires are anthropogenic. It is nothing that nature is doing, we have done it and are doing it to ourselves. And although we are doing it to ourselves, blame does lie solely with the governance of public agency. The source of the Why in this complex algorithm is deeply ingrained through the fabric of our modern, nuclear culture. From trimming the rainy season with a regimen of global, carbon emissions over two and a half centuries, to changing the profile of the California Floristic Province since the time of El Camino Real, nearly two centuries before that. To most perniciously deadly of all: paying utility companies to deliver an unlimited amount of poorly insulated energy, without pause through a teetering infrastructure across the forest canopy throughout autumn’s season of fire. Human dwellings are not meant to burn, but when they do, they burn easily. The forests of California are meant to burn, and when they do, they recover quickly with vigorous regrowth. The green trees are not the real fuel at this curtain between town and the wild. It is out built environment and the cultural patterns that developed it.
The ecological truth is that a changing climate presents far more of a long-term threat to the forests of California than even the most massive forest fires. Over the past one hundred year, policies of fire exclusion have created crowded forests and crowded forests are not resistant to the long-term effects of drought which seriously account for the rise of disease and beetle infestation. In the 1970’s, 12 million trees died from bark beetles – between 2010 and 2017, 129 million trees died. The historic drought contributed most to this vulnerability and was exacerbated by compromised forest health. Over the next ten years, it is expected that without massive restoration, we may lose over six million acres of our treed landscape to climate-spurred, arboreal pathogens.
The ecological truth is that there a more trees now in California than there have ever been. Sometimes you hear the bumper-sticker-philosophy rallying cry that “Trees are the answer!” And while the sentiment is good, it is not entirely accurate. Young trees crowd a forest with surface fuel that when released through fire, transforms the woodland into a net-positive carbon source – trees are not the answer here. What is needed is old growth, carbon sinks. We need our forests healthy and resistant to the effects of climate change, which include temperature rise, greater insect and disease threat, and higher wildland fire risk. We need our forests protected from fragmentation and simplification to best provide interconnected habitat for all trophic levels of the ecosystem. We can realize these new, resistant and restored forest-types with sustained and serious, stewardship investment. CalFire is asking to, and planning on the restoration of 500,000 acres of non-federal, forest land per by 2030. The average now is about 35,000. The return will vastly offset the spend.
The ecological truth is that more than human world of California does not care about humanity being in the way of fire. I hold my breath between moments of deluge and moments of inferno, all the human world of California does. We know these rolling catastrophes are coming, they always come. Our human minds go to the evocation of this imagery to describe its apocalypse, panicked and written across the red sun at noon through the smoke. We get scared, we get scarred, we let the gray rivers of silt cut clean trails down our cheeks. We love our California forest and our California weather, we don’t blame them for their release, we are always ready to pay the price. We trust that today’s disasters at the urban-wildland interface, clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom and strategy.