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Executive Director’s Report, July 2021

By Chris Morrill, Executive Director

This month, Senior Policy Director Ryan Henson and I took a tour of the Mendocino National Forest with Forest Service employees, timber industry representatives, and conservationists. We were looking at a number of areas that burned in the August Complex Fire and how the forest faired after a number of different treatments. We were really impressed with the Forest Service’s work and everyone’s open-mindedness on the tour. Given the already intense wildfire season we’re experiencing with the Dixie and Tamarack fires among others following the largest fire season in memory in 2020, it is clear to all involved that we need a different approach.

Just as a refresher, the August Complex Fire (August) was the largest of the enormous fires in California in 2020. When all was said and done, the August burned one million acres. Most of that was on the Mendocino, but also burned up north into the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. The next largest fire, as measured in acres burned, in California’s history was the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018. The Ranch Fire portion of that complex burned much of the southern half of the Mendocino NationalForest. Combined, these two fires, just three years apart, burned 98% of the entire Mendocino National Forest.

With that kind of unprecedented fire impact, everyone has been forced to reassess their assumptions about how to manage this forest and how to move forward.

Our first stop on the tour was at the Whiskey fuel break. There they had employed treatments that were designed to reduce tree and brush density and moderate fire behavior. The treatments were designed to leave space between trees of 25 to 35 feet without cutting any live trees with a 14-inch diameter or larger. The cordial, open-minded discussion that followed set the stage for the rest of the day.

The tour at the Whiskey fuel break. This started a day of good discussion and openness.

 

Photo of the treatments to create the Whiskey fuel break

Our second stop was one of the most interesting. There Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) was in the middle of a “stewardship” contract which provides additional parameters to ensure a treatment includes   benefits like further wildfire resilience or improved ecosystem health when the August Fire came through. SPI had already completed its thinning project on the southern side of the road with a technique called “whole-tree yarding” which takes entire trees out of the forest to a “landing” where they are stripped of limbs and tops to potentially be used in biomass facilities when viable. More importantly for fire resilience it does not leave slash littered along the forest floor that would provide additional fuel to the next fire to come through.

The fascinating piece of this stop was to see the contrast between the forest on the south side of the road and the north side. The north side of the road had not been treated, yet it had avoided the worst of the fire. The general consensus on the forest structure was that it had been logged. However, it was not a plantation style replanting. Without fire, the trees were tightly clustered and all about the same age and size. The picture below can give you better sense of the contrast. It seems that the fire had hit the treated area and laid down so it wasn’t a raging burn and then spared most of the trees above the road.

 

SPI treatments south of the road

 

Photo of the difference between treated (to the left) and untreated (to the right)

The third stop was on a fuel break that had the most disturbance to date. It had much more work with heavy machinery that cleared brush and other fuel on the ground in addition to thinning while still sparing the biggest trees and particular emphasis on keeping oaks. There were a lot of questions about what comes next. Is that the type of treatment to use in the future or would other technique? The area would likely be a good for periodic prescribed burning to keep fuels level down, but more work is needed to determine that.

The largest and most treated fuel break we saw

 

Another pic from that fuel break

Finally, we saw the most devastated area on our tour. In this section some thinning had occurred, but given the conditions of the weather and fire at the time we could not see any trees that survived. Even for those initiated or familiar with it, those images of barren ground and blackened bark are jarring. Some of these trees do pose a hazard to the road now and in a number of years will fall and create an even larger wildfire threat. And given the impacts climate change, what forest is going to come back? It’s really hard to say. And given the context of a hotter and drier climate, how should one think about the forest? The good news is we can already see the sprouts of the next generation.

Photo of final stop with early regrowth

I don’t want anyone to take away any sweeping conclusions from this tour. I haven’t. These are very complex and hard issues without clear conclusions. Both Ryan and I appreciated the frankness and general open-mindedness of both the Forest Service and the timber industry folks on the tour. More and more people understand how past logging practices and 100% fire suppression have changed the composition of the forest and made it extremely vulnerable to high severity fire.

A few important caveats to what we saw. None of these areas were in roadless or wilderness areas and none of the thinning involved old-growth forest or even trees that were particularly large. All the areas had been previous logged (mostly clearcut) and then left to their own devices or replanted in a plantation style with one species, too close together, and with trees of the same age. This left all these areas especially vulnerable and increased the likelihood of high severity fire. Also, not all National Forests are or will take the same approach.

While we were excited to see both broad agreement on principles by seemingly everyone, there is no question that the details moving forward toward a healthier forest will remain hard and contentious. However, we simply can’t move forward given the current state of the forest and the future of climate change.

A special thanks to the dedicated staff at the Mendocino National Forest. They are doing good work in tough and very challenging conditions. Here is Ryan’s write up of their efforts to increase the use of prescribed burning in the forest.


Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at cmorrill@calwild.org.