Sorting out the 2020 wildfires and their effect on wild places

Sorting out the 2020 wildfires and their effect on wild places 820 845 California Wilderness Coalition

by Steve Evans

People throughout California are breathing a sigh of relief with the first major storm of the 2020-21 season producing rain and snow to quench the many wildfires that have plagued the state since August.

So far in 2020, more than 9,279 fires have burned 4,359,517 acres of California, damaging or destroying more than 10,400 structures, and killing 31 people. Massive lightning storms hit the state with more than 14,000 lightning strikes on August 16-17, igniting 367 wildfires.

Many of the lightning fires burned together into mega-fires now called “complexes.” Oak and pine forests, chaparral and grasslands, rural communities, and even suburbs have burned. On September 12, three of California’s four largest fires on record were burning at once, polluting the air and impacting public health, and threatening entire communities, while stretching fire-fighting resources to the breaking point.

It has become a cliché to acknowledge that California now has a year-round fire season. There are numerous reasons why the wildfire season has expanded throughout the year and become more damaging. Climate change has amped up the conditions needed to create firestorms, with record heat waves and dangerously windy conditions. The ten hottest years on record worldwide have all occurred since 1998. The 2012-17 drought killed 147 million trees. A return to relatively dry conditions in 2019-20 created more dead wood. As scientists have concluded, in forested parts of California logging has worsened fire severity “more than any other human activity.” Yes, some forests have become overgrown, but that doesn’t explain why suburbs and semi-developed rural areas are now threatened by these mega-fires.

The wildfires of August-October burned California’s wildlands and rural communities, and even threatened suburbs and urban areas.

Just a few of the worst fires so far this season include:

  • The August Fire Complex started as 38 separate lightning ignited fires that merged together into a 1,032,648-acre behemoth that burned portions of Glenn, Tehama, Mendocino, Trinity, and Shasta Counties. Most of the burned area includes public lands in the Mendocino, Six Rivers, and Shasta Trinity National Forest. Although 100 percent contained, the fire is still burning 95 days after it began, having destroyed 935 structures and causing one fatality. It is the single largest fire complex in California history.
  • The North Complex Fire burned 318,935 acres of Plumas and Butte Counties. The complex was created when two lightning induced fires merged and burned westward towards the Sacramento Valley. Although 98 percent contained, the fire is still smoldering. The butcher’s bill includes 2,352 structures destroyed, including the small forest community of Berry Creek, causing 16 fatalities. At one point, the North Fire jumped an arm of Oroville Reservoir that is more than a quarter mile wide, underscoring the fact that there is little we can do to stop wildfires when the heat and wind conditions are right.
  • The Creek Fire burned 379,895 acres in Fresno and Madera Counties. Most of the fire occurred on public lands in the Sierra National Forest. It started on August 4 and as of November 18, was 78 percent contained. 856 structures were destroyed and 71 damaged by the blaze, which is the fourth largest single fire in state history. The Creek Fire spread so fast that hundreds of recreational visitors on the Sierra Forest were trapped, including many campers trapped by the fire at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, and were rescued by National Guard helicopters.
  • The SQF Complex Fire burned much of the Giant Sequoia National Monument in Tulare County. Started on August 19, the fire has burned 174,178 acres and as of November 18 is 85 percent contained. The fire destroyed 228 structures and has damaged numerous Giant Sequoia groves.
  • The Bobcat Fire has burned 115,796 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in the Angeles National Forest. It started on August 4 and as of November 18, was 99 percent contained. The fire destroyed 170 structures, at one point threatening San Gabriel Valley suburbs. Ultimately, the Bobcat Fire burned northward across the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains and into the Mojave Desert.
  • The CZU, LNU, And SCU Complex Fires were all started by the mid-August lighting storms. Altogether, the three complexes burned 768,494 acres of largely privately owned rural lands in an arc around the San Francisco Bay Area that included the counties of Napa, Sonoma, Yolo, Solano, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Cost, San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislaus, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz Counties. More than 3,200 structures were destroyed, and seven people killed. The SCU and LNU Fire Complexes are the third and fifth largest fire complexes in California history.

Most of central and northern California covered in wildfire smoke in September. 

The toll on communities and their residents is obvious. In addition to the loss of homes and other infrastructure, lives disrupted by evacuations, and the injury and death of firefighters and civilians alike, the wildfires also affected public health. The California firestorms and other wildfires throughout the west created days of hazardous air quality.

The damage to the environment is equally serious. California’s public lands, including its National Forests and State Parks, provide a refuge for many plant and animal species that are in decline from development and resource extraction in their habitats. These wild places are sources of clean air and water for people and public lands also offer outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The natural environment damage toll includes:

  • The CZU Complex Fire burned much of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Although many of the park’s majestic coast redwoods survived (they are ecologically adapted to wildfire) many historic structures in the park were destroyed.
  • The North Complex fire burned much of the Middle Fork Feather Wild and Scenic River and the 35,000-acre roadless area surrounding it. Although the fire impact in the upper Middle Fork was relatively healthy (burning underbrush but leaving most trees intact), the fire exploded in the west and spread far beyond the river canyon into thousands of acres of private and public lands managed for commercial timber. The Feather Falls Scenic Area, which encompasses much of the west end of the Middle Fork Canyon suffered nearly 100 percent loss of trees and other vegetation.
  • The natural areas and wild places burned by the August Complex Fire are too numerous to list fully, but they include portions of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel, North Fork Eel, Snow Mountain, and Yuki Wilderness areas and the North Fork Eel, Middle Eel, and Black Butte Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Forest Service has not yet produced a burn intensity map for the August Fire, so the state of these wild lands is unknown. However, CalWild and EcoFlight flew over the northern portion of the August Fire and found that the impact to the South Fork Trinity River and its many roadless areas was relatively light.
  • The Creek Fire burned roadless lands and parts of the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness areas on the Sierra National Forest. About 43 percent of the area burned with low or very low intensity, 45 percent burned with moderate intensity, and 12 percent with high intensity. The impact on the wilderness areas appears to be moderate.
  • Much of the SQF Complex Fire burned at moderate to high intensity through the Giant Sequoia National Monument. There are conflicting reports about damage – some that say the fire did not cause large scale damage to sequoia groves and others that say that hundreds of giant sequoias were killed by the fire. According to Save the Redwoods League, roughly 40 percent of the burned areas within sequoia groves burned at high-severity with “profound” impacts on the trees. But because giant sequoias are ecologically adapted to fire, it is hoped that many survived. More information on this will become available as the Forest Service addresses safety concerns (dead and falling trees along roads, etc.) and opens the area to investigation.
  • The Bobcat Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument burned most of the existing San Gabriel and Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness areas. It also burned areas proposed for protection in legislation that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, include a proposed addition to the San Gabriel Wilderness and the proposed upper West Fork San Gabriel and Little Rock Creek Wild and Scenic Rivers. About 50 percent of the fire burned with low or very low intensity, while 35 percent was moderate and only 7 percent was high intensity. The impacts of the northern portion of the fire in the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness and in the Little Rock Creek watershed were relatively healthy, based on another CalWild/EcoFlight assessment from the air. To view a slideshow of aerial pictures we took over the Bobcat Fire footprint, click here.

Fortunately, California’s wild lands and the native plant and animal species that inhabit them have adapted to wildfire through evolution. Giant sequoias and other old growth trees tend to be fire resistant. In addition, even the worst fires tend to burn in patches. Some patches are completely denuded of vegetation and in others, only the undergrowth is cleared out. Further, fires tend to burn ridge tops and slopes, but often jump over the inner canyons, with the riparian and aquatic habitats that support numerous at-risk fish, amphibian, and wildlife species.

Bald Rock Dome after the North Complex Fire.

Particularly for fires that have resulted in relatively healthy impacts, it is important to discourage the Forest Service from conducting extensive post-fire “salvage logging” of trees, particularly in roadless and other undeveloped areas. Restoration efforts in developed areas should focus on regrowing native species adapted to that site. CalWild will be monitoring these projects on the National Forests to ensure effective restoration of the fire areas.

Meanwhile, much needs to be done to make California more fire resistant and to reduce the impacts of wildfires when they occur. The fact is that when the conditions are right (high heat and winds, dry vegetation, etc.), we will never be able to prevent fires, particularly after 100 years of fire prevention and logging have increased the fire threat. But thinning of forests in the interface between wild lands and communities and establishing shaded fuel breaks along roads and on ridges with existing road systems can be effective tools for reducing the impact of wildfires. It may even be appropriate to lightly treat wilderness areas and unroaded areas through prescribed burning to restore the forest ecosystem and reduce future threats. For an example of one such project, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/eldorado/landmanagement/?cid=fseprd553069.

The Forest Service and the State of California have signed an agreement to treat one million acres a year, using logging and controlled burns, but it is estimated that California has 20 million acres that require highly expensive treatment. It only makes sense to prioritize treatment of the areas near towns and that are already roaded, rather than punching new roads and logging forests in undeveloped areas. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we can’t log our way out of this problem, if only because forests are only one source of our wildfire problem.

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