The devastating Creek Fire offers valuable lessons that forest managers must embrace

20 June 2021

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USA – The 380,000-acre Creek Fire near Shaver Lake started in early September 2020 and burned for nearly four months. It was one of the largest and most intense wildfires in California recorded history. Estimates of fire-fighting costs alone were $193 million and over $500 million is structure damage (856 structures destroyed) and other costs, but fortunately no loss of life. The restoration costs will be enormous.

The fire’s cause is still under investigation. But a massive tree mortality event, resulting from the driest 5-year period (2012-2016) in the last 1,200 years, coupled with a century of fire suppression in a fire-dependent ecosystem, created conditions unseen in the drier southern Sierra Nevada.

For those who work in natural resource management locally (Forest Service, Cal Fire, SoCal Edison, Fire Safe Councils, the Dinkey Collaborative, Sierra Forest Products, and local contractors), many felt that it was only a matter of time until a fire would enter this landscape and be extremely hard to impossible to stop.

While there has been a lot of anger and finger-pointing about why more was not done to limit the impacts of the mortality and fire event, most people do not realize the level of work required to mitigate a tree mortality event with 129 million trees. While it will take a decade or more to deal with the magnitude of such an event, there are some lessons to be learned.

1) Big picture: As a society, we need to move off fossil fuel and do it soon to lessen climate warming, extensive drought and tree mortality events, and uncharacteristic wildfires in California.

2) We (the American people) need to insist our federal government fund the Forest Service to do all the work we ask them to do, and the list is long — from forest and fire management to recreation management, watershed and meadow protection, FERC (hydropower) re-licensing, range management, special use permits, mines and geology, clear air concerns, archaeology, wildlife and botany, public safety, law enforcement and more.

3) Prior to the Creek Fire, the local Fresno/Kings Cal Fire Unit had taken on five of the governor’s 2019 emergency projects in the area of tree mortality — more than any other unit in the state.

4) Local collaborative efforts have built a much broader consensus around restoration goals and as a result, much of the 150,000 acres of ground the Dinkey Collaborative engaged in did not burn at high severity. Roughly 15,000 acres did experience severe fire effects.

5) The intensity of the Creek Fire was extremely dangerous and not stoppable for multiple days of extensive runs.

In all the bad news about the Creek Fire event, there are some things that stand out and point the way to a more resilient future — they all involved the use of “good fire.” Prescribed burning — whether the 50-plus year program on Southern California Edison land at Shaver Lake or more recent efforts of under-burning by the Forest Service’s High Sierra Ranger District at the Four Corners area — helped to limit the severity of the Creek Fire when it reached SCE land and kept the southern run of the blaze from entering the Blue Canyon area, which would have done extensive damage to this pristine watershed.

Managed natural ignitions also have an important role to play in making our forests resilient. The Lions Fire of 2018 started by a lightning strike in early June, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, was managed by the Sierra National Forest, and later co-managed by the Inyo National Forest, for multiple resource benefits and had no risks to structures and public safety. Burning within desired conditions across more than 13,000 acres, the Lions Fire helped prevent the Creek Fire from burning into Mammoth Lakes.

What does this tell us? That “good fire” applied at expanded ecological scales can make a difference in these damaging outcomes we are experiencing from wildfires throughout California. Fire in California, either from lightning or Native American cultural burning and now also planned fire initiated by local, state, and federal fire managers, can return resilience to these landscapes.

Craig Thomas is founder of The Fire Restoration Group. Matt Hurteau is an associate professor of biology at the University of New Mexico. Brent Skaggs is a retired fire management officer with Sequoia National Forest. Adam Hernandez is a Reedley College wildland fire technology instructor.

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