USA – The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered a raging battle over how to prevent disastrous forest fires across California, pitting century old practices by the U.S. Forest Service against new data from last year’s Creek Fire.
As accusations fly about “bogus science” and “profiteering,” California residents, relaxing on a Labor Day weekend, found themselves running from a wall of flames during one of the state’s fastest-moving wildfires ever.
The Creek Fire was first spotted and reported by a couple riding a motorcycle near Big Creek, California on Sept. 4, 2020 at 6:18pm. By noon the next morning, the fire had ripped through two river canyons to Mammoth Pool Reservoir – traveling 15 miles in less than a day — that’s high speed for a forest fire. So fast, in fact, that no one managed to warn hundreds of Labor Day weekend campers at the Mammoth Reservoir.
“We’ve seen lots of fires come through here before,” said Amy Wagner, owner of what used to be a general store at Mammoth Pool Reservoir. “But usually we watch them for weeks before they get here.”
Wagner said by 1 p.m. on Sept. 5, “burning embers were flying over the campground, and the only exit road was blocked by the fire.” Wagner, along with hundreds of people at the campground for the long weekend, scrambled down to the lake as a wall of fire advanced towards them.
“By 3 p.m. it was like night,“ she said. “ It was black.”
Into that darkness flew Army National Guard pilot Joe Rosamond and his crew. Rosamond knew there were serious injuries as he searched for any landmark in the smoke.
“While they’re all trying to evacuate to the lake, that’s where I think a lot of these injuries happened,” said Rosamond. “It’s a panic. It’s chaos.”
Rosamond finally managed to land his Chinook helicopter on a concrete boat launch, and his team began loading the most injured first.
“Some of the people have been burned pretty badly. We’re talking like skin coming off of the body,” he said.
As Rosamond navigated the overloaded helicopter through the smoke, the Creek Fire closed off his escape route.
“I’m watching our exit path become obscured by the smoke as things are changing,” he said. “What was clear, you know, just a couple minutes ago ended up being completely obscured and we had to take a different route in order to get out.”
So why did this wildfire spread so quickly?
The answer may have to do with what happened here years before the Creek Fire ever ignited.
Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist, believes the speed of the fire was driven not only by hot, dry, windy conditions – but also by a U.S. Forest Service practice called post-fire logging, which means removing burned trees after a wildfire to reduce fuel during future fires.
“If it wasn’t for the logging … the fire wouldn’t have reached the reservoir as quickly,” said Hanson, who has been studying wildfires for more than two decades. Hanson took the Investigative Unit on a tour of the Creek Fire and provided a first look at his new research that essentially blames the U.S. Forest Service for creating hazardous conditions that allowed the Creek Fire, and other fires across California, to burn faster and spread farther.
Using the Forest Service’s own data – Hanson found where the Creek Fire burned most intensely.
The flames first erupted at Big Creek Canyon. According to Hanson’s research, the overlap proves areas previously logged after previous past fires later burned most intensely during the Creek Fire. By analyzing the entire perimeter of the Creek Fire, Hanson concluded that logged areas were three times as likely to burn faster and hotter compared to non-logged areas.
The Creek Fire: California’s Runaway Blaze
In an upcoming study, Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist, finds a striking correlation between high intensity, fast-moving forest fires and a practice known as post-fire logging.
Source: Dr. Chad Hanson/John Muir Project
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area
“Even though it seems counterintuitive for a lot of people, removing both dead trees and live trees from the forest actually tends to make fires burn faster and hotter,” said Hanson. “That oftentimes occurs near towns and when that happens, you can have tragic consequences.”
Pointing to a large burned tree on the forest floor, Hanson said, “Not only do they soak up and retain large amounts of soil moisture like giant sponges, but they actually interrupt the flow of the fire across the forest floor,” he said. “It actually can slow the flames.”
“That is entirely bogus,” said Dr. Brandon Collins, a forest research scientist. “There’s nothing in the scientific literature to support that.” Collins works with the U.S. Forest Service, but only spoke to the Investigative Unit in his capacity as a Fire Science professor at U.C. Berkeley. He calls Hanson’s study “flawed” and maintains leaving burned logs in the forest will not slow down future fires.
“In fact, it’s actually quite the opposite. The Creek Fire, actually, was a great example of that,” said Collins. “We believe that most of what fueled that growth was the dead trees that were killed during the drought that preceded that fire by four or five years.”