USA — After the fire siege of 1987, researchers studied the forests around Hayfork and nearby. Examining large old trees and stumps, they discovered that our forest formerly burned every 7 to 15 years. Because of the frequency of fire, there was little fuel in the understory. Lightning started fires that would creep around for months doing little damage while consuming brush and litter, and thinning out the crowded little trees. Also Indians here used fire in areas they inhabited for centuries.
Wildfire now is far more destructive than historic natural fire because past fire suppression deprived the forest of fire, resulting in brush and thickets of small trees growing into a huge unnatural load of fuels under the larger trees. Add to this the considerable amounts of slash and waste wood left by logging. Studies done in the Sierra Nevada in forests similar to ours demonstrated that logged areas were most prone to severe fire. In addition to the slash, logging opened up the tree canopy letting in more sun thus stimulating the growth of brush and thickets of young trees. This is exactly the condition that much of our forest is in now.
Along with overzealous fire suppression, clear-cutting has been another very serious mistake in forest management for the last 50 years. The plantations or tree farms that result are particularly prone to total destruction when they catch on fire. In these frequent-fire forests, plantations have little chance of surviving the 100 years it takes for them to become valuable. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of these plantations in northern California. When the smoke clears we will see that the recent fires have destroyed many acres of plantations here. In the headwaters of Hayfork Creek lies a 5,000 acre-plantation of dense trees with dead branches to the ground. It is 48 years old and badly needs to be thinned before it burns or the bugs take over and kill the stressed trees. Now the United States Forest Service (USFS) is for the fourth time trying to get industry to buy the wood. There seems to be no interest unless the taxpayers subsidize the logging.
Although there appears to be almost unlimited funds to suppress fires, there is little funding for prevention. There are lots of ideas making the rounds about what to do. In 1993 a group of community leaders, local environmentalists, timber industry representatives and USFS staff met to address this fuels buildup problem. We all came to the agreement that we needed to take a strategic approach by creating shaded fuel breaks along the principal roads and ridges. When completed, this would provide accessible anchor points for firefighters to start their burnout or backfire operations. Because more than half of our fires are human caused, mostly along roads, these fuel breaks would help slow the rate of spread, allowing firefighters a chance to stop the fire before it grew to the sizes we have recently experienced. This 1993 effort failed because the USFS never came up with the needed funding.
More recently a small start was made on this fuel break system with funding from the Resource Advisory Committee (RAC), with money taken from rural roads and schools funds. The RAC, made up of a broad prescribed representation of local folks, agreed to this strategy. Results of this work can be seen along Highway 3 north of Weaverville, south of Hayfork, and around Trinity Pines.
The Weaverville community forest is another good example of how we need to restore forestland near population centers. Community members, the Resource Conservation District, and environmentalists are involved in an effort to institute this kind of management on the national forest lands north of Weaverville.
With more fire on the way, the Forest Service really needs to beef up their firefighting forces so they can catch these fires before they grow destructively large. These crews need to be employed year round so they can do fuel reduction. They could also do the necessary forest pretreatment and use prescribed fire to begin getting the forest back to more natural, safer fuel conditions.
We also need to stop making the mistakes of the past such as clearcutting and thus creating more plantations, and logging using methods that leave loads of slash behind and do not deal with the brush and small fuels.