California wildfires threaten more than 33 million acres of forestlands every year — killing wildlife, forests and natural habitats, creating smog and polluting our waterways with dangerous runoff. But we can reduce the risk of wildfires with the help of healthy forest management — which includes forest thinning and the removal of excess “fuels” that can feed and increase the size of a fire.
Historically, our forests have contained 50 - 70 trees per acre, and today our forests have more than 500 - 1,000 trees per acre – increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Wildfire has always been a part of forests, but were generally low-intensity fires that were kept low to the ground, and burned small trees and excess forest debris. This helped to clear the understory, keep the forest canopy open, and as a result guarded against mega fires.
Without this natural thinning, forests grew more crowded and shade tolerant trees filled the understory, providing ladder fuels for today's crown fires, that jump to the crown of the trees and quickly spread.
Drought, disease, insect infestation and excess forest fuels have combined to create what fire officials call California's new year-round wildfire season.
Over half of California’s freshwater resources originate from forests. Wildfires can compromise water quality and supply during active burning and for months and years after by increased susceptibility to both flooding and erosion.
The Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018 burned more than 459,000 acres, the largest complex fire in the state’s history.
The two single – largest recorded wilfires in California have occurred in the last two seasons, the Ranch Fire - 282, 479 acres and the Thomas Fire – 281, 893 acres.
In 2018, California spent almost $2 billion fighting wildfires, which only accounts for 40% of actual economic loss.
Two of California's most damaging and destructive wildfires in state history were the Camp Fire (2018) and the Tubbs fire (2017) which accounted for over 20 deaths and over 20,000 structures burned.
Fire prevention through properly managed forests can save not only tax dollars, but loss of wildlife, forest lands and the potential loss of human life.
Once wildfire has ravaged a landscape, landowners must consider the restoration of the lands to mitigate further damage and once again establish a diverse forest that provides for wildlife, clean air, clean water and/or sustainable wood products.
After a catastrophic wildfire, doing nothing to restore the forest can be just as damaging as the fire itself. High severity fires, which we are experiencing today, burn so hot they crystalize the soil. In these areas, the soil chemistry is changed and can no longer absorb rainfall. Without trees or roots to hold the soil in place, these areas see severe soil erosion and landslides which threaten drinking water supplies, public health and safety, and fisheries.
Charred and falling trees create hazards and contribute to future fire danger as they build up.
In large, high-severity burn areas, there are often no trees left to naturally reseed the area, so oftentimes shrubs and/or hardwoods sprout quickly and begin to overtake the nutrients needed for conifers to grow – leaving former forests as brush fields and ripe to burn again.
In these circumstances, human restoration efforts are needed. In fact, California has a 230,625 acre backlog of public land in need of restoration.
Recovery efforts differ based upon land management objectives, however, restoration efforts after wildfires are critical in mitigating further damage and establishing a new forest for future generations.
Private forestland owners quickly harvest dead trees after a wildfire in an effort to recoup costs and to quickly reestablish a new forest. They remove hazardous trees along roadways and public rights of way.
Salvage logging follows the strict guidelines of the California Forest Practice Rules and is enforced by multiple state and local agencies.
Fire-killed trees retain their value for up to two years before disease sets in.
Foresters plant a mix of native species to ensure the biodiversity of the forest.
They leave snags and logs to provide for wildlife.
They mitigate erosion by tilling the landscape and breaking up the burned soil to allow for new growth. They clean out and restore culverts for water runoff and restore watersheds for fisheries.
The costs to restore forests are huge and cannot be funded through public monies alone. Allowing private companies to harvest the burned trees and sell the logs, can potentially cover the costs of reforestation, however, costly lawsuits and delays can make reforestation economically impossible.