Editor’s note: This blog is another installment in our Project Firehawk series, the series is named in reference to a cohort of Australian birds who carry fire in their beaks to spark change. Its essays explore the core underpinnings of our work, and in some cases, challenge the status quo. We have asked the series’ authors to be bold as they tackle hard questions to reveal needed shifts in our relationship with fire. We have asked them to be unafraid as they point out what is (and isn’t) working in our current system. These thought pieces may challenge you, create controversy, or even cause you to stand up and cheer. Regardless of your reaction, we hope this series causes you to pause and maybe even initiate a larger conversation about what it really means to live better with fire. All images, maps, and figures are credited to the author unless otherwise noted.
The Calamity Tour
I used to think I knew what was going on in the woods. I’ve been navigating the worlds of forestry and wildfire since the late ‘90s, when GIS mapping was just beginning to be used operationally on large fires. I’ve spent my career surveying wildfire hazards with drones, light planes, helicopters, and dirt bikes, analyzing whatever wildfire-related GIS data or imagery I could get my hands on. My coworkers and I have spent the last two decades mapping over 250 of California’s largest wildfires – in 2021, we printed enough fire maps to cover two acres. But when it comes to describing the scale of our wildfire crisis, I feel pretty lost.
This spring, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, with University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources program, asked me to help lead a field tour in Butte County for the national Fire Networks team. The Fire Networks are a partnership that works through three interconnected peer learning networks – the Fire Learning Network, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network – and supports the Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX/WTREX). This partnership is supported by a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy and federal land management agencies to support people building better relationships with fire in places across the United States.
The previous summer, Lenya and I had been out to look at the reconstruction of Paradise following the 2018 Camp Fire and she wondered if I’d be interested in taking the group on a similar tour. I don’t really like spending time in the new version of Paradise. Old Paradise had shade and a funky charm. Now it is hot, dusty, windy, covered with Scotch broom and new modular homes; being up there triggers mourning for both what we’ve lost, and what we’re sure to lose again. I’d rather go just about anywhere else. We agreed, though, on the need to subject the group to some of the big carnage around here, not little feel-good local projects.
Over the years, I have noticed that every time a wildfire lays down when it runs into a fuel reduction project, we trot out a congressional delegation to tour the site, write papers about it, or turn the success story into catchy graphics for social media. We rarely tour the places where fuel breaks failed, or talk openly about the limits we face in dealing with megafires. This tour would be for people who spend a lot of time thinking about how humans can coexist with fire. After what we’ve been through in Butte County, I’m convinced there are some places we shouldn’t waste our efforts. I thought dropping the group into the middle of the enormous calamity that is our new wildfire reality might help drive this discussion, and maybe I wanted to share my sense of disorientation and despair, too.
Trauma, Language, and Storytelling
We’ve been through a lot, here in Butte County. In 2017, historic floods threatened to breach the enormous Oroville Dam, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Just up the hill from where I live, in Chico, the 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and made over 30,000 people homeless. Thirty of my coworkers lost their homes. For several years, friends and families hosted refugees in trailers and RVs in their driveways all over Chico. Nearly five years later, many have rebuilt, but people are still living in trailers on their properties; others live in tent camps on the edge of town. In the aftermath of the fire, heavy rainstorms pounded the burn, and the toxic stormwater from the 15,000-acre urban area of Paradise poured into our favorite swimming creeks. To our west, the 2020 August Complex burned a million acres across most of the Mendocino National Forest, choking our pandemic scene with months of smoke. To our east, the 2020 Bear Fire burned 400 square miles, leveled another 1,500 structures in the community of Berry Creek, and killed 16 people. To our north, the 2021 Dixie Fire incinerated the town of Greenville, and blackened a million acres of the lands I know best.
And that’s just the past six years. Before that, fires in 2008 threatened Paradise and wiped most of the community of Concow off the map. Many of the people who rebuilt lost their homes again to the Camp Fire (Concow also had a major fire in 2000).
When Lenya called, I had just visited Big Bald Rock, inside the Bear Fire scar. It was my first time up there since the area had burned, and I was struck with three superlatives: the huge areas of high-severity burn, the incredible density of the pre-fire forest, and the insane rates of regrowth in the oaks and brush.
I’ve always tried hard to avoid using loaded terms like “devastated,” “catastrophic,” or “scarred” to describe burned areas, but recently, I find myself using these words, usually prefaced with an F-bomb. Our landscapes and people are scarred and devastated. The outcomes of our recent fires are catastrophic. How else do we describe over two thousand square miles of black-stick forest, endless clearcuts of salvage-logged private land, and neighborhoods devoid of trees, peppered with blue-tarped trailers? It does look like a war zone. I know everything won’t be black forever, but our current situation is difficult to describe in neutral terms.
We tell stories to try to make meaning out of the situation. Toward that end, I’ve created hundreds of maps explaining the cold, simple facts of the Bear, Camp, and Dixie Fires. In a single day, the Bear Fire marched 35 miles from red fir forests in the high-country to gray pine and live oak foothill scrub at Lake Oroville. The Camp Fire ran 18 miles in 12 hours, destroying almost 20,000 structures. The Dixie Fire’s biggest run consumed over 100,000 acres in two days. I enjoy teaching and talking about land, but lately, I feel maps fall short in truly communicating the staggering scale of change in our forests.
Pace and Scale
The California Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force has a stated goal of “treating” a million acres of wildfire fuels a year by 2025. But what is our end game? Are we hoping to make every at-risk community fire safe? Do we think we can manage enough forest land to keep the next Dixie, Creek, Rim, Caldor, Camp, Carr, Ferguson, or Bear Fire from happening? Right now, there is a lot of interest in expanding the scope of prescribed fire, but the vast majority of acres being funded are thinning and mastication projects. There is no business case that suggests we can process and dispose of woody biomass for a million acres a year (the entire California timber industry has logged about 100,000 acres of private land per year over the past 20 years), and momentum toward building new utility-scale biomass cogeneration plants is slow.
Large-scale fuels treatments can have forest health and public safety benefits, and are critically-important to accomplish adjacent our forested communities, but California’s geography limits the amount of acreage we can mechanically thin, and on steeper, inaccessible slopes, prescribed and managed fire are our only real tool for managing fuels at the landscape scale. Despite a lot of talk about it, the US Forest Service is showing very little interest in using fire at the sort of scale needed to really make a difference, and California’s industrial timberland owners barely burn anything; most of them don’t even burn piles anymore. If we have more extended droughts, forest thinning projects alone aren’t going to stop megafires. We can’t mechanically thin the steep ground where fires like the Mosquito, Dixie, Carr, or Creek Fires grow large.
The assumption that large-scale fuels treatments can affect the outcome of megafires is rooted in all the success stories we’ve spread after forest thinning projects helped us control a wildfire, but timberlands comprise only a fraction of the wildlands where money is being spent on fuel breaks. In places with fast-growing brush, there’s very little lasting benefit to investments in large-scale backcountry fuels reduction. Take the example of the 2002 LNU Complex Fires.
Between 2015 and 2019, wildfires reduced fuel loading across about a half-million acres of the 1.5 million acre area in the map below. Yet when the 600 square-mile 2020 LNU Complex (black crosshatch) burned (destroying close to 1,500 structures, and killing six people), it ran across over 200 square miles of land which had burned within the previous eight years. One-hundred of these had burned just two years before. Just about anywhere we cut brush will need treatment again very soon, and forever is a long time. Are we going to keep asking taxpayers who live free of wildfire risks in Stockton, Long Beach, or Palm Desert to pay for this work in perpetuity?
The Planning Trap
I’ve found a career niche working on “landscape-scale wildfire hazard assessment” projects. We use satellite imagery, fire history maps, parcel boundaries, roads, terrain, weather data and other map layers, along with our experience working on large fires to identify priority locations for large-scale fuels reduction projects.
So many things about planning work feel good! Modeling fire behavior and building GIS databases is not much fun, but drawing shapes on a map is cathartic – it feels impactful – and the solutions seem very clear. We’ll put in a ridgetop fuelbreak here, do a prescribed burn there, throw in some mastication and pile burning around the “assets,” and everything will be good to go! And there is the fieldwork component: we get to learn new landscapes, drive or ride bikes around in the woods, hike, look at past fires or logging projects, and share stories about land with other passionate people. For the most part, very few of the large-scale projects I’ve designed in my career have actually been implemented.
In 2019 and 2020, the company I work for, Deer Creek Resources, had funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Sierra Institute to develop a conceptual plan for where to best thin and burn across the 850,000-acre South Lassen Watersheds Region. Since there was a pandemic going on, I was able to take my 8 and 10-year-old sons with me for the survey portions of the project. We escaped the choking wildfire smoke in the Valley and hiked into roadless old growth stands near my hometown of Westwood, shot big sugar pine cones out of tall trees with a .22, hung out in hammocks and camped near creeks; we got to explore places I’ve always wanted to see.
But within months of finishing our plan, about half a million acres of our project area got roasted by the Dixie Fire. Our fire effects models greatly underestimated the observed fire behavior. Many of the coolest old growth areas we had visited were destroyed, and areas we’d thought were in pretty good shape (thinned, actively managed) also got nuked. The Dixie Fire was devastating in so many ways, but the hardest part to swallow was the realization that even when we think we have technical solutions that might save our forests, the scope of our forest health problem is far beyond our ability to manage it. What made us think we could?
We talk a lot about the US Forest Service’s dwindling capacity, but the problem is more fundamental than any of that. Fire is the only tool that is really up to the job of managing fuels at the landscape scale, and the Forest Service is first and foremost a fire suppression outfit. As far as their land management capacity goes, they ramped up for about 45 years after World War II, to carve about 400,000 miles of roads into the backcountry and drag the largest trees off our Western landscapes. They followed this up with a flurry of tree planting, but not much tending. Then they got in trouble for all the bad things they had done, and we sent them to planning jail for the past 30 years.
For my entire career, the Lassen and Plumas National Forests have been involved in one landscape-scale planning effort after another. Literally millions of labor hours have been spent (skillfully) designing incredibly detailed projects to increase wildfire resilience, yet in the past 15 years, the landscape has lost more than half of its trees. The Dixie Fire burned through proposed, uncompleted projects which were funded out of settlements from fires that occurred as far back as 2000 and 2007!
The West is littered with relics of booms and busts. Forest Service offices are the latest ghost towns. A huge number of the trees they planted have turned to ash and smoke, and their amazing forest road network has been blown to pieces by storms and neglect. We’ve equated the ability to remove all the big trees with the capacity to manage ecosystems, but nobody really even knows how to do this. Wildfires are eating foresters’ lunch, regardless of their employer.
Learning the Limits
Maps and data visualizations can help us make sense of numbers and trends, but even the best ones require field-validation. Without proper context, our ability to conceptualize problems and plan appropriate solutions can become completely disconnected from reality. This becomes crushingly clear when you stand in Berry Creek or Concow, realizing everything you can see in all directions has been burned, and that there’s clearly no technical solution, either to preventing the next fire or “fixing” the damage from this one. That’s what the field trip was really about – ground truth.
People are small, forests are vast, mountains are rugged, logging is brutal, and economics are real. We can absolutely accomplish projects that will make our communities safer and forests more wildfire resilient, especially if we scale up our use of fire, but the megafire train left the station as soon as we started cutting down all the big trees and suppressing every fire. We are 100 years into this passage, and we’ll lose millions more acres of forest before the reset is complete.
In retrospect, we were negligent to take the Fire Networks team into the ruins of the Plumas National Forest without providing some structure to help people process it all – If you were on the tour, I’m sorry we didn’t prepare a better container for your encounter with our ravaged forests. Big burns are traumatic, the darkness is real. Have you had similar experiences visiting massive burn scars? How did they change how you think about the work we do? If we face the limits in our ability to truly work at scale, where do you think our work can be most impactful?