At 8 a.m. in Napa this morning, I tried to take a photo of our backyard. On the one hand, it looked as if it were snowing...as ash fell from the sky at a steady pace. But it was difficult to capture the scene on my camera. because it was so dark that the camera's auto-flash deployed.
Yes, in what would normally be broad daylight, any outdoor photos required a flash. And that flash lit up the flecks of ash falling from the sky. It was so bad that when I got up this morning I thought I had misread the clock, because it was dark outside...
Is there any upside to any of this? I know there's a theory that forests need to burn periodically to remain healthy, but this hardly seems like a "cleansing" fire. Are these forests basically gone, with all of the catastrophic effects on watersheds, soil stability, wildlife, and human habitations that we seem to be seeing on TV? (If this sounds like an uninformed question, it is - I'm from Ohio, remember, with nothing to reference for comparison.)
It's a great question and I'll defer to foresters who go into the fire zones afterward before speculating whether some of the burns might be beneficial.
The largest fires are in coast range oak chaparral and not mountain forest. The chaparral grasslands are impacted by non-native species that are more flammable than the native grasses they have crowded out, so once the catch they're nearly impossible to put out. Controlled burns in winter and targeted grazing can help reduce fuels and fire damage but I don't know if either is possible in areas larger than 300k acres that are presently burning. The oaks that dot the hills will survive low, slow fire but not the giant blazes we observe today.
The mountain forests are a different tale. First, the Sierra forests have almost all been logged and in many cases more that once. Because we primarily clearcut and replant with a single species, the resulting monoculture forest isn't fire-resistant. It's also the case that historical fire suppression tends to allow the buildup of understory fuels so that when it does burn, fires tend to run fast and hot, and propogate up into the canopy of trees that might otherwise have survived in the past. IIUC fire suppression is best when combined with mechanical thinning (removing small, stunted trees while leaving mature, spread out specimens) and controlled burns in winter-spring.
Our forest ecology is changing due to our shorter winters and hotter, longer summers. Everyone who hikes into the high country observes this on the trail, as tree zones are shifting up the mountain. This process heat-stresses and kills the cooler zone trees, e.g., hemlocks at lower altitudes are dying and lodgepole pines are appearing higher than they once did. Also, most conifers now seem susceptible to bark beetles, which have killed Sierra trees by the tens of millions. Longer winters and colder wintertime temps once kept them in check.
In sum, certain fires could be beneficial but for the most part, they're doing more harm than good. Overhauling wildland management is necessarily very complex and also must be coordinated among federal, state and private land. It's certainly the case that past practices need review and overhaul, because the new status quo is not working.
Any thoughts on the long-term effects? It would seem that, without the forests or even the grasses, the ground would be more susceptible to erosion (long-term impairment of soil, faster runoff for flooding and, more importantly, an impaired ability to hold the snowpack that's essential for water supply management, etc.) It would also seem that air quality would be impacted long-term (fewer trees = less carbon stored.) All of this - especially flooding - would seem to make human habitation in these areas more precarious.
You're right on at least two levels: fast runoff, flooding and debris flows will result from these fires, made worse by the hilly and mountainous terrain. IIUC where fire has been super-hot it glazes the soil and makes it impervious to water. Doesn't that sound fun? They'll send in crews this fall once its safe to perform erosion control but with millions of acres already burned it won't have much impact--simply too much area to tackle.
Long-term, as the west shifts to less snow and more rain over winter, the whole system of snow serving as our primary water storage reservoir degrades significantly. Snow is a great mechanism for impounding and slowly releasing water and our historically "average" snowpack cannot be replicated by artificial storage.
Recent research is finding mountain meadows have important role in water retention, as well as cleaning and filtering runoff. Centuries of logging and grazing have degraded and even eliminated alpine meadows and restoration, along with restoring streams to more natural channels might be one way to counter faster runoff and help retain water later in the season.
[Editorial aside: we were hiking alongside cattle in the Sierra wilderness just two weeks ago. Why are we still doing this?]
The next few decades are a time of reckoning for land and water use schemes. They will be drastically different, or will fail on a grand scale.
"September 14, 2020 – Sequoia National Park is implementing a full park closure at 6 am on September 15 in response to the Castle Fire on the SQF Complex. Many park staff have been evacuated from the area and for visitor and resource protection, park managers have decided to close all entrances to Sequoia National Park.
During this unprecedented fire year, park managers have had to evaluate how to best balance the responsibilities to the public as well as the mental welfare and physical safety of the staff. “With Three Rivers and the park headquarters under an evacuation notice, staff is focused on preparing to evacuate.” Acting Superintendent Lee Taylor “To ensure any pending evacuation goes as smoothly as possible we are closing the park to visitors.” Park managers send their sincere thanks and gratitude for the support received during this incident.
Kings Canyon National Park remains open at this time. Visitors will not be able to access Sequoia National Park from Highway 198 or Highway 180 out of Fresno. The Giant Forest and sequoia trees will be inaccessible to visitors. All park campgrounds will be closed with reservations cancelled and refunded. Mineral King Road remains closed at this time."
So you can enter Kings Canyon...but not via Sequoia---which means the only route of entry is via a trail...and Inyo National Forest to the east has announced that its closure will continue until at least September 21. That leaves entries from the West (Sierra National Forest...but Florence Lake and Thomas Edison are currently under evacuation orders,. or the North. The John Muir Trial would still be open..but only until you get to Sequoia National Park.
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