Research: Wildfires in Sierra Nevada driven by past land use

Changes in human uses of the land have had a large impact on fire activity in California’s Sierra Nevada since 1600, according to research by a University of Arizona researcher and her colleagues.

Above: Indian Canyon Fire near Edgemont, SD, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

By Mari N. Jensen, University of Arizona College of Science

Forest fire activity in California’s Sierra Nevada since 1600 has been influenced more by how humans used the land than by climate, according to new research led by University of Arizona and Penn State scientists.

For the years 1600 to 2015, the team found four periods, each lasting at least 55 years, where the frequency and extent of forest fires clearly differed from the time period before or after.

However, the shifts from one fire regime to another did not correspond to changes in temperature or moisture or other climate patterns until temperatures started rising in the 1980s.

“We were expecting to find climatic drivers,” said lead co-author Valerie Trouet, a UA associate professor of dendrochronology. “We didn’t find them.”

Instead, the team found the fire regimes corresponded to different types of human occupation and use of the land: the pre-settlement period to the Spanish colonial period; the colonial period to the California Gold Rush; the Gold Rush to the Smokey Bear/fire suppression period; and the Smokey Bear/fire suppression era to present.

“The fire regime shifts we see are linked to the land-use changes that took place at the same time,” Trouet said.

“We knew about the Smokey Bear effect — there had been a dramatic shift in the fire regime all over the Western U.S. with fire suppression. We didn’t know about these other earlier regimes,” she said. “It turns out humans — through land-use change — have been influencing and modulating fire for much longer than we anticipated.”

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Dozer rollover on the Trailhead Fire

Above: Dozer rollover at the Trailhead Fire on the Eldorado National Forest in California July 2, 2016. Photo from the report.

A report has been released by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center about a dozer rollover that occurred July 2, 2016 at the Trailhead Fire on the Eldorado National Forest in California. You can read the entire report, but here’s a brief summary.

After getting unstuck from being high centered on a large stump, a dozer operator found himself off the ridge where he was building an indirect fireline, and was on a steep slope. Again he got stuck and was not able to backup, this time due to the slope which in places exceeded an 80 percent incline. At various times he was advised by two Resource Advisors, the Structure Group Supervisor, and the owner of the dozer to stay put. In the meantime another dozer with a winch was en route to assist.

Ignoring the advice, the operator continued down the slope and got into a heated argument with the owner, who then left the area. Determined to get the dozer back up to the ridge top, the operator began building a road and creating pads where he could work to push over trees that were in his way, including a 30-DBH cedar which missed by 50 feet the two Resources Advisors who had to run to get out of the way.

The incident-within-an-incident finally came to an end, at least temporarily, when the dozer rolled over onto its side. The operator escaped with only a scratch, after which the dozer continued to roll over onto its top in the creek bottom.

The report did not include information about how the dozer was eventually extracted, or what repercussions, if any, befell the operator and the contractor.

50th anniversary of the Loop Fire commemorated

Above: Hundreds of firefighters from municipal and wildland departments attended the 50th anniversary memorial for the Loop Fire tragedy in Sylmar Tuesday. Present were the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, US Forest Service, CAL FIRE, and many other agencies.

November 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the day that 12 wildland firefighters perished on the Loop Fire. The El Cariso Hotshots were constructing fireline on the Angeles National Forest in southern California in 1966 when the fire blew up below them.

Yesterday hundreds of people attended a commemoration event held at El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar, California. Having been on the crew four years after the disaster, from 1970 through 1972, I wish I could have been there. But Stuart Palley, an accomplished fire photographer, was, and he took these excellent photos and wrote the captions. Thanks Stuart for allowing us to use them here.

Loop Fire memorial
Gordon King, former crew supervisor for the El Cariso Hotshots, unexpectedly stepped forward to deliver remarks at the 50th anniversary ceremony of the 1966 Loop Fire tragedy. While speaking Gordon was overwhelmed by emotion and Cal Fire Riverside chief John Hawkins, left, and Angeles National Forest fire chief Robert Garcia, right, jumped forward to support and encourage King.
Loop Fire memorial
Sand Fire Burn area and El Cariso Hotshots memorial 50th Anniversary ceremony held at El Cariso Park in Sylmar, CA Tuesday November 1st, 2016. In attendance was CAL FIRE Chief Ken Pimlott, USFS Fire and Aviation Director Shawna Legarza, and current and former El Cariso Hotshots. The memorial ceremony honored the 50th anniversary of the El Cariso Hotshots burn over at the Loop Fire in 1966 in the hills above the memorial park.
Loop Fire memorial
Current El Cariso crew during the Pledge of Allegiance and opening prayer for the 50th anniversary ceremony for the Loop Fire tragedy. A flyover of LA County helicopters also occurred.

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Fire On The Hills

Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers postage stamp, 1973.

In 1932 Robinson Jeffers published a book of poetry titled Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems that was set in the central coast region of California. One poem in particular was written about a vegetation fire — possibly the Matilija Fire that burned 220,000 acres that year which is the fifth largest recorded fire in the state.

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.

I have to admit — my six-second attention span rarely allows me to concentrate on the content of a poem that is more than a few lines long, but a couple of phrases stood out; Beauty is not always lovely, and in describing an eagle, Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.

Mr. Jeffers led a very interesting life, coining the word inhumanism, the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the “astonishing beauty of things.” He briefly studied forestry at the University of Washington, had a scandalous affair with a married woman that was reported in the LA Times, and published many highly acclaimed books. But after writing about his staunch opposition to the United States’ entering World War II critics turned against him.

His work inspired photographers, as evidenced in the book by Morley Baer, Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast juxtaposed with Mr. Jeffers’ poetry.

He passed away in 1962 in Carmel, California.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Walt.

Fire studies at Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks

Above: A bison in Yellowstone National Park, May 25, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two recent and ongoing studies at the two big “Y” parks are yielding results about fire behavior and the effects of naturally occurring fire. The excerpts below are both from Phys.org.

The first is about allowing wildfires to burn at Yosemite National Park, rather than suppressing them:

An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.

After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park’s Illilouette Creek basin, University of California, Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.

“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study…

The next article covers a study into the fire behavior of this summer’s fires that spread through the footprints of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

…”Largely up until this point, fire has not necessarily carried well through the ’88 fire scars,” Yellowstone fire ecologist Becky Smith said. “I mean, it definitely has before, but it usually takes very specific conditions, like high winds or a very specific fuel bed. But this year, we’re definitely seeing it burn much more readily in the ’88 fire scars.”

The park has called in a special federal team that studies fire behavior to find out why.

“We’re trying to use it as a good learning opportunity to try and really narrow our focus on how and when the ’88 fire scars will burn,” Smith said. The 1988 wildfires burned 36 percent of the park.

It’s the first time Yellowstone has used the special team’s services, she said.

The 13-member team is studying two fires burning in the 1988 fire scar. It has deployed special heat-resistant equipment with sensors, cameras and other instruments to measure things like temperature and wind where the fires are burning…

Thousands of lightning strikes in southern California

(Above: lightning strikes in the 24 hours before 1 p.m. PDT October 24, 2016.)

Thousands of lightning strikes have occurred in southern California between Sunday afternoon and Monday afternoon.