CAL FIRE Director, “Our hand crew capacity is really dismal”

Inmate hand crews are at 30-40 percent capacity

California Drought Monitor, April 13, 2021
California Drought Monitor, April 13, 2021.

As California faces a looming fire season with about 90 percent of the state in moderate to exceptional drought, the Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Thom Porter, is concerned about the wildfire readiness of the agency.

Below is an excerpt from the Mendocino Voice, April 9, 2021:

“The operational concerns that I have are really in boots on the ground,” said Porter. “We’re fairly well staffed — on the wildland side of the department — at the engine company level, dozers are pretty good. We’re really good on aircraft and feeling better all the time on our aircraft program — but our hand crew capacity is really dismal.”

In the past, Cal Fire has had 190 prison crews available for the season. This year they have less than 70, according to Porter. Out of  “So we’re somewhere between 30% to 40% capacity currently with the inmate program,” said Porter. “Not good.”

The prisoner crews, which Cal Fire usually refers to as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) crews, have been slashed during COVID, as outbreaks have significantly shrunk training programs. “We’re well over 1000 [firefighters] short now,” said Porter. “That is the biggest vulnerability and as far as me, Thom Porter, director of Cal Fire, I’m concerned.” However, some of this gap in firefighter staffing may be filled with some $80 million that Governor Gavin Newsom has allocated to Cal Fire using emergency funds.

Do fuel reduction treatments increase resistance to insects and drought?

Not always, according to researchers

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Intuitively we might think that fuel reduction treatments and prescribed fire would lead to more resistance to drought and attacks by beetles. While that is sometimes the case, it turns out that following the extreme 2012-2016 drought in California, prescribed burning increased beetle infestation rates and increased mortality of red fir and sugar pine in an area studied by scientists.

Researchers studied 10,000 mapped and tagged trees in a mixed‐conifer forest following mechanical thinning and/or prescribed burning treatments in 2001 through the extreme drought in California. The work was conducted in the Teakettle Experimental Forest (36°58′ N, 119°2′ W) located in the High Sierra Ranger District of Sierra National Forest, in California’s Sierra Nevada. Elevation of the forest ranges from 1,880 to 2,485 m.

While prescribed burning is an important tool for increasing resistance to wildfire their results suggest prescribed burning does not necessarily also instill drought resistance.

Below is an excerpt from a paper  titled, “Do forest fuel reduction treatments confer resistance to beetle infestation and drought mortality?” It was written by: Z. L. Steel, M. J. Goodwin, M. D. Meyer, G. A. Fricker, H. S. J. Zald, M. D. Hurteau, M. P. North, and published by the Ecological Society of America January 22, 2021.

Management challenges
Density reduction treatments that rely on mechanical thinning alone had neutral to positive effects on conifer survival during the 2012–2016 drought (Figs. 7, 8). The overstory treatment that removed medium to large trees (e.g., ≥25 cm) was most beneficial to residual individuals, suggesting such a strategy could be used broadly to increase drought resilience for some species (i.e., Jeffrey pine and white fir). While removal of smaller trees (e.g., ≤25 cm) may be less effective at mitigating drought mortality, treatments focused on ladder and surface fuels may still be preferred when considering non‐drought objectives such as reducing fire hazard or maintaining wildlife habitat (Stephens et al. 2012).

Prescribed burning appears less effective than mechanical thinning at reducing drought mortality and in some cases can lead to higher beetle infestation and mortality rates (Fig. 8). This is most striking in the case of large sugar pines which died at much higher rates in prescribed burn plots during the drought. The negative effect of burning on tree survival is somewhat surprising given that the fire regime under which these forests developed was characterized by frequent (i.e., 11–17 yr) low‐ to moderate‐severity fire (North et al. 2005, Safford and Stevens 2017), and that the prescribed burn occurred approximately a decade prior to the drought.

Mortality and probability change
Indirect effect of forest treatment on drought mortality. Treatment abbreviations are UU for Unburned/Understory Thin; UO for Unburned/Overstory Thin; BN for Burned/No Thin; BU for Burned/Understory Thin; and BO for Burned/Overstory Thin. Value distributions represent change in probability of mortality relative to controls for two tree sizes. The scale of the x‐axis varies among species. (From the research)

Further, van Mantgem et al. (2016) observed decreased tree mortality associated with prescribed fire elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada following the initial two years of California’s drought, and Meyer et al. (2019) found no difference in mortality between paired burned and unburned plots in red fir forests during the middle and late periods of the drought. The forests Meyer et al. (2019) sampled were at higher elevations than Teakettle where soil moisture is substantially higher and temperatures lower.

The results presented here could be unique to the Teakettle Experimental Forest, but we suspect they are more likely attributable to the historic severity of the 2012–2016 drought. When beetle populations are less than epidemic such as at higher elevations, during moderate droughts, or early in severe droughts, previous fire and its associated reduced density may be neutral or ameliorating for conifer mortality.

Our sugar pine results may indicate a tipping point beyond which the combination of extreme water stress from drought, bark beetle outbreaks, and fire result in increasingly high rates of tree mortality (Nesmith et al. 2015), and subsequent forest structural changes outside the natural range of variation (Young et al. 2020).

These results suggest cautious low‐intensity and small (i.e., stand) scale prescribed burning, as it is often applied by managers, may only benefit forests under short duration drought stress while contributing to higher mortality in red fir and sugar pine during prolonged and exceptional droughts.

High mortality rates of large sugar pines may be related to prescribed fires consumption of deep litter and duff layers that have accumulated around the base of pine species under fire suppression, suggesting removal of litter and duff through raking could protect individual trees. Nesmith et al. (2010) found raking increased survival and reduced bark beetle activity when fire intensity was moderate (<80% crown scorch) and when fuel depth was ≥30 cm. Thus, protecting individual trees of high ecological value may be possible prior to prescribed burns. However, such targeted measures are infeasible at broad scales in fire‐prone landscapes of the Sierra Nevada. In the long run, retaining sugar pine in these pyrogenic landscapes may hinge on fostering sunny, bare mineral soil conditions favorable for sugar pine regeneration and in the future reducing surface fuels on a regular basis.

Infestation probability
Marginal effects on beetle infestation. (C) host species basal area within a 10‐m radius, and (D) whether a tree experienced a prescribed burn treatment. Beetle and tree species abbreviations are jpb for Jeffrey pine beetle; rtb for red turpentine beetle; mpb for mountain pine beetle; eng for fir engraver; pije for Pinus jeffreyi (Jeffrey pine); pila for Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine); abco for Abies concolor (white fir); and abma for Abies magnifica (red fir). For C, thick lines show mean effect estimates with labeled solid lines represent relationships where the 90% credible interval does not include zero. To illustrate the spread of credible effects, 30 model posterior draws are also drawn as faint lines. Note the y‐axis scale differs for (D). (From the research)

Treatment effects on large diameter trees are often the focus of management restoration efforts since these structures have been reduced from past logging, take a long time to develop, and are associated with important ecosystem services (e.g., sensitive species habitat and carbon storage). Treatments using only thinning consistently reduced mortality of large (>75 cm DBH) trees across species, albeit with different effect sizes. For incense‐cedar and especially white fir, there was a greater reduction in mortality for small versus large trees, which are often the target of fuel reduction treatments. Prescribed fire has mixed effects, reducing mortality of large Jeffrey pine and slightly reducing small white fir mortality when combined with thinning, but increasing mortality of large red fir, incense‐cedar, and significantly increasing large sugar pine mortality.

While prescribed burning is an important tool for increasing resistance to wildfire (Stephens and Moghaddas 2005, Prichard et al. 2010), our results suggest such fuel treatments do not necessarily also instill drought resistance. There is general benefit to all species in reducing density, but the means (i.e., mechanical vs. prescribed fire) of treatment matters, suggesting caution in widespread use of fire in drought‐prone areas where managers want to retain large sugar pines and red fir.

Forecasters expect Western drought to continue through December

Drought Monitor, December 1, 2020
Drought Monitor, December 1, 2020

Most of the West and 95 percent of California are in drought. In Southern California drought conditions are predicted to further develop into the winter and persist across the rest of the state.

California Drought Monitor, December 8, 2020
California Drought Monitor, December 8, 2020.
Monthly Drought Outlook, December, 2020
Monthly Drought Outlook, December, 2020. Issued November 30, 2020.

The western two-thirds of the United States is expected to have lower than normal precipitation the rest of December. All of the country will likely be warmer than normal during the period except for the Southeast and portions of the Northwest.

Precipitation outlook for December, 2020. Issued November 30, 2020.
Temperature outlook, December, 2020
Temperature outlook for December, 2020. Issued November 30, 2020

NOAA report: Warmer-than-average spring, worsening drought across West

Above: Areas of the United States where the average temperature for April-June 2018 is favored to be in the upper (reddish colors) or lower (blue colors) third of the 1981-2010 seasonal temperature record. Within a given area, the intensity of the colors indicates higher or lower chances for a warm or a cool outcome, not bigger or smaller anomalies. For example, both Texas and Tennessee face better than even chances of experiencing well above average spring temperatures, but the chances are higher in Texas (60-70%) than in Tennessee (40-50%). NOAA map, based on data from NOAA CPC. Photo credit: NOAA

Spring is likely to be warmer than the historical normal this year in much of the country with a worsening drought situation across swaths of the West, according to the latest report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, issued Thursday, encompasses April-June.

The Northern Rockies is the only region leaning toward below-average temperatures this spring, forecasters said.

In addition to increased probabilities of warmer temperatures across much of the U.S. — and especially the Southwest — the outlook suggests drought is likely to develop or worsen in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and part of Utah, Colorado and Kansas.

“It appears La Nina is on its last legs,” said Mike Halpert, with the Climate Prediction Center. “As sea surface temperature anomalies weaken, their influence on springtime temperature and precipitation should also weaken.”

Drought is likely to worsen or develop across much of the Southwest quadrant of the contiguous United States this spring. Pockets of drought are predicted to continue in the Southeast and Oregon.  Map by NOAA, based on data from the Climate Prediction Center.
Drought is likely to worsen or develop across much of the Southwest quadrant of the contiguous United States this spring. Pockets of drought are predicted to continue in the Southeast and Oregon. Map by NOAA, based on data from the Climate Prediction Center.

The outlook also noted a moderate risk of flooding in the Ohio River Valley basin and lower Mississippi River where streamflows and soil moisture are above normal after recent heavy rain.

How does tree mortality caused by drought and insects affect forests accustomed to frequent fire?

Research results were published January 17, 2018

This week a group of nine scientists and researchers published the results of their work considering how unusually high tree mortality affects wildfires in California’s Sierra Nevada forests that over thousands of years have adapted to frequent fire. They point out that fire suppression-caused forest densification has increased competition among trees for water and other resources, destabilizing many frequent fire forests by making them prone to mortality from other agents such as bark beetles.


Scott L. Stephens, Brandon M. Collins, Christopher J. Fettig, Mark A. Finney, Chad M. Hoffman, Eric E. Knapp, Malcolm P. North, Hugh Safford, Rebecca B. Wayman

The abstract and conclusions are below. The entire paper can be accessed at the US Forest Service website. The illustrations are from the document.


Massive tree mortality has occurred rapidly in frequent-fire-adapted forests of the Sierra Nevada, California. This mortality is a product of acute drought compounded by the long-established removal of a key ecosystem process: frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire. The recent tree mortality has many implications for the future of these forests and the ecological goods and services they provide to society. Future wildfire hazard following this mortality can be generally characterized by decreased crown fire potential and increased surface fire intensity in the short to intermediate term. The scale of present tree mortality is so large that greater potential for “mass fire” exists in the coming decades, driven by the amount and continuity of dry, combustible, large woody material that could produce large, severe fires. For long-term adaptation to climate change, we highlight the importance of moving beyond triage of dead and dying trees to making “green” (live) forests more resilient.

Fire Responses Post Drought Beetle
A conceptual diagram showing fuel load and expected fire behavior in a mixed-conifer forest prior to and following a major bark-beetle-caused tree-mortality episode, with either (a) no follow-up-fuels treatment or (b) periodic prescribed fire to consume fuels. Surface-fire intensity is expected to roughly follow surface fuel load, whereas crown-fire potential is regulated by the amount of surface fuel (necessary to heat and dry live fuels to the point of combustion), as well as crown bulk density.


Forest Responses Severe Drought
Forest responses following a severe drought (1999–2002) in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir (SSPM), Baja California, Mexico (a, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality followed by wildfire; b, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality only) and in the southern California mountains (SCM), California, United States (c, drought- and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at larger scales; d, drought and bark-beetle-caused tree mortality at stand scale. Note no wildfire in either SCM area). The SSPM and SCM photos were taken in 2004 and 2003, respectively. The SSPM site experienced a wildfire immediately following the multiyear drought (picture from 2003), with the photos capturing effects of both drought- and wildfire-related tree mortality. Pictures (a), (b), and (d) from SLS, (c) from G. Barley.



Unprecedented Sierra Nevada tree mortality has rapidly occurred after a severe drought with effects compounded by forest densification from decades of fire suppression. In the central and southern Sierra Nevada some areas have experienced more than 90% tree mortality, producing extensive landscapes of standing dead trees. This differs from mortality resulting from stand-replacing wildfire because bark beetles do not reduce surface fuels or jumpstart succession of shade-intolerant, fire-resistant pines. Forest managers have been struggling to determine whether these new postmortality conditions will increase wildfire intensity and/or severity, what the near- and long-term effects on forest communities will be, and what the appropriate intervention measures are.

In the first decade, wildfire severity in bark beetle killed frequent fire (FF) forests may be little affected over current conditions. Other than a brief increase during the “red phase” when most dead needles are still on recently killed trees, the reduction in canopy fuels is counterbalanced by an increase in surface fuels (figure 2). However, these are no grounds for complacency because current conditions in the majority of mixed-conifer and yellow pine forests in California already consist of unnaturally high surface fuel loads and corresponding elevated fire hazards (figure 2; Lydersen et al. 2014, Stephens et al. 2015).

The more troubling projection is how extensive loading of large-sized woody fuels in future decades may contribute to dangerous mass fires beyond the predictive capacity of current fire models. These fires can generate their own wind and weather conditions and create extensive spotting, making fire behavior and its impact on structures and public safety difficult to manage and predict. In addition, such intense fires could prevent forests from becoming re-established. Lacking the legacy of live trees that historic FF would have left (Stephens et al. 2008), large unburned areas of dead trees may also produce unusual forest succession patterns. These patterns will likely favor shade-tolerant and hardwood tree regeneration, limited shrub growth, and accumulating large woody fuels that would likely kill regenerating forests when wildfire inevitably occurs. The scale of contiguous tree mortality entrenches the homogeneity produced by fire suppression, reducing the fine-scale heterogeneity of forest conditions that contributes to resilience and biodiversity. Management could enhance adaptation to climate-change-induced stress if it focused more of its resources on creating spatially and temporally variable patterns in green FF forests that are better aligned with local moisture availability and fire patterns (North et al. 2009).

Many of our FF forests have failed to receive the very management that could increase resilience to disturbances exacerbated by climate change, such as the application of prescribed fire and mechanical restoration treatments (Stephens et al. 2016). Recent tree mortality raises serious questions about our willingness to address the underlying causes. If our society doesn’t like the outcomes from recent fires and extensive drought-induced tree mortality in FF forests, then we collectively need to move beyond the status quo. Working to increase the pace and scale of beneficial fire and mechanical treatments rather than focusing on continued fire suppression would be an important step forward.