Native Americans and others used fire for life survival for thousands of years...burning to improve food, basketry material and to clear travel routes. Then in the past 100 years, Europeans arrived and did an excellent job putting out fires. This has been getting more difficult in key situations lately, and more costly, when it is very dry, windy, terrain is rugged, or vegetation and fuels are dense and continuous.  More recently, many have realized that fires can be a very useful modern tool for more cheaply and effectively reducing fuel hazard and restoring ecosystem health. But smoke is a by-product that comes along with restoration as well as wildfires that are tough to put out. I think fire is a double-edged sword. Since fire in most of California is inevitable..."it is not if it will burn, but when"...the challenge is learning how to live with it and managing fire so that it benefits us. What do you think? The billion dollar question needs your help!

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Comment by Colleen McGuire Norris on June 21, 2013 at 6:26pm

I got a chance to look over the chart Eric added on March 13. Looks like the Native Americans and the Harvesters saved us from some wildfires in the past. There must be a strategy that could incorporate all historic scenarios to manage fire better.

Comment by Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman on June 21, 2013 at 9:27am

Thanks Erik, I look forward to seeing that. I was just adding to the final bioregional assessment yesterday and writing about some other examples of Native American burning to enhance habitat, among other purposes! Globally, humans have used fire for many purposes for thousands of years.

Comment by Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman on June 21, 2013 at 9:25am

Colleen, actually, fire resilience is paramount..but that ties in directly with native species. It turns out that the tree with regeneration that has been lost the most with fire suppression, ponderosa pine, is also the most resilient to fire, and of high commercial value. it is a win win

Comment by Erik Piikkila on June 21, 2013 at 2:15am

Speaking of Good Fire.  There was an excellent report last night on Canadian Broadcasting Corp

(  CBC ) about new and recent First Nations burning of forests to create grasslands and forage for Bison in Fort Nelson ( in the very NE corner of British Columbia ).  

Part of the story also showed a burning program in Chico CA and Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and Don Hankins from Cal State-Chico.  

Here is the link to the story ( ).

Unfortunately I think it is only viewable in Canada, but I will work on that over the next week or so.

Comment by Colleen McGuire Norris on June 20, 2013 at 5:27pm

Thank you Jo Ann. I know when replanting first started, it wasn't always with an eye toward restoring native habitat or fire resistant species. It was sometimes toward renewable resources (in the case of logging) and erosion control. Overall, I'm thinking all the stakeholders might be taking a little view these days and planting a mixture that is native to the habitat with an eye toward slowing down fire? Am I correct?

Comment by Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman on June 20, 2013 at 4:04pm

Colleen, you are correct, large cedars have thick bark that make them fire resistant. Even more fire resistant are ponderosa and jeffrey pine, and black oak (which sprouts back). Folks have definitely looked at this and one good place where there is some information on bark thickness and fire resistance of different species is in the natural range of variability reports written by the regional ecologists. Especially the one on yellow pine forests and mixed conifer (by Hugh Safford). It is found on our "regular" USFS website under planning, but I think you can find the link if you go to Living Assessment on the top tab above and then look at the menu bar on the left. 

It turns out that cedar comes in pretty well on its own, sometimes more than we want. When it is dense in the understory, as small trees, it can create hotter fires (which are not always bad in smaller amounts). Back to my writing revising the bioregional assessment! deadlines!

Comment by Colleen McGuire Norris on June 20, 2013 at 3:34pm

I've read that cedars are fire resistant. I've notice in the Kern Plateau area which was heavily logged, at one time, there are a few giant cedar trees that are remaining. It looks like fire blew through very rapidly and took out the pines and the furs but left cedars. 

> Are there any thoughts to replanting cedars in some areas to make the areas more resistant to devastation by fire? Perhaps they would shade some areas and in time provide  somewhat of a canopy but still allow fires to burn through undergrowth rapidly instead of taking the whole forest out.  Has anyone done studies on this? I've done internet searches but I'm probably not using the correct description variables.

Comment by Erik Piikkila on March 22, 2013 at 3:08pm

Wildfires/Mega Fires have been impacted, controlled and continue to be shaped by many factors.  These include:

  • Prehistoric & Historic Fire Regimes
  • Climate Change & Global Warming
  • Native American Fires for Berry Production & Wildlife Forage, & Land Clearing
  • Harvesting Regimes over last 150 Yrs
  • Harvesting Policies
  • Utilization Standards
  • Timber Supply & Jobs 
  • 100 Yrs of Fire Suppression
  • 100 Yrs of Interrupted Fire Cycles
  • 100 Yrs of Fuel Build Ups
  • Fire Management Policies
  • Growth of Wildland Urban Interface 
  • Continued Knowledge Growth in Ecosystems, Landscapes & Ecological Processes & Services
  • Non Threatened, Threatened & Endangered Species Habitat and Disturbance Requirements

Many would like to know if the fires we have seen in the 1990's and especially in the 2000's have never been seen before and are increasing in intensities and extents.

Or were the fire events in the 1200 - 1700's, the 1800's and the 1920's & 1930's even larger & more intense than the fires of the last 20 years.

I believe that looking at the past 200 years with special emphasis on the last 150 years of harvesting and wildfires will allow us to:

Learn From The Past, To Understand The Present, To Predict The Future

The last 150 Years will be crucial as we look to a future of dry, warmer winters, increasing droughts, and hot dry summers.  

The last 150 Years of Harvesting and Wildfires was recorded and described in great detail in many reports that are hidden and forgotten on the shelves of archives & libraries.

As well, the impacts of 150 Years of Harvesting and Fires on many 10's of millions of acres across most Lower 48 States and in particular across the West, are also hidden and forgotten as well.

There is more to discuss but I have attached a graphic that shows the relative amounts of Native American Fires, Harvesting, Wildfires, and Fuel Build Ups over the past 200 Years. 

Comment by Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman on March 13, 2013 at 3:55pm

Justin makes a great point. Not all historic fire was "low intensity" or "low severity". What exactly the mix was in any one ecosystem, any one year, or any eon is difficult to quantify. We do know that it varied. We do know that some high severity fire occurred in all ecosystems, just the proportion varied. That is a big reason that when we described fire regimes and ecology in Fire in California Ecosystems Text, that we look at the "distributions" or mixture of fire intensity and severity and frequency, not just the average. I like to say, sometimes "means are meaningless". Do we really think that fires burned every 10 years in the ponderosa pine forests? Or was it more like 2 years, 15 years, 5 years etc that averaged together makes 10. In the higher elevation and moister parts of the mixed conifer (north slopes, lower slopes, northwest Sierras) it was probably more variable in frequency, severity and intensity. SO...I couldn't agree more!

Comment by Justin Augustine on March 13, 2013 at 3:39pm

I think we need to be very careful about the language we choose to use when describing fire.  I am seeing the word "uncharacteristic" thrown around by many folks but without much context.  While many people within the Forest Service continue to argue that we in fact know what is characteristic fire or not, the reality is much more nuanced.  There is a significant body of literature that has amassed over the past decade or so that demonstrates that the Forest Service's assumptions about moderate and high severity fire are no longer the whole story and that we need to reassess how we approach moderate and high severity fire.  To me, the role of a public agency like the Forest Service is to be up front and honest about the state of the science, which includes acknowledging the limitations of the literature being relied upon as well as explaining to the public the entire set of literature on the issue.  I hope that as the planning process goes forward there will be a much more open discussion about fire than there has been in the past and that the Forest Service will not continue to be entrenched in one particular point of view.


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