The 2004 Sims Fire and its aftermath represent an ecological recurring nightmare. The same acres on Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Six Rivers National Forest are burning again and again. The same thing is happening across the West. Old forests are losing ground, more and more acres are set back to ecological ground zero, and the fish and wildlife that depend on them are in danger.
In the wake of last summer’s million-acre August complex wildfire which burned onto these same national forests, the 4,030-acre Sims Fire sounds small by comparison. But parts of the Sims Fire footprint have burned two more times since 2004. Much of it burned with such intensity that it resulted in severe fire effects, killing large patches of old growth forest.
Research shows that old growth forests, also referred to as late successional or late seral forests, are more resistant to severe fire effects because bigger trees have thicker bark and hold more water. As during the Sims Fire, even these large trees can ignite and be killed when hot fires rip through nearby flammable vegetation, torching the tops of trees and sending hot embers raining down. Severe fires kill vegetation, resulting in rapid regrowth of flammable, brushy vegetation amidst large-diameter dead trees – a perfect recipe for another high intensity wildfire.
Although fish and wildlife are found in forests of all ages, the continued loss of old growth has serious consequences for northern spotted owl and salmon.
‘Any setback is demoralizing’
Mature, late seral forests are more than 120 years old. They provide habitat to the federally threatened northern spotted owl, and special status fish species, including Chinook and coho salmon, that live near the Sims Fire area in the South Fork Trinity River. Although land managers have made strides to protect these old habitats from overharvesting, the threat of catastrophic wildfire poses the biggest danger to further loss.
Northern spotted owls rely on old forests for roosting and nesting, and simultaneously face threats of a warming climate and fierce habitat competition by the non-native barred owl. Shade from old growth forests keeps water cool for salmon while downed wood changes water speed, sometimes forming gravel deposits in which they lay eggs. Downed wood also helps to create deep pools where young fish find protection from predators. Salmon are also culturally important to the northern California tribes, and locally important to the economy. The old forests they need have suffered a historic loss in acreage due to a century of unsustainable logging practices.
“Redevelopment of old growth forest takes a long, long, long time,” said Mark Goldsmith, wildlife biologist for the Shasta Trinity National Forest. “So, any setback is demoralizing and just pushes out that much further the date when you may be able to replace that habitat. This is especially relevant to the northern spotted owl.”
“I’ve come to feel that the thing that can help wildlife the most is to reduce . . . that likelihood of the next large wildfire or at least reduce its intensity, its severity.”
Goldsmith and other fish and wildlife managers in California recognize that severe wildfire destroys old forests much more quickly than they can regrow. This has led to collaborative projects with fire managers to reduce brush, thick plantations of trees or any other fuel that feeds wildfires – especially when they’re near sensitive fish and wildlife habitat. Reducing fuels lessens the intensity and severity of future fires. Continued wildfire is part of today’s reality for humans and wildlife in many western states, but planning can help minimize or prevent destruction of property and forests.
Forest management in this country over the last 100 years has led to a buildup of fire fuels. As catastrophic wildfires continue to strike and communities brace themselves for the next threat, land managers must consider how best to protect vulnerable communities while preserving critical fish and wildlife habitat.
‘120 years . . . is a lot of careers’
Hyampom is the small community located nearest to the Sims Fire footprint. The Hyampom Fire Safe Council provides residents with education, resources, and tools to better prepare for wildfire. They recently worked on the Hyampom Fire Resilient Community Project with fuels planners and other staff on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Collaboration to minimize risks posed by wildfire is crucial and ongoing, but so, too, are strategies to preserve critical habitat. Some of the same projects that protect their community, like strategic fuel breaks to thin and clear dense vegetation or low intensity prescribed fire to reduce thick, brushy vegetation can also be used to protect old growth forests from destruction by wildfire.
“We don’t have the capacity or resources to treat every acre,” said Bryan Yost, wildlife biologist on the Six Rivers National Forest. But, Yost explained, the natural fire resiliency of late seral (old growth) forests coupled with reducing nearby fuels, may cause wildfire to spread more slowly and remain closer to the ground (potentially sparing trees), and allowing firefighters faster, easier access to gain control.
Yost supports management that protects sensitive fish and wildlife by protecting existing old growth from catastrophic wildfire. He also believes it’s easier to retain those forests than try to replace them. Restoring a forest to old growth conditions involves a lot of decisions by many people over many decades. Simply put, “A late seral stage is 120 years, which is a lot of careers,” said Yost.
Yost’s statement hints at the complexity behind completing work on the ground. Wildfire is unpredictable and results in burned landscapes that require fast restoration – conditions that do not fit conveniently within a budget and an organized plan.
An opportunity presents itself
The cause of the Sims Fire was a fallen tree on a powerline. Ultimately, Pacific Gas & Electric was found responsible and paid a settlement to the national forests in 2012. This was an opportunity to restore ecosystem health to the Sims Fire area. The Sims Fire Restoration Strategy was approved in 2014. It proposed restoration projects that would need to be finished within three years to meet the Forest Service’s settlement funds requirement.
Several projects were eliminated when subsequent wildfire burned through their potential locations within the Sims Fire footprint. Ironically, one of these projects would have used prescribed burning with low flame lengths and low intensity to reduce the risk of another catastrophic wildfire. It didn’t happen soon enough.
The three-year timeline prevented completion of several fish and wildlife-related projects, however there were some wins for fish. Reducing sedimentation came up many times in the restoration strategy. “Historically, fish and fire have gone hand in hand,” said Andrea (Andy) McBroom, fish biologist for the Six Rivers National Forest. “But what is it about fire that becomes catastrophic and what is it that can be good?” McBroom acknowledges that some sediment washed into streams can encourage fish spawning, but high severity fire removes so much vegetation that bare soil becomes saturated with rain and snow and can move down steep slopes as massive landslides. Too much sediment can choke out the oxygen in streams and kill fish.
Sims Fire sediment models suggest that sediment delivery to streams increased three to five times in the most severely burned areas, and that tens of thousands of cubic yards of sediment were eroded and delivered to the South Fork Trinity River, home to several special status fish species. One cubic yard of sediment is about the size of a washing machine.
Actions were taken to improve these degraded stream conditions. Immediately post-fire, several disturbances with potential to cause landslide activity were corrected. In addition, culvert crossings were improved on many forest roads to reduce sedimentation to the salmon-bearing waters of the South Fork Trinity River.
Another restoration proposal aimed to speed the growth of shade trees to keep the water cool on sun-exposed streams. Forests that surround water features are called riparian reserves. McBroom supports projects that enhance riparian reserves because shade trees near streams eventually die and fall into streams. This dead and downed wood supports healthy fish populations, and often becomes the same old growth forest corridors that support the northern spotted owl and an abundance of other species.
Research indicates that riparian reserves – like old growth forests – may better withstand negative effects of a warming climate and have natural resistance to high severity wildfire. Although they hold more moisture and may have older trees, they too can burn when they are next to plantations of flammable, brushy vegetation left behind by previous fires, or in remote areas with no firefighter access. The riparian enhancement proposal received initial approval, but hillslopes were ultimately considered too steep to complete the project.
Despite factors that stymied some projects which would have helped fish and wildlife, there were some additional wins. Nearly 500 acres of severely burned, deforested land was replanted in the two years after the Sims Fire. More than a decade later, when the restoration strategy was approved, this plantation of trees was thinned, reducing the number of trees and its likelihood of a severe wildfire.
The restoration strategy engaged local communities in fire restoration like removing weeds to encourage native plant communities. It also allowed miles of property boundary markers and land surveying monuments to be reestablished.
Tools for the future
In the wake of what some call the era of megafires, what hope is there to preserve old forests, or at least buy time for young and middle-aged forests to grow into old forests? Can sensitive fish and wildlife that have survived past logging practices, now make it through the threat of severe wildfires and the negative effects of climate change?
This is where technology and planning can help. Dan Ostmann, former fuels planner for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, explained how he works with computer mapping tools to identify strongholds like roads, rivers or prominent ridges that could help control future wildfires. While fish and wildlife managers recognize the need to protect vulnerable habitat from destruction, they look to those like Ostmann for opportunities to do so. “The need to have a strategic plan is overwhelming,” said Yost.
“This layer is important to project planning,” Ostmann said, referring to his computer mapping software. It helps managers map on-the-ground projects that consider communities, forest and public infrastructure, and fish and wildlife. They can “see” where old growth habitats will be most resilient to wildfire, where thinning of the forest may be appropriate, or where they can work with natural features to protect that habitat.
Proactive planning also gives land managers tools they need to work with local communities on fire education and prevention. While every acre can’t be protected, work like Ostmann’s results in smart decision-making that can also bring hope to the vulnerable northern spotted owl and salmon. Continued large wildfires are an unfortunate reality, but, as Goldsmith said, “limiting their severity is the key to helping wildlife.”