The Fire Next Time

A short and well-balanced summary of the drivers and repercussions of the present and future wildland fire problem in the western United States. Discussed using 2013’s Rim Fire as a focal point, the enormous and highly unnatural and destructive fire that burned through the Stanislaus National Forest and western Yosemite NP, including an area containing 20 long-term forest monitoring plots of mine. Found at Wildfire Today, which is a great site for all things fire, especially w.r.t. California.

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11 thoughts on “The Fire Next Time

  1. How big is a ‘long-term forest monitoring plot’? How often does one inspect such a plot? Are these flora centric or do wildlife census data figure in as well?

    • Big! Each one was originally established (in 1911) as a belt transect, 132′ wide by 1320′ feet long, which is 4 acres. However, because of the enormous increase in small and medium size trees, it was infeasible (and statistically unnecessary) to fully re-measure them, given the available resources, so I established a set of 20 circular plots within each one. Those will be re-measured over time. Nothing but trees measured–these are strictly forest tree demography plots. The trees in them are responding strictly to fire regime and climatic changes, since there never has been, and never will be any logging in any of them, as they are all inside the Park. Which makes them very valuable.

    • I sat alone at night with my shotgun and took care of the matter. 🙂

      It’s doubtful there was any in the area of my plots. The road system didn’t allow it until the very end of the time the issue existed, and by then, protections started. Yosemite became a NP in 1890, and the boundaries were much bigger then than they are now, especially on the west side. They had to have some reasonable way of getting the logs and/or shakes out of the woods, and there really wasn’t one.

  2. You say ‘”responding strictly to fire regime and climatic changes” – but wouldn’t herbivory and disease also have effects? Maybe I’m wrong here, but it would seem to me that particularly after a significant fire event there would be more pressure for competition among species than later when a more stable climax vegetation is reestablished.

    And invasion by a pest like emerald ash borer or gypsy moth would force measureable upheaval, no?

    • Hey, you’re not supposed to actually pay attention to what I say! 🙂

      I was talking +/- short-hand there, referring to the two main underlying drivers, and I always subsume increased competitive stresses under fire (mis)management, because 150 years of fire reduction/suppression has resulted in just that. Climate is a concern moving forward, overlain on the increased fuel load, just as Malcolm describes in the video. Insect attacks are definitely a big potential disturbance effect, but for the most part, unlike the EAB, the main concern in the west is with endemic bark beetles responding to external drivers that weaken the trees. So far the Sierra has been relatively lucky on that score, compared to the American and Canadian Rockies, which have been hammered big-time, but there’s absolutely no guarantee this fortune will continue. Having said that, yes, a super damaging exotic is always a possibility.

      As for herbivory, it’s just not that big of an issue. There is of course no livestock grazing and the only significant browser is mule deer, which migrate in herds up and down-slope with the seasons and prefer a number of shrub and herbaceous species to conifer browse. Never saw a single one during my work. Came face to face with a couple bears though, that was fun 🙂

    • Matt you know too much biology!

      As it turns out the blister rust hasn’t really been that devastating, certainly not like what was once feared, say back in the 1940s through 1960s when everyone thought it urgent to remove all the alternate hosts (Ribes spp) from the landscape. Sugar pine continues, apparently, to be most limited by it’s own biology–it’s just not a very aggressive reproducer, relative to its associates, and also has very specific light requirements (shade tolerant when young, but not when older). WWP is strictly a high elevation species in the Sierra, almost never find it below 8000 ft. Most of my plots are between 4500 and 6500 feet in classic mixed conifer forest. The dominant species is white fir, Abies concolor, well mixed with ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, incense cedar and black and canyon live oaks.

      The largest known pine tree in the world, of any species, a sugar, occurs just a half mile or so from one of the plots, and there are a whole number of whoppers in the area.

  3. I remember reading about Ribes ssp. being grubbed out in Idaho to save the WWP. Shows how crazy valuable an old growth white pine is, with no grain in the heart wood. Good to hear that there are gigantic Sugar Pines still standing, they would no doubt be worth pirating if there was a decent chance of getting them out unnoticed. I work in Kitsap County, Washington, which supposedly had far more WWP than other areas of western Washington. They were mostly logged with ships and cables since there is so much shoreline. The third growth coming in now is dying back due to the blister rust. The campus where I work lost the last two large white pines in recent years due to the rust. I lost a couple of limber pines in my yard, looked like the rust there as well.

    • It had been my impression that blister rust was a greater problem further north, including especially WA, ID and MT, where WWP is such an important timber species and grows much closer together typically, than either sugar or WWP in the Sierra Nevada, but I could be wrong on that. In the Sierra, sugar pine is always scattered in small groups and singly, rarely dominant over any area, and WWP grows in subalpine woodlands, where the inter-tree distances are, by definition, relatively large. This might influence the rate of spread from tree to tree, and hence the seriousness of the problem. Total speculation on that though.

    • It makes sense that lower density would slow the rate of spread, although the rust does have to go through the alternate host Ribes to infect new trees. The main trailhead into the Marble Mtns. in northern California is in a former Sugar Pine grove. When I visited there was one rather large SP with a sign explaining that, I otherwise would not know because there was only the one SP left when I got there. The sign also said that the one remaining had been recorded as a potential rust survivor in some sort of tracking database. It takes so long for an SP to make cones that the Liberty Elm approach is hardly workable, it would takes centuries.

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