As California’s Wildfire Season Continues, It’s Time to Focus on Forest Health

The fires California has seen this year, coupled with the state’s extreme drought, are pushing many forests past their threshold of sustainability. Fires are devouring land and homes at “mind boggling speed.” Those fighting the Valley Fire have said the “fire moved faster than any other in California’s recent past,” consuming 40,000 acres in less than 12 hours.
Given the devastating effect fires of this scale are having on California’s environment, our state must take even more aggressive action to minimize their impact by improving forest health and resilience.

As a new study published in Science Magazine points out, the health of many temperate forests are in peril due to the crippling combination of extreme prolonged droughts along with other threats such as disease and fires. As a result, experts predict that some forests could be converted to scrublands or grasslands within the coming decades.

 

The study further points out that, while many forests have shown incredible resilience and re-growth after timber harvests or other natural disasters, the higher temperatures and extreme droughts from the last few years could cause higher levels of forest mortality. This is a concern in California where forests are already beginning to show signs of increased mortality. A recent USDA aerial survey found that more than 12 million trees in the Sierra Nevada have already died due to the drought. Furthermore, as study coauthor and U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Nathan Stephenson notes, “the emergence of megadisturbances, forest diebacks beyond the range of what we’ve normally seen over the last century, could be a game-changer for how we plan for the future.”

 

While some forests will continue to rebound from disturbances in the short term, in the long term, minimizing the effects of these disturbances needs to be an important forest management goal. In California, improving forest health and resilience will require forest management to focus on reforestation, even and uneven age management, prescribed burning and thinning. Furthermore, more coordinated efforts by institutions, agencies, and governments than presently exists will be an important strategy in the years to come.

 

For a complete list of California’s active wildfires, acreage burned and containment status, please visit: http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/ActiveFiresList.php.