Fire: Can We Manage it for Birds and Nature’s Health?
As another very active fire season winds down, the debate over how to live with fire in California rages on.
Wildfires are often described as “catastrophic” and “devastating,” and this is true when human life and property are lost. But for many birds, other wildlife, and plants, wildfire is necessary. Fire is a vital ecosystem process in the Sierra Nevada, essential to biodiversity and nature’s health.
Point Blue’s Sierra Nevada scientists are guiding land managers to help resolve the conflict between human needs and the need for fire to sustain healthy ecosystems.
The Yosemite Rim Fire, third largest in California’s recorded history, burned about 100 Point Blue longterm study sites. With multiple years of pre-fire data there and in numerous other Sierra locations, we are now able to track changes in the bird community as a result of fire and study bird responses as indicators of nature’s health.
We are using this information to improve management of these areas for the wildlife that depends on them.
Post-fire management decisions have vital consequences for wildlife, including the rare Black-backed Woodpecker and other species that are now declining, such as the Chipping Sparrow and Lewis’s Woodpecker. Fire management decisions also shape the composition and structure of the forest well into the future, impacting myriad species beyond our lifetimes.
To ensure high quality post-fire habitat for a wide range of species, Point Blue scientists are partnering with Sierra forest managers. Our studies will add significantly to the scientific basis for managing these ecologically diverse, firedependent ecosystems.
In recent decades, the size of fires in the Sierra has increased. However, the amount of area burned is still far less than before fire suppression policies were enacted in the early 20th century. Strict adherence to Smokey Bear’s motto of “only you can prevent forest fires” – so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche – has severely compromised forest ecosystem health.
Our forests are now filled with far more trees, especially small ones that are more susceptible to fire, as well as dead trees, branches, and other flammable vegetation on the forest floors. This build-up of fuels, combined with longer, drier summers – likely the result of climate change – means that when fires occur, they burn with greater intensity and kill more trees.
“Fuel reduction treatments” including mechanical thinning and prescribed fires are now the primary strategy being employed on National Forest lands in the Sierra to combat the dramatic increase in fuels.
The Yosemite Rim Fire, burning since August 17, 2013 (84% contained as of late September), sped through fully a third of its total area in just two days (August 22 and 23), with 200-foot-high walls of flame. But once it hit Yosemite National Park, where land managers have used fire (both wild and prescribed) to reduce fuel loads for the last 30 years, the fire’s pace and intensity dropped.
Point Blue recently completed a ten-year study assessing the effects of mechanical fuel reduction treatments on the breeding bird community in the Sierra Nevada. Our findings suggest that these treatments, which remove 25–40% of the existing trees, appear compatible with sustaining the current avian community in these forests.
However, these fuel reduction treatments do not entirely fill the role that fire once did. Many species that reach their greatest abundance in recently burned areas, especially in areas that burned very hot, did not increase as a result of the thinning.
While fuel reductions appear to be a useful tool, we must also increase the use of fire to meet the needs of the full complement of species that depend on Sierra Nevada ecosystems.
The choice is not whether or not we want fire. The choice is: do we want fires that burn less intensely, in mosaic patterns, reducing forest fuels, or will we face a growing number of unstoppable, vast conflagrations during the hottest, windiest, driest days of the year?
Fire will play a critical role in aiding forest adaptation to a changing climate. By reducing tree densities, fire reduces competition for light, nutrients, and water, allowing forests to withstand more extremes in the future.
Point Blue scientists are now working to incorporate our findings into every National Forest management plan in the Sierra Nevada. Working hand-in-hand with the USDA Forest Service and other partners, our goal is to ensure a balance between fire, fuel treatments, wildlife needs, and human needs.
Now more than ever, our scientific expertise is crucial to meeting diverse and often competing habitat management objectives. Thank you for your most generous gift to help ensure that healthy National Forests sustain birds and other wildlife well into the future.
Thank you for your ongoing support that makes Point Blue’s innovative conservation science possible!