California’s Sierra Nevada fire doing what nature intends

Sierra Nevada fire.

The Forest Service is allowing a fire burning in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to burn — rather than extinguishing it — as a way of reducing brush and small trees in the forest. This decision on the “Lion Complex” fire represents implementation of fire policy that allows fires that are not endangering lives or property to do what Smokey Bear calls “natures housekeeping.”

It’s great to see the Forest Service moving in this direction: It’s good for the forest and good for the taxpayer.

This policy restores fire’s natural role in the environment, rejuvenating wildflowers and plants on the forest floor. It also leads to providing shade for the forest by leaving large trees unharmed and by removing smaller trees and brush that would otherwise compete for water. The ash from fires frequently sweetens soils, making nutrients more available to plants. Browsing animals like this, too.

Allowing lightning fires to burn under close supervision makes particular sense in the Sierra. Much of the range is clothed in mixed conifer forest, an ecosystem that relies on low severity fires to prevent high severity fires.

Granite Fire herded around this plantation. Photo by Rich Fairbanks.The Lion Complex fire is located near the South Sierra Wilderness on the Sequoia National Forest and has burned about 3,900 acres so far. The fire is moving toward the footprint of a previous series of burns that were allowed to occur in 2003 and 2006. Because those areas were cleared out, the Lion Complex fire is expected to die down on its own — preventing the need for firefighters to risk their lives battling the blaze.

This approach also saves tax dollars because it’s far cheaper for the Forest Service to remove fuels by allowing wildfires to burn them than by paying crews to cut, pile and dispose of the underbrush. The Forest Service, for example, paid only $244 per acre to fund the staff and equipment required to monitor a fire being allowed burn — far less than it would cost to send out an army of chainsaws.

Fire in Sierra Nevadas.
Granite Fire herded around this plantation. Photo by Rich Fairbanks.