Restoring Natural Wildfire; Economic Perspectives on Climate Change and Clean Energy

December, 2014






The 2014 Happy Camp Fires

As with many North Coast residents, fires burning on the Klamath National Forest dominated my consciousness this summer. Worry about friends living near the flames, some under evacuation orders, was my prime concern. I was not concerned about the forest. Having walked and studied all the large fires which burned in the Klamath Mountains since 1987, I was confident that the natural wildfire would be beneficial—a mosaic of some hot and mostly cool burns which scientists tell us has been the pattern in these mountains since the retreat of the glaciers.  

As the cost of fighting the fires rose, however, so did my concern. Fire maps available on InciWeb  and reports on the community Facebook page established to share fire information indicated that Forest Service fire managers were constructing many miles of fire line with bulldozers. That meant they were also conducting large burn-outs. 

Experience walking and studying past fires had taught me that natural wildfire does little damage to Klamath Mountain forests or their watersheds and are typically beneficial. Discretionary fire suppression actions ordered by fire managers, however, often produce significant watershed degradation and large swaths of 100% dead trees. Furthermore, soil and watershed damaging fire lines and burn-outs have never effectively controlled, much less put out, large fires burning in these mountains. Only the coming of fall rain and snow in the high country puts out the truly large fires that burn in the exceedingly rugged Klamath Mountain backcountry.

Then came the blowup: two days of strong canyon winds which drove the flames of wildfire and burn-out into the faces of firefighters who quickly withdrew. As the size of the Happy Camp Fires doubled in the short span of two days, my concern grew for humans and for the forest. Perhaps it was different this time; perhaps this time I would find miles of devastation from wind-driven natural wildfire. 

As soon as sustained rain put the fires out, I was into the wilderness and driving dirt roads studying the fires and the actions fire managers took in hopes of suppressing them. I found miles of black, particularly on the lower Scott River. But I also learned from locals that most large swaths of black and dead vegetation were the result of panicked back-fires lit by firefighters at the bottom of long, forested slopes. Even the wind- driven natural wildfire did not produce that sort of devastation. In fact, the fast-moving flames spared or thinned most of the forest; even tree plantations which usually are 100% killed when a fire comes through were thinned by these fast-moving flames.  

The industrial fire fighting complex—like modern warfare replete with corporate contractors—was developed with the goal of suppressing every wildfire by 10 a.m. on the following day. We now understand, however, that fire is a natural process in most forest ecosystems; forests in the western U.S. must burn if they are to function properly as ecosystems. Forest Service managers are talking the new talk; we must, they say, restore fire to national forest ecosystems. 

But while they talk the talk, Forest Service managers have trouble walking the walk. The primary tools they have on hand—military-industrial fire suppression and timber sales—are incompatible with restoring fire as a natural ecosystem process in our forests. What they are doing now is akin to placing new wine in old wine skins and the results are not good. 

Some local organizations and tribes are working to change that reality. More on that in a future report. 



Economic Perspectives on Climate Change and Clean Energy

On Tuesday, December 9, Sierra Club North Group will offer a pizza party and presentation featuring Steven C. Hackett, Chairman of the Department of Economics at Humboldt
State University.  

Limiting the harms from global climate change is one of the world’s most challenging common-pool resource dillemas. Steve will provide economic perspectives on the benefits and costs of greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation to climate change, the economics of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and mitgation policies such as cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. 

Meeting details

When: Tuesday, December 9, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center, 921 Waterfront Drive, Eureka

Notes: Open to the public and free of charge.  Pizza will be served.

Contact: Richard Kreis,

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