The first real snow of the season arrived the other night, which gave me a chance to work my new snow shovel and do some thinking. My thoughts turned to the wildfire season that occurred this year, and I thought I might share them with you.
By any measurement, 2015 was a rough year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 55,000 wildfires burned about 9.8 million acres of wildland this year, taking the lives of 13 firefighters in the process, God rest their souls. Focusing on the forest impacts alone, this was within 1% of the worst year ever. In the modern era, the eight worst fire years have all occurred in the last 15. Of the four different years where losses exceeded 9 million acres, they have all occurred in the last nine years. As a trend, the problem is getting larger.
Additionally, there is much evidence that the fires are getting more severe. Not only are we having larger, more frequent fires, but they’re also burning with greater intensity. While high severity fires used to be relatively rare, they now have become very frequent. This changes how the forest responds in significant ways. In lower severity fires, much of the undergrowth and smaller trees would burn away, leaving areas for natural tree planting and reducing the competition for resources to the larger, surviving trees. Often, this permitted the forest to mature a stage in their development and almost always led to increased ecological and biodiversity. However, high severity fire (also sometimes known as crown fires) leads to total forest stand replacement. Over the large areas we now see as commonplace, this is leading to many environmental problems, including:
1.) Soil degradation, including death of soil microbes and loss of basic nutrients
2.) Increased erosion, which worsens flooding tendencies, fills streams with sediment, reduces fish habitat, and makes regrowth more difficult
3.) Loss of habitat, increasing the stress many species experience from large firescapes.
4.) Loss of snowpack, as burned areas melt sooner, further exacerbating western droughts.
Though 2015 was a bad year for wildfire, it also likely to be the new normal. Bigger, more intense fires means our forests have some real challenges ahead of them.