Smoke stains the sky over McKinleyville red at the start of fire season on Aug. 1, 2015 | Photo by Mike Kelly

The Complex Interface of Humans and Wildfires

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How fire suppression is a mixed bag in Humboldt County

Every fire season, blankets of smoke roll over Humboldt County. Here on the coast, that’s as close to wildfires as some of us get. But our practice of fire suppression is a relatively new state for our woodlands and the lack of fire is taking its toll on the county.

“Humboldt county’s interesting. Most of the county really hasn’t experienced much fire over the last few decades,” said Jeffery Kane, associate professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University.

High levels of rainfall and a more temperate climate contribute to a lower risk of fire, but that doesn’t mean fire isn’t a natural part of Humboldt’s environment.

“When there are ignitions, and there are ignitions here from lightning and humans from time to time, they are usually fairly easy to put out,” Kane said. “That nice fog layer, that’s going to moderate fire behavior.”

Inland Humboldt county is not as protected by our temperate, coastal environment. But Kane said that quick fire suppression may not be the safest or most environmentally friendly way to manage wildfire in the long term.

“The thing that we know is most effective is to treat areas with a combination of thinning and burning,” Kane said.

The suppression of small wildfires can make future fires more difficult to control. Dense canopies and the buildup of dry fuel makes fire more dangerous. By thinning the forest, the trees become less tightly packed. When the canopy has more gaps, fires spread slower. Then after the canopy is thinned, a prescribed burn can take care of the natural dry fuels and remaining debris created from thinning. Thinning and burning can make an area less vulnerable to uncontrolled wildfires.

Although Humboldt is relatively protected, this area still would see wildfire activity every few years if not for the relatively recent introduction of American colonizers. Due to the danger of wildfire to settlers and property, wildfire is almost completely suppressed.

Disturbance Ecology Professor Rosemary Sherriff studies the impact fire suppression has on local woodlands. She thinks there can be a balance between protecting settled areas and letting wildfires run their course.

Lightning strikes and Indigenous burning would have introduced fire to local oak woodlands. These woodland areas suffer without the fire that shaped the ecosystem.

“In the past few years we’ve had fires that have gone into more urban areas, a lot of it stemming from more wildland areas,” Sherriff said. “There’s been a substantial amount of urban-woodland interface and these are really extremely hazardous places to live.”

In addition to providing more fuel to fires, the removal of wildfire has come at the cost of native biodiversity. Removing a natural phenomenon that was encouraged by local Indigenous tribes has consequently impacted our landscape. Local ecosystems are adapted to wildfire and removing fire allows fire sensitive species to grow without natural inhibitors.

“Inland we have oak woodlands, for example, that historically would have had a lot of fire,” said Sherriff.

Lightning strikes and Indigenous burning would have introduced fire to local oak woodlands. These woodland areas suffer without the fire that shaped the ecosystem.

“What we’ve seen is a lot of encroachment of native douglas fir into these oak woodlands,” Sherriff said. “So there’s been a loss of the oak woodland open areas.”

This loss of oak woodlands can be seen throughout Humboldt County. This destroys native biodiversity. But fire suppression is not the only consideration.

“Fire suppression has certainly shaped the landscape,” Sherriff said. “We can’t disregard the fact that settlements and communities and ranches and homeownership and the cannabis that’s happening also shapes and reshapes the landscape and can contribute significantly to shifts in fire behavior.”

The balance between human settlement and fire suppression is a difficult medium to reach.

“It becomes extremely tricky when it’s someone’s livelihood,” Sherriff said. “It’s very easy to sit at the university and say ‘yeah, more fire on the landscape’ but it’s extremely hard to make it happen with all the structures and policies in place.”

Lenya Quinn-Davidson is an advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. One of her projects is the Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association. It’s a loose cooperative of land owners and community members that implement prescribed burns. While structures and policy is slow to change, they’ve proactively decided to put fire back into their land themselves.

“A lot of people want to use prescribed fire,” Quinn-Davidson said. “By the time we’re actually there lighting the fire, there’s already been a ton of work making sure that it’s safe, effective and that it won’t get out of control. It’s not like we’re just going out and lighting things off.”

Prescribed burning is a tool that landowners can use for fuels management, invasive species control and habitat restoration. The encroaching firs that Sherriff studies are a main target of controlled burn.

“We’re losing our oaks at a pretty astonishing rate,” Quinn-Davidson said. “So a lot of the landowners that have oak woodlands really want to use prescribed fire to get in there while those firs are small and kill the firs. The oaks survive just fine because they’re very fire adapted.”

Though douglas firs are native, there are some invasive species that landowners can keep back with prescribed burns. There are invasive species of grass like the medusa head that smother local grasslands. Ranchers want to make sure their cattle grazing lands are free of medusa head.

“It creates this thick thatch that prevents other plants from growing, so it turns into this homogeneous field of grass that nothing can eat.” Quinn-Davidson said. 

Fire is necessary for keeping our natural landscape healthy and biodiverse. Where forest and human settlements meet, controlled burning can help maintain a healthy habitat with less danger to human life. With those buffer zones established, wildfire can be allowed to burn in a controlled manner, establishing a careful balance between fire and safety. 

Quinn-Davidson thinks getting to a meaningful scale of fire management will take a combination of state intervention and owners taking control of their land.

“It’s a real community thing.” Quinn-Davidson said. “People just love it.”

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