San Francisco, CA – As another very active fire season comes to a close, 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, wildlife, and plants, wildfire is a vital part of the ecosystem in the Sierra Nevada. 

The Yosemite Rim Fire burned some 402 square miles of forest and meadows in and around Yosemite National Park over 2 months. Point Blue scientists now plan to study 70 sites around Yosemite that were burned in this fire.  In these places, they will monitor plant and bird communities, gather information about how the areas change, and make post-fire forest management recommendations.

Smokey Bear Wasn’t Always Right
“Strict adherence to Smokey Bear’s motto of ‘only you can prevent forest fires’ has compromised the health of our forests,” said Ryan Burnett, Point Blue’s lead Sierra Nevada scientist. “Smokey’s goal of preventing human caused wildfire has led to a gross misunderstanding of the role wildfire plays in forests. We now know that wildfires are critical to sustaining forests and wildlife populations.”
As a result of fire suppression policies over the past century, many Sierra Nevada forests are now filled with far more trees, especially small ones that are more susceptible to fire. 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, changing the ecology of the forest.  In contrast, the Rim Fire’s pace and intensity decreased once it entered Yosemite National Park, where land managers have used fire to reduce fuel loads for the last 30 years.

A Decade of Research in the Sierras
Over the past decade, Point Blue has studied how to keep forests healthy for birds, which are an excellent indicator of nature’s health. They looked closely at how trees are removed (by wildfire or mechanically with machines and chainsaws) and what the impact was to birds.  They concluded that an increased use of fire along with some mechanical reduction is the best approach to reduce fuels, and sustain wildlife in the Sierra Nevada.  In addition, their findings show the value of setting aside parts of the burned forest for plants and animals that flourish in these areas after a fire.  This involves leaving dead trees standing and allowing the forest to regenerate naturally instead of densely replanting conifers.  

“Clear-cutting large swaths of forests after a wildfire has immediate and lasting negative impacts on wildlife,” explained Ryan Burnett.  “It’s time we take a new approach, using research and monitoring to be more strategic and thoughtful about our forest management decisions after a fire. With climate change likely to increase the area affected by wildfire every year, these new practices will be more important than ever.”

Wildlife and Sierra Wildfires
Wildfires play a key role in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem for many species and clearly there will be winners and losers from large fires like the Yosemite Rim fire. Species like the Pacific Fisher and the Spotted Owl will potentially lose habitat but even the most blackened acres of the Rim Fire will be teeming with life a few years after the wildfire. Species like the Black-backed Woodpecker, the Mountain Bluebird, and the Lazuli Bunting are some of the many species that benefit from wildfire in the Sierra Nevada.

“Post-fire landscapes are not catastrophic wastelands,” said Ryan Burnett, Point Blue’s lead researcher on the Sierra Nevada team. “They are important habitats that sustain biological diversity in the Sierra Nevada, especially in this era in which we have dramatically reduced fires fingerprint on the ecosystem.”

Point Blue scientists are now working to incorporate their findings into every National Forest management plan in the Sierra Nevada.