CEO Corner

Follow our CEO, Manuel Oliva, for insights and inspiration on the direction of conservation science today.

How do we live with fire in California?

By Manuel Oliva, CEO

Post-fire habitat in the Sierra. Photo by Brendan McGarry

As we cope with yet another season of devastating fires throughout California, as well as associated power outages, my first thoughts are for everyone who has been affected. Having seen many of our staff, who live across the state be directly impacted by the loss of power for days, and some who have been evacuated from their homes not knowing if their house would survive, I appreciate the profound impact that these wildfires can have on people’s lives.  I also appreciate that although wildfires target everyone equally, many of the impacts have very disparate effects on different communities based on their ability to react and rebuild. We are grateful to all of the agencies and organizations helping all those affected to recover.

In many ways wildfires are a natural part of our state’s diverse landscapes. But climate change is dramatically altering how these wildfires act. Hotter temperatures, drier ground conditions, and more turbulent winds act in concert to create a dangerous mix that fuel stronger and more devastating wildfires. This is the world we live in now and these are the conditions to which we need to find ways to adapt.

The current impacts of climate change, however, are exacerbating a problem nearly a century in the making. Suppression of fire has resulted in high tree densities and a build-up of litter and debris on the forest floors that increase the susceptibility of these landscapes to burning fast and hot. At the same time many of these fires create important habitat that maintains biodiversity and provides other important ecological services.

Point Blue Sierra Nevada Group Director taking data in post-fire Sierra habitat. Photo by Ken Etzel

The question we must answer is: How do we live with fire in California, as a natural and even important part of maintaining a healthy environment and protecting people and property? One example is Point Blue’s work with the South Lassen Watershed Group. We are helping to lead a collaborative that is working across 800,000 acres in the Northern Sierra to prepare this landscape for the consequences of climate change, in particular more frequent and more severe fire. This work involves thinning forests both mechanically and through the use of fire. The work prioritizes reducing fire risk in and around communities but also reducing fuel loads outside of these areas to allow trees to better survive drought and the inevitable next fire. At the same time we are taking a watershed approach to restore the health and increase the resilience of the entire system to more frequent and extreme disturbance events such as drought and fire.

We believe that working in partnership with landowners and communities, our science can help point the way to new strategies to mitigate the damage of future wildfires. As with all of our work, our goal is to continue to support healthy ecosystems–in this case, ones where trees, meadows, grasslands, and streams all work together to create balanced landscapes that support people and wildlife.