In the right place at the right time, wildland fire can create environmental benefits, such as reducing grass, brush, and trees that can fuel large and severe wildfires and improving wildlife habitat. In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfires can wreak havoc: threaten lives, homes, communities, and natural and cultural resources.

Wildland fire can be a friend and a foe, explained the experts who led a “fire tour” of four local points of interest as part of the Siskiyou Science Festival last Wednesday, May 15.

In the right place at the right time, wildland fire can create environmental benefits, such as reducing grass, brush, and trees that can fuel large and severe wildfires and improving wildlife habitat. In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfires can wreak havoc: threaten lives, homes, communities, and natural and cultural resources.

For decades, the Forest Service’s first response to a wildfire was to put it out and they have done just that when it came to wildland fires. But science has changed the way we think about wildland fire and the way the Forest Service has managed it.

The Forest Service still suppresses fires, especially if they threaten people and communities, but they now understand that fire has a role in nature – one that can lead to healthy ecosystems. Now, they look for ways to manage it, allow fire to play its role. Fire is sometimes even ignited purposefully as prescribed burns.

This is more important than ever, since over the last few decades, the wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Longer fire seasons, bigger fires and more acres burned on average each year. More extreme fire behavior and wildfire suppression operations in the Wildland Urban Interface have become the norm.

The Forest Service has been managing wildland fire on National Forests and Grasslands for more than 100 years. But the Forest Service doesn’t – and can’t – do it alone. Now, it incorporates other federal, tribal, state, private and local agencies.

“A wildfire naturally reoccurs every seven to 15 years in a mosaic fashion across the landscape” said Forest Service Fuels Officer Steve Clark. “Trees naturally need elbow room for their roots to grow, to be healthy, and able to fight against disease and bug infestation. A healthy forest needs opening in the canopy but also shade to reduce undergrowth. Wildfires naturally thin out crowded forests.”

Clark, along with Fuels Technician Devin Eastman, Prevention Specialist Anna Wright, Fuels Technician Hanne Meyers, Redding Hotshot Captain Teresa Miller and Jessica Matthews, who is the program director for Siskiyou Environmental Ecology Center led the tour.

“I had no idea what the Forest Service was doing with these prescribed fires,” said Lake Shastina resident Jennifer Marcy. “Understanding some of the practices, I now feel much safer living near the National Forest.”

The sites visited were all in South Siskiyou: an untreated site at McBride Springs with thick underbrush; Mud Meadow, where two burn entries have occurred; Pilgrim Creek Plantation project, which has been thinned and prescribed burned; and at Snowman’s Hill on Highway 89, where the first step of thinning has taken place.

The first step in forest management is tree thinning, where timber sales are conducted and private logging companies come in to harvest the area. Leftover debris is piled up and burned where needed.

The Forest Service will then apply prescribed fire in the area to help restore the landscape, reduce undergrowth and crowded canopies to reduce future fire hazards. After that they replant in select areas, leaving some downed trees for wildlife habitat. The whole process takes three to five years.

Areas picked for reducing fuels are Wildland Urban Interface where the forest is alongside or meets up with towns, cities or populated areas. They also look at the mortality of trees that may be diseased, insect infested or overcrowding.

In 2013 and 2016 the Forest Service conducted a controlled burn at Mud Creek Meadows to restore it to its original size, based on historical photos. The meadow was shrinking and losing its biodiversity, wildlife habit and natural watershed.

To be on a natural rotation the Shasta-McCloud Management Unit would have to burn 25,000 acres each year of their approximately 500,000 acres, yet last year they burned 2000 acres.

For more information about wildfire safety, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/stnf/ or www.shastatrinitynationalforest.com