Catastrophic Fire Threat from Tree Plantations in the Sierra Nevada

Especially since the fires in recent years that swept through Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California, the interest in and fear of catastrophic wildfire in California has been heightened. Debates have raged over fire management policy on Federal lands. Legislation and rules within the Board of Forestry have altered “fuels reduction” on private forestlands and around residential buildings. Fire Safe Councils have sprung up and availed themselves of grant monies flowing to develop Wildfire Protection Plans and fuels clearance projects. Policy decisions have been made from Federal to local levels in an effort to lessen risk from uncontrolled fire.

Ironically, while so much attention has been focused on fire prevention, an activity with the potential to significantly raise fire threat has been progressing unimpeded in the Sierra Nevada. Sierra Pacific Industries is proceeding with their business plan, to convert more than a million acres of currently diverse forestland into fire-prone homogenous plantations. Moreover, the threat of Sierran wildfire from SPI's emerging plantations is exacerbated by the approximately 700,000 acres of older, largely untreated Forest Service plantations spread across the range.

The fire threat posed by plantations is addressed by forestry professionals and scientists alike. Dellasalla et al, name “losses of fire-resilient properties at the stand and landscape levels through the removal of large trees and 'legacy' stand components and homogenization of fuels across large landscapes” as one of the "factors acting as root causes of the current fire crisis" in the West. The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, too, is aware of plantations' fire risk to the Sierra Nevada. In the Tahoe Basin Emergency Rules Package (June 2005), they wrote:
Extensive harvest in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in an overall young forest. There is concern that these changes have contributed to an increased likelihood of severe fire. Younger forests are more susceptible to mortality from fires. This is due to the lower height and size of small trees. Their bark is thinner, and their crowns are lower to the ground, making them more susceptible to lethal heating by flames of a low height. With much of the Basin in a younger state, a large proportion of it could burn severely, with high rates of mortality. These two human activities- creating younger forests by harvesting older trees and suppressing fires that otherwise would have burned off accumulated fuel-have increased the likelihood of severe fire in the Basin.

Certainly if the current situation is left uncorrected, the Board of Forestry will be writing a similarly dire assessment for the rest of the Sierra Nevada in the not-so-distant future. Escalating catastrophic wildfires in the Sierra from plantations, particularly as global warming continues to alter the region's climate, will threaten the safety of a growing population, their historic towns, wildlife, and 65% of the state's water supply,