Fighting Fire with Fire and Benefiting from the Resulting ‘Fire Footprints’

California’s future features lots of fire and smoke, and that’s not all bad.

by Jim McKay / August 17, 2018

The Ferguson fire is one of several that helped make for a smoke-filled summer for Californians. Californians should get used to the fires and the smoke because fire is inevitable and not always bad—managing fire with fire is a viable strategy that Californians should embrace.

The Ferguson fire has killed two firefighters and burned more than 95,000 acres in the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests, including Yosemite National Park. The fire is a wildfire and because of its massive size and risk, not a candidate to be used for resource management as a prescribed fire. 

But using fires as resource management tools is beneficial and, in fact, one of the keys to mitigating the state’s growing fire season. In fact, it was two previous fires, one in 2009 and another in 2011, that helped absorb the Ferguson fire with old scars, or more appropriately, fire footprints, that ate up fuel.

“Those old fire footprints actually, think of them as shock absorbers, take the energy of a large fire that may be burning very hot and is very dangerous and it can burn through those fire footprints in a way that makes it easier for firefighters to contain and control that particular part of the fire,” said Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite.

Martin said it’s best to look at fires holistically in an era with lots of dead and dying trees and the added problem of climate change. She said the fires are getting so big, they have to be approached strategically, long term.

And fighting fire with fire is one of the strategies. That might mean not suppressing every fire but letting it burn a mile or two more and using those old fire footprints as containment opportunities rather than using air tankers and putting firefighters at risk.

In Yosemite, fire officials look at two factors when deciding how to approach a fire — resource objectives and protection objectives. As said, there is the possibility of using the fire as a resource, to act as a beneficial agent. But that requires a plan in place and a strategy.

The benefits are reducing fuel load, maintaining a healthy forest and resiliency over time. “The park doesn’t have an opportunity, nor should it, it’s not our mission, to harvest timber, so fire is the primary tool to achieve ecosystem resiliency and environmental benefits,” Martin said.

Martin said that in looking at a large fire like the Ferguson fire, you “zoom out” and take an overall look at the landscape for strategy. “I look at the landscape to try to determine if there are natural opportunities to contain a fire like this,” she said. “One hundred thousand acres is almost insurmountable, but when you look at the tapestry of the landscape from afar, you can pick up patterns and those patterns emerge as opportunities to look at where you can use those old fire footprints as containment opportunities.”

The future of California may depend on using this approach where feasible.

Climate change is creating hotter, longer summers, drier fuel and the fire season has now backed up into spring and lasts well into winter. That combined with the suppression efforts that have dominated for decades in ecosystems that depend on frequent fire return and the fire hazard is exacerbated.

Yosemite is managed also with mechanical fuel treatments — removing the smaller trees and brush and thus reducing fuel. This, along with prescribed burning, is part of a multi-pronged approach.

“We have to use the science and research and look to the tools to try to break up these landscapes, so they don’t become so large and so dangerous,” Martin said. “It’s going to take a lot of understanding by the public and the acceptance of smoke.”


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