"RIGHT, SO YOU CAN HAVE some sort of picture of what this ecosystem was like, but it’s obviously dramatically changed now," explains Varner. He stands with his students east of Willow Creek, Calif., where a blaze dubbed the Friday Fire burned in 2003. "If we can prevent these sorts of fires from occurring—in areas where they probably shouldn’t occur—the better off we’ll be in promoting ecosystem health."
Varner, a wildland fire management and ecology specialist at Humboldt State, then encourages the class to explore the blackened landscape. It’s late October on the south fork of the Trinity River, about an hour east of the HSU campus, and the students are trekking through a living fire behavior laboratory.
In just a few years, many of them will move on to the front lines—not just battling blazes, but also trying to reverse the damage from an ill-conceived approach to managing wildfire. The stakes are immense.
THE BIG BLOWUP
THE SUMMER OF 1910 was unusually dry and a series of July lightning strikes ignited numerous wildfires. But, rangers from the U.S. Forest Service had managed to keep the blazes contained and, by August 19, everything appeared to be under control.
Then, a dry cold front bearing hurricane-force winds swept across Washington into Idaho and Montana. Gusts exceeding 70 m.p.h. stoked the once-contained fires, causing them to merge and spread at an astonishing rate.
Suddenly, it was like a scene out of a disaster movie.
Fire jumped canyons a half-mile wide in seconds. Whole trees uprooted and transformed to blazing projectiles. Entire mountainsides burst into flames. Men ran for their lives, desperately seeking refuge in creeks and mine shafts. The Montana sky was pitch black by 4 p.m. and from Denver to Chicago the heavens were dark. Sailors at sea were unable to navigate by the stars.
In the end, the Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Blowup, burned approximately 3 million acres of virgin forestland in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. At its peak, some 10,000 men workedfire lines to contain the conflagration, which eventually claimed 86 human lives. To this day it is still the largest wildfire in American history.
To understand wildfire policy in the United States is to understand the impact of the Big Blowup. The fire’s destruction and drama were recounted in newspapers from coast to coast, influencing public opinion and prompting officials to take strong action.
In the wake of the horror, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a doctrine of fire suppression. It was a policy informed by emotion and public sentiment, not science. For decades, the decision would define the agency’s approach to wildfires and play a major role in the accumulation of fuels in national forests. It was a policy that set the stage for larger, longer burning wildfires with greater potential for devastation and loss of life.
TEACHING A NEW APPROACH
While not quite on par with the Big Blowup, California experienced its own intense fire season in 2008. Wildfires burned about 1.4 million acres from Los Angeles to Humboldt County, making them the largest in the state's history in total area burned. They also exacted a financial toll as the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $900 million and state agencies contributed an additional $1 billion to battle the fires.
Last summer's fires represent a persistent increase in the length and severity of fire season in California. With almost a century of fuel accumulation—including everything from branches to underbrush—experts agree there is no silver bullet to address the situation. But fire science professionals and academics are starting to employ a holistic approach to managing wildfire that they hope will reverse the trend of bigger, more destructive blazes and longer, more intense fire seasons.
"There are a few different strategies for addressing the kinds of fires we saw in Northern California last season," says Professor Varner, who teaches the Fire Behavior class. "One thing we can do is treat the landscape so that it's not so prone to high intensity fire by managing and reducing fuels. Another approach is to use prescribed fire to keep landscapes from getting into a degraded condition, where there's an abundance of fuels. But we also need to recognize that fires occur and we need to be a little more accepting about it."
Varner is one among a cadre of professors at Humboldt State studying wildfire management. Along with his colleagues, he is ensuring that the fire science professionals of tomorrow graduate with a new perspective on wildfire management that moves away from the doctrine of all-out suppression and tries to better understand the role fire can play. With a new generation and a new approach, wildfires—like the Friday Fire that Varner's students are exploring east of Willow Creek—might become less destructive and less frequent.
With a strong background in forestry stretching back decades, and the area's verdant natural setting, HSU is home to one of the premier programs in fire science. The University's program, developed over the past three decades, regularly produces fire science professionals that go on to be leaders in their field and shape fire policy throughout the country. They include HSU Forestry alum Del Walters, who was recently appointed director of Cal Fire, the state's wildfire management agency.
"When I started at Humboldt State in 1983, Professor Brooks Sibley handled all the fire curriculum. He was
pretty much the only guy," recalls Professor John Stuart, a fire ecologist.
Sibley retired in the early 1990s and Stuart worked to build the fire science program—housed in the Forestry & Wildland Resources Department—by expanding the curriculum and adding lecturers. Eventually, a Wildland Fire Management option was introduced, as was a minor in Fire Ecology.
Stuart was also one of the catalysts behind the Wildland Fire Studies Institute at Humboldt State, an advanced training program offered to U.S. Forest Service employees and similar professionals at HSU.
In addition to Stuart and others in the department, the Wildland Fire Program hinges on collaboration with colleagues from a variety of disciplines like Professor Yvonne Everett of Natural Resource Planning & Interpretation and Professor Chris Dugaw of Mathematics. This unique interdisciplinary approach, along with top-notch facilities like the Wildland Fire Lab (see fire lab section below) has made Humboldt State the preeminent fire science institution it is today.
"Fire is simple physics. The story of fire and how things burn is pretty well worked out," Stuart says. "The thing we have control over is fuel. We don't have control over topography or the weather. So, if we're going to be managing fire, we're going to be managing fuel."
Trees, dry leaves, twigs, shrubs, grasses and decomposed organic matter—known colloquially as duff—provide the fuel wildfires need to propagate. Reducing these fuels is perhaps the most significant step in preventing massive conflagrations.
When Indian people were the sole human inhabitants of the West Coast, they did not adhere to a doctrine of wildfire suppression and used controlled burning, also known as prescribed fire, in a very sophisticated manner, Varner and Stuart say. This approach incorporated fire as an essential aspect of land management, rejuvenating forests in a cyclical manner and preventing a massive build-up of fuels. But with that cycle broken, it's now the job of fire scientists and managers to find ways to reduce fuels and change the way wildfires are managed.
James Arciniega, a 2006 Humboldt State Forestry graduate, is a fuels forester with the Six Rivers National Forest, which encompasses more than 1 million acres from the Oregon border to southern Humboldt County. He was working on a fuels reduction project about 50 miles east of Arcata just before the June 2008 lightning fires ignited. Once the blazes started, Arciniega was reassigned to the Hell's Half Complex fire, where he created geographic information system maps of the area showing the progression of the fire, where resources were staged and where helicopters could land.
"What's really interesting is that about 20 years ago, when my predecessors were starting their careers here, they called this the 'asbestos forest' because asbestos doesn't burn," Arciniega says. "There was hardly ever a fire here and if there was it was very small, usually under 50 acres. The forest typically didn't get much lightning, logging had caused a reduction in fuels and the impacts of fire suppression weren't as noticeable yet. But about 10 years ago, the fires started to get larger."
"The trend seems to be more intense wildfires and it's not even close to leveling out," says Neil Sugihara, a U.S. Forest Service fire ecologist and Humboldt State alum ('76, '81). "Almost all of the largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. Before 1987 there were only a handful of fires over 100,000 acres in the state and now we have them several times a year."
Sugihara, an adjunct faculty member in HSU's Forestry Department, was the first president of the Association for Fire Ecology from 2000 to 2002. He says that while federal agencies are working to reduce fuels and reintroduce prescribed burning, they are fighting an uphill battle.
"The Forest Service has had a very intensive effort to manage fuels over the last 10 years, really at an unprecedented level, and we probably are not breaking even at this point. In fact, we're probably not even close to breaking even," Sugihara says. "We continue to accumulate fuels at a rate that's not stable despite our efforts. It's just a much bigger problem than we have the resources to deal with right now."
In addition to being a large, costly project, the concept of fuels reduction—via thinning or prescribed fire—brings with it some controversy.
"Unless you can generate revenue from removing fuels, then it's hugely expensive," Stuart explains. "But, if we start talking about revenue from removing fuels you get a lot of people worried about companies or agencies making money off the wood. Plus, if you go far away from existing roads you need to build new roads and that can be an ecological hazard."
Professor Chris Dugaw, a mathematical modeling specialist who focuses his studies on the natural world, is working with graduate students in the Environmental Systems program and colleagues in the Forestry Department to better understand how fire propagates and how to effectively utilize prescribed fire. Dugaw and his students are developing models to predict the likelihood that a specific area will burn, the fraction of duff that will burn in an area and even the probability that individual trees will be killed by fire. He says these types of models will eventually aid fire professionals in executing prescribed burns and understanding phenomena like tree mortality induced by smoldering duff.
"It's important to understand the mechanisms of fire spread. Mathematical modeling gives us that opportunity," Dugaw says. "When it comes to issues like smoldering duff and its impacts, we need to get a better understanding so we can manage fire more effectively."
FILLING IN THE GAPS
Managing fuels is a key way to minimize wildfires. Managing the people who impact the amounts and types of fuels is another.
"We can manage human actions in the forest and we need to make those actions as ecologically sophisticated as possible," says Professor Yvonne Everett, a community-based disaster management specialist at HSU.
Everett, along with Michelle Fuller, a graduate student in the Environment & Community program, is researching California's fire safe councils. A movement to protect communities and individual homes from wildfire began in the late 1960s as more people started living in rural areas that were formerly forestland. Over the next two decades the idea of clearing vegetation around structures to create a "defensible space" gained traction, and following the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire in Oakland, Calif., fire safe councils emerged. These grassroots, independent groups are community-based and rely on volunteers. Today there are approximately 100 fire safe councils throughout California.
"Fire safe councils, the beauty of them is, they are totally idiosyncratic," Everett says. "It can be as basic as people living in a trailer park that get together and decide to create defensible space around their park or it can be like the San Diego County Fire Safe Council and the 60 other councils underneath it working together on issues in that region."
The councils, Fuller says, "fill in the gaps" where state or federal agencies might lack resources.
"Fire safe councils can help people clear brush around their houses, like elderly people who might not be able to do it themselves," Fuller says. "They can also share equipment or organize with an agency to get assistance. So it definitely helps to organize at the grassroots level and get people involved. Otherwise, some of these areas might not get tackled."
James Arciniega, fuels forester for the Six Rivers National Forest, has worked with both the Willow Creek Fire Safe Council and the Trinity County Fire Safe Council.
"At the meetings we provide updates on our projects, and working with those councils has helped direct us toward what types of fuels projects we might attempt and the areas where we look to do those projects," he says. "It forms a key connection between the Forest Service and the community."
RETURNING TO A NATURAL CYCLE
Whether working in the forest or with communities, in the end, managing wildfires all comes down to fuels.
"We need to be far more proactive rather than reactive. Instead of seeing a fire and trying to put it out we need to create conditions in the forest where we could comfortably let a fire burn and still have some control," says Arciniega. "That would happen through more fuel reduction projects, far more. What we're doing now is just a drop in the bucket."
The hope, Arciniega says, is that eventually a natural, cyclical pattern of fire could re-emerge in forests. It's a process already in motion at the Six Rivers National Forest and a prospect that greatly interests Varner and his students exploring the charred mountainsides east of Willow Creek.
"Look at this, this is remarkable!" Varner exclaims as his students peer out across the forested landscape dotted with numerous burned spots where recent fires occurred. "This is all within the last five years, this tremendous number of fires. That's cool because what we see happening on this landscape in the future is, if fires continue at this rate and it looks like they will, fires moving into old fires and putting themselves out. So, we'll have an incredible landscape that is relatively recently burned and perpetuates the characteristics of a healthy, frequently burned landscape. That's pretty exciting."
FIRE LAB ON THE CUTTING EDGE
"When I came to Humboldt people kept saying, ‘You'll like our fire table.' I was thinking, ‘What the heck is the fire table?' says Professor Morgan Varner, a fire scientist at HSU. "So, when I came into the Wildland Fire Lab and they lowered the hood I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is perfect!'"
In fact, Humboldt State is one of only three schools in the nation, along with Western Washington University and the University of Idaho, to house a true fire lab with a fire platform and ventilation hood.
"Committing to a chemical lab is pretty easy because lots of different people can use it," Varner explains. "But, if you're committing to a lab like this you're really committing to a fire program because this room is only designed for fire research."
Indeed, Humboldt State has become one of the country's top fire science institutions. Aside from a fully equipped lab where students can burn wildland fuels and study fire behavior, the lab also makes use of a new thermal imaging camera. The camera yields remarkably accurate, pinpoint information concerning time and temperature, allowing fire scientists like Varner and his students to better understand fire behavior. In concert with the fire lab, the $60,000 camera gives students and faculty access to the types of cutting-edge technologies being used at the highest levels of fire science.
"There are two approaches to fire research. One is a large scale model where we look at landscapes, and then there's the small-scale stuff, the reductionist, old school science that we do here in the lab," Varner says. "We are trying to learn why a specific phenomenon occurs, what the mechanism is. We control so many different things in a lab setting that we can figure out what drives flammability or why different plant communities burn the way they do."
Access to the latest technologies and numerous opportunities for hands-on research brought master's student Eamon Engber, who earned his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, to Humboldt State's wildland fire program.
"I'm trying to find out if the presence of an oak canopy is changing fire behavior and intensity," says Engber, who is in the lab burning fuels collected at his study area in the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park in northeastern Humboldt County. "If the fires are burning hotter in the grassland, then they might be limiting oaks from encroaching on the grassland and limiting Douglas-fir seedlings from coming into the oak stands."
Learning in some of the world's most amazing forests and studying in one-on-one settings with professors who are experts in their field have helped make HSU a national leader in fire science.
"I came here because of this guy," Engber says as he motions toward Varner. "The forestry program here is great and the location is awesome, but I mainly came here because I wanted to study with Professor Varner."