“All of us on the paper were suggesting that if you are going to try to reduce that mass fire problem in the future, you really need to start putting prescribed fire into these stands”
150 million dead trees could fuel unprecedented firestorms in the Sierra Nevada
Two years ago scientists warned that a massive tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada could set the stage for forest conflagrations akin to World War II fire bombings.
The Creek fire, which forced the dramatic helicopter evacuations of more than 200 campers over Labor Day weekend in California, may be a hint of far worse to come in future years.
It is burning in the Sierra National Forest, an epicenter of the bark beetle attacks that killed nearly 150 million drought-stressed trees during the last decade.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that dead stands in the Creek fire contain 2,000 tons of fuel per acre.
As of Saturday, the fire had charred more than 196,000 acres, destroyed 365 structures and was threatening 14,000 more in the vicinity of Big Creek, Huntington Lake and Shaver Lake. Firefighters don’t expect to contain it until mid-October.
or those who have studied the potential fire effects of the vast beetle kill, the Creek fire is a harbinger.
“I don’t want to be alarmist. But I think the conditions are there,” said Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor of fire science and lead author of a 2018 paper that raised the specter of future mass forest fires as intense as the Dresden, Germany, and Tokyo firebombings.
“As those [trees] continue to fall, the physics of it are unchanged. If you have dead and downed logs … the fires described in warfare are possible.”
One of hundreds of major blazes to erupt in this record-breaking fire season in California, the Creek fire has underscored the urgency of reducing that monster fuel load.
The only way to do that on the broad, landscape level needed, many experts say, is with fire of a different sort.
“All of us on the paper were suggesting that if you are going to try to reduce that mass fire problem in the future, you really need to start putting prescribed fire into these stands to start whittling away at those bigger fuels,” said Forest Service research ecologist Malcolm North, one of Stephens’ eight co-authors.