The Fires of Southern California

The Fires of Southern California

Nearly a third of southern Sierra forests killed by drought and wildfire in last decade

By Jim Urquhart and Mark Monken

14 March 2020

The fire-ravaged forests of southern California in the summer of 2017 burned at a rate almost four times higher than in the same time period last year.

The same pattern was repeated across a region where only a few years ago a tree-based forest community with a healthy rain forest would have been in a position to fight back against the spread of a devastating firestorm. The current situation, which is the result of the impacts of drought and forest fires on the vegetation, makes such a battle highly unlikely.

The current rate of fires and tree deaths underscores the failure of the political leadership that was installed during the recent election to protect people or resources from wildfire and other forest-disease-caused disasters.

“This rate of tree mortality is so high that even if we could do nothing we would have to reforest” with a different species, said Thomas Stolper, director of environmental research at the University of California, Berkeley. “There is no other way.”

The fires began in January 2017 and continued until October 2018. They began in steep terrain where there are numerous obstacles to fire retardation. At least some of the fuel was of unknown origin, most likely from recent firefighting operations within the boundaries of the cities of Camp Pendleton, San Diego and Poway. This, in turn, was the result of intense enforcement of the Forest Code to make forest openings illegal.

Since then, more than 600,000 acres have burned in the four-state region. The fires were accompanied by a massive wave of mortality of live and dead trees.

“The area burned from 2017 to last year is about 10 times the area burned in the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s from major fires,” noted Chris Mielke, a fire and forest management scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “This year we experienced a much larger magnitude of burns in northern California then we ever have.”

Over the course of the fires, more than 800,000 mature and old trees were killed, and thousands of young trees died as well.

The death toll in 2017 exceeded the number of fatalities in the recent wildfire

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