Fire Ecology and Restoration





Did you know that wildland fire plays an important role in the health of many ecosystems? In fact, wildland fire has helped shape the beauty of the Sierra Nevada just like wind, rain, and snow. On the Sierra National Forest, we continue use research and technology to understand and manage fire better, so when we need to put it out, we can. And when we need to use it, we can do that, too.

Natural and indigenous fire helped shaped the Sierra National Forest.  Prior to European Settlement and policies that promoted fire exclusion, natural fire (lightning fire) and anthropogenic fire (Native American practices) were a regular occurrence.  Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada used wildland fire as a tool to drive game for hunting or to encourage the growth of plants used for food, tools, and medicine. They would move from camp to camp in the summer to avoid fire and smoke, but rarely thought of lightning fire as something that needed to be extinguished. Ecology Fire body 1How do we know this? Native American practices remain alive today and have been passed down through the generations and through oral history. In fact, we have a great relationships with many of the area’s tribes, including the NorthFork Mono Tribe who maintain some of their fire practices today.  These relationships have resulted some very successful, cooperative prescribed burn projects that support and promote cultural practices.European settlers brought with them a greater fear of wildland fire and more permanent settlements that needed protection from wildland fire. However, in the early years, many also saw fire as a tool to clear fields and reduce forest fuels on a regular basis to prevent larger, more dangerous fires from occurring.  It’s important to note that during the years of fire exclusion, settlers and land managers were suppressing all fires because they believed they were protecting the forest; these policies were in place for approximately a century. The efforts were well intentioned, but the results of fire exclusion in the Sierra Nevada are dramatic and we’re seeing the consequences today.


Ecology Fire body 2


Wildland fire also plays an important role in water quantity and quality.  Historically, in the mixed conifer forest, a natural fire occurred every 10-15 years and tended to be a low intensity fire with occasional pockets of torching that opened the canopy. Forests of the Sierra Nevada, prior to fire exclusion policies, were more open with fewer trees per acre 

than is seen now. The distribution of trees has also changed. For example, there are more white firs than in the past because of exclusion. Because of our exclusion policies, roughly eight natural fire cycles have been missed in the mixed conifer forest. That means that there is eight times the amount of dead vegetation that has accumulated and that can feed a fire. Additionally, natural fires thinned the forest of some younger trees. This helped keep the forest open and more importantly helped the remaining trees thrive by reducing the amount of competition for water, nutrition, and sunlight. Many of the insect and blight kills seen in forests recently in the western US are the result, in part, of overstocked forest that are weakened by increased competition and therefore more prone to infestation. Global climate change is a factor in this dynamic as well.

The effects of a century of fire exclusion often result in larger, more intense fires.  Fires that come through the Sierra Nevada now are larger, more intense, and more likely to get into the canopy than in the past. This is because there are more fuels to feed the fire because of the additional dead and down fuels, as well as the increased amount of trees that were not thinned through the natural fire cycle. In addition, during the early days of logging, we removed many of the fire-adapted (and fire-dependent) tree species, which in some areas, were eventually replaced by species that are not fire resistant.  The results, ironically, are not good for the forest ecologically or for preventing unwanted fires. Fire risk has increased making community protection more difficult. The fires tend to be hotter and larger than in the past and, therefore, may not be as ecologically beneficial. Fire management and ecology, therefore, is an ever important component to our land management efforts.

Fire Restoration: While many wildfires cause little damage to the land and pose few threats to fish, wildlife and people downstream, some fires create situations that require special efforts to prevent further catastrophic damage after the fire. Loss of vegetation exposes soil to erosion; runoff may increase and cause flash flooding; sediments may move downstream and damage houses or fill reservoirs; and put endangered species and community water supplies may be at risk.  The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program addresses these situations with the goal of protecting life, property, water quality, and deteriorated ecosystems from further damage after the fire is out. Concern for possible post-fire effects on fish, wildlife, archeological sites and endangered species is often a primary consideration in the development of a BAER plan.

Interested in learning more?  We’ve compiled a list of some great resources below:

Joint Fire Science Program: JFSP develops science-based knowledge and tools to support federal, tribal, state, and local agencies and their partners. Click here for more information

Pacific Southwest Research Station: Dedicated in 1979 as the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, the site houses scientists who are carrying on a heritage of research first begun in Fresno about 1934. Located on a 10 acre site on the north campus of California State University at Fresno, this structure houses a complex of offices, research laboratories, and computer facilities.  Most research centered at this laboratory, however, is done at field locations in the Sierra Nevada and at the San Joaquin Experimental Range -- about 4500 acres of oak-pine woodlands, located 28 miles north of Fresno, near O'Neals, in Madera County. The Experimental Range is managed cooperatively by California State University at Fresno. Click here for more information

The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program:  BAER is “first aid” – immediate stabilization that often begins before a fire is fully contained. BAER does not seek to replace what is damaged by fire, but to reduce further damage due to the land being temporarily exposed in a fragile condition.
Click here for BAER website


Treesearch is an online system for locating and delivering publications by Research and Development scientists in the US Forest Service.

The Association For Fire Ecology is an organization of professionals dedicated to improving the knowledge and use of fire in land management through science and education.

For more information on managing wildland fires through Ecosystem Restoration, click here