Shasta-Trinity National Forest 2015 Fire Season Review

Release Date: Dec 3, 2015

Contact(s): Andrea Crain


REDDING, Calif., December 3, 2015 – After four years of drought, firefighters around the nation were poised to respond to a very active fire season in 2015. These predictions proved true, and by the end of September the Shasta-Trinity National Forest (NF) had responded to 229 fires: 159 caused by lightning and 70 due to human causes. Due to quick response times and a well-trained firefighting force, only 24 of those fires grew to over 10 acres. A total of 186,300 acres burned forest wide: 185,944 acres in Trinity County; 310 acres in Siskiyou County, and 46 acres in Shasta County.

Fire season on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest began in earnest in June with the Saddle Fire on the South Fork Management Unit outside of Hyampom. The Saddle Fire necessitated mobilizing the first Incident Management Team in California this year. By the time full containment was reached, 1,543 acres had burned. Then came July 30, 2015, when a lightning storm hit different areas in northern California, including the west side of the Shasta-Trinity NF. After 223 strikes in 24 hours, approximately 60 fires were reported in the forest’s protection area. By the next morning several of these fires had grown together; fire managers grouped them into five fire complexes. The Fork Complex outside of Hayfork, the River Complex outside of Weaverville, and the South Complex outside of Hyampom were all managed by the Shasta-Trinity NF. Two complexes managed by the Six Rivers NF, the Mad River and the Route Complexes, crossed forest boundaries and burned into the Shasta-Trinity NF. In total, these five complexes burned 218,540 acres across both forests; and 166,670 on the Shasta-Trinity NF alone.

But simple acreage-burned numbers do not capture the complete story of the 2015 fire season, or the lasting impacts it will have on the future of the forest. Not all of these acres burned were detrimental to forest health. The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams that were activated to complete field work and determine how intensely the fires burned discovered some interesting information: approximately 80% of the burned acres from all five complexes and the Saddle Fire burned at low severity (a measure of the effect of a fire, which is related to severity with which the fire burned.

In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfire can be a force of destruction, threatening lives, homes, communities, and natural and cultural resources. In the right place and at the right time, wildfire can also be beneficial, reducing surface fuels, and thinning brush and small trees that can otherwise lead to bigger and more severe wildfires, while improving wildlife habitat. The story of the Shasta-Trinity NF 2015 fire season provides an illustration of both the bad and the good.

Fire Name Total Acreage Burned Low Severity Burn Acreage Moderate to High Severity Burn Acreage
Saddle Fire 1,543 924 619
Fork Complex 36,498 27,596 8,902
River Complex 77,805 63,515 14,290
South Complex 29,388 23,901 5,487
Mad River 39,174 32,577 6,597
Route Complex 35,675 29,413 6,262
Total Acreage 220,083 177,926 42,157

Northern California’s ecosystems have evolved with fire as a natural part of the environment. Until policies of immediate and complete suppression gained popularity in the 20th century, fire was a normal, recurring event that helped keep fuels in check and prevented forests from becoming overly dense. The health of many plant and animal species depends on fire. The acres that burned at low severity this year mimicked the role that natural fire has played throughout this region for centuries. These areas of low intensity fire effects will actually help promote healthy forest development and resiliency for years to come in the same ways that prescribed fire does.

For areas that burned at moderate to high severity, BAER teams have assessed potential hazards and implemented treatments to speed the recovery of the burned areas and reduce potential for sediment and soil erosion flowing downstream from these burned areas during fall and winter rains. To learn more about BAER work or to view BAER assessment reports, please visit http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4601/.

Interestingly, the large amount of low intensity fire this year is due in part to heavy smoke that frequently remained over fire areas – a common occurrence in this landscape when many fires are burning simultaneously. Smoke creates unhealthy air conditions for people in the vicinity, and even communities far away, but there is one silver lining. When stable atmospheric conditions cause inversions to form, trapping smoke in the valleys, this also reduces temperatures and increases the relative humidity, which calms fire behavior.  And since the wind is not there to move the smoke away, it is also not there to push the fire forward.

Extensive high severity wildfire was not a big part of the 2015 fire season on the Shasta-Trinity NF, despite the extreme drought conditions. While some areas did burn with stand-replacing intensity, and will require more intensive post-fire management, the limited extent means that the forest can more easily recover. A mosaic pattern of different severities, including some high severity fire, leads to a diversity of habitats and can be beneficial for ecosystem health.   All areas that burned this summer have had the main carrier of fire – surface fuels – reduced, and are now fuel breaks. Until vegetation regrows and fuels build back up, these fuel breaks will help stop or slow active wildfire, which can be instrumental for avoiding large scale fire events.

Forest managers will continue to plan and implement treatments to burned areas to restore them and mitigate safety hazards. The Shasta-Trinity NF is pursuing the Trinity County Post-Fire Hazard Reduction and Salvage Sale Project. This project has three main purposes: to reduce hazards (i.e. fire-killed trees and excessive fuels) that threaten public and firefighter safety along open National Forest System, County, and State roads; sustain and establish forest cover; and within the treated areas, capture the economic value of felled trees, thereby supporting the economies of local communities by providing forest products. To learn more about this project over the coming months, or to view information on scheduled meetings, please visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/stnf/.

To learn more about the history and benefits of fire, please visit http://goodfires.org/.

###

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

 




https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/stnf/news-events/?cid=FSEPRD485270