Fire in the Sierra Nevada is an essential ecological process that can restore, revitalize, and renew the forest. However, tragic losses to life and property are increasing where fires ignite in, or spread into, the wildland/urban interface (WUI). There appears to be an unprecedented convergence of factors driving these megafires that are related to climate change and other human-caused alterations of the environment that have resulted in longer drought, higher temperatures, and extended fire seasons into the spring and winter. Fire behavior has become more severe due to feedback loops attendant to the altered composition and structure of natural areas. Introduced and highly flammable annual grasses are widespread now in many forest and woodland landscapes, and plantation forestry creates uniform, single-age stands of trees that burn with high intensity. Plantation trees are also the most likely stands to be attacked by bark beetles, resulting in millions of standing dead trees awaiting the next conflagration. At the same time, exclusion or suppression of fire increases negative feedback to the problem by furthering the growth of overly dense forests and altering the natural thinning processes.
Many different species of plants and animals live with fire and are adapted and dependent upon the diverse landscape fire creates. Current fire science suggests that restoration objectives cannot be achieved without the continued and increased use of fire. Fire practitioners, air quality regulators, and others interested in conservation are partnering to foster discussions and changes needed to effectively restore a Sierra Nevada fire-adapted landscape while providing for public safety.
In the menu block to the left, you'll find links to scientific research papers, federal and state fire policies, and information about prescribed fire. More extensive research literature can also be found in the fire ecology and science section of our website, under the tab Forest Conservation.
Types of Fire: Definitions
Prescribed fire is the knowledgeable and skillful application of a planned ignition specific to environmental conditions (e.g. fuel moisture, temperature, smoke dispersion, topography etc.) to achieve a biophysical resource objective (e.g. enhancing wildlife habitat, meadow enhancement, reduction of surface fuels) or cultural resource objectives.
A wildfire is an unplanned ignition such as a fire caused by lightning, volcanoes, unauthorized and accidental human-caused fires and escaped prescribed fires. Unplanned ignitions that are natural ignitions (lightning and volcanoes) can be managed for resource benefit and/or suppression.
Natural ignitions are those caused by natural events, such as lightning, and not by any anthropogenic (human caused) actions. Under Title 17 definitions (California regulations for the Air Resources Board), a natural ignition managed for resource benefits is considered to be a prescribed fire, and as such, would subject the burn to the requirements of Title 17. These requirements may include the submittal of a Smoke Management Plan to the local Air District or ARB.
Cultural fire is a form of prescribed fire. Cultural fire is the intentional application of fire and smoke to create and sustain ecosystems and plant communities, including especially culturally defined resources (food and materials as well as aesthetic and spiritual resources) within those systems and communities. Like prescribed fires with biophysical resource objectives, cultural burning may include such goals as enhancing wildlife habitat or water resources, but cultural fires may also address aesthetic goals (such as creating a “park-like” landscape) and fulfill spiritual obligations. [Editor's note: the use of prescribed fire in this context is related to traditional Native American uses of fire to restore and enhance culturally important plant resources, such as basketweaving plants]. Distinguishing features of cultural fire regimes include specific patterns of fire seasonality, frequency, intensity, severity, site selection, ignitions, controls, and smoke application.
(The definitions above are from the bylaws document for the Southern Sierra Nevada Prescribed Fire Council, in progress).