The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 15, No. 4, December 12, 2022
Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, H.R. 5118
In December, 2021, the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission was established by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This commission, led by USDA, will play a key role in recommending ways that federal agencies can better prevent, mitigate, suppress and manage wildland fires. It will also recommend policies and strategies on how to restore the lands affected by wildfire.
The public is invited to participate by providing recommendations for wildland fire policy changes. The topics and timeline for submitting comments are listed below. The commission will prepare a report with policy recommendations and submit them to Congress within a year of its first in-person meeting in August, 2022.
Post-fire: May include recommendations related to social recovery, long-term recovery planning, post-fire flood mitigation, remediation, and reforestation. Submissions welcome December 1st - 22nd, 2022.
Response Coordination: May include recommendations related to evaluation of coordination of response to and suppression of wildfires occurring across jurisdictions, including suppression remediation. Submissions welcome January 3rd - 24th, 2023.
Science, Data, and Technology: May include recommendations related to policy change for modernizing and expanding the use of technology, as well as a consideration of the implications of data mining and data diversity. Submissions welcome February 1st - 22nd, 2023.
Public Health and Infrastructure: May include recommendations related to utilities, transportation, occupational and public health, monitoring and alert systems, water, and evacuation. Submissions welcome February 1st - 22nd, 2023.
Appropriations: An assessment of federal spending, performance measures, and accountability for wildland fire-related programs. Submissions welcome March 1st - 22nd, 2023.
Workforce: May include recommendations related to compensation, recruitment and retention, staffing structures, and meeting the challenge of meeting workforce capacity (including support structures such as housing, health and wellbeing). Submissions welcome March 1st - 22nd, 2023.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are initiating emergency actions to protect giant sequoias from the threats posed by high-intensity wildfire. Park staff will remove and reduce dense vegetation and other potential fire fuel sources in and around 11 giant sequoia groves that are especially at risk. The work will include manual thinning by hand, and later burning piles of cut vegetation and dead wood, and later using prescribed fire in areas that were initially thinned by hand. Most of these groves are in remote locations.
Image left: NPS personnel clear around the base of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park by Garrett Dickman, AP.
Between 2020 and 2021, 13 to 19 percent of the world’s population of large giant sequoias were killed by three large wildfires (the Castle, Windy, and KNP Complex Fires), including several thousand trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. While giant sequoias require frequent low- to moderate-intensity fire for healthy growth and regeneration, these fires burned so intensely that they overwhelmed even these great survivors’ natural defenses. Some areas were so affected that no mature living trees remained to reseed the ground. Most of these catastrophically burned areas had not experienced fire in recent years, and because of that, carried heavy fuel loads that caused fires to burn more intensely.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have a prescribed burning program that dates back more than 50 years that has successfully reduced wildfire impacts to some of the most iconic groves.
Learn more about the project at this link.
Salamanders to be Listed
Image above: Relictual slender salamander, image by William Flaxington (c) .
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list and designate critical habitat for two slender salamanders living in California's southern Sierra Nevada.
Using the best available science, the Service is proposing to list the relictual slender salamander (Batrachoseps relictus) as endangered and the Kern Canyon slender salamander (Batrachoseps simatus) as threatened. With the proposed listing of the Kern Canyon slender salamander, the Service is proposing a special 4(d) rule that exempts activities related to fuels management to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire from the ESA's section 9 prohibitions for take of a listed species.
The Service is also proposing to designate 2,685 acres of critical habitat for the relictual slender salamander and 2,051 acres of critical habitat for the Kern Canyon slender salamander. Ninety-two percent of the proposed critical habitat falls within Sequoia National Forest and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The remaining eight percent falls on private lands. However, the designation of critical habitat rarely impacts private landowners unless they are conducting activities with federal funding or permitting.
The Service is seeking public comment on its proposal to list and designate critical habitat for the relictual and Kern Canyon slender salamanders. The documents were published in the Federal Register on October 18, 2022. The publication will open a 60-day public comment period. The Service will consider comments from all interested parties received by December 19, 2022. The proposal, information on how to submit comments, GIS shapefiles and legal boundaries can be found on www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-R8-ES-2022-0081. For more information, also see the press release.
Climate Adaptation for Forest Dependent Wildlife, Webinar Series
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, and the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, are offering this 12-part monthly webinar series to explore forest ecosystems and their composition and structure under a changing climate, and the influence on wildlife populations and carbon dynamics. The series will also share tools and management approaches to help facilitate forest and wildlife climate adaptation at both landscape and stand scales. The webinars are recorded and can be viewed on YouTube, but if you want to participate in the live presentations via Zoom, you must register at this link.
Series topics will be applicable to biologists, foresters, land managers and planners, and other natural resource practitioners working in Federal, State, Tribal, and local government agencies, and non-government and private organizations, with an interest in the intersection of climate change adaptation, forest ecology, and wildlife habitat management.
An Enduring Oak Mystery: Synchronized Acorn Booms
Some years are great for acorns, some the crop fails entirely. But how do oak trees "know" to boom and bust at the same time? Learn more about oak mast phenomena and oak reproduction in this informative article by Walt Koenig in Bay Nature magazine.
Fire and Forest News and Tools
The Forest Service conducted a review of wildland fire accidents and incidents over a ten year period. The result is the Wildland Fire Metareview, 2007-2016. The team behind the metareview is also hosting a webinar, "Forest Service: Wildland Fire Metareview Overview and Discussion," on Tuesday, December 8 at 1:00 PM CT. Register by follow this link.
Talking Forest Management with Malcolm North. Don’t miss this great interview with Malcolm North, forest scientist and professor at UC Davis, hosted by Zeke Lunder on The Lookout.
The WildfireSAFE app, a free, publicly available resource, provides wildland firefighters with to-the-minute and long-term forecasts of fire behavior — enhancing their decision-making ability and situational awareness. The app, which combines over 100 years of fire research into one platform, can also be downloaded by members of the public.
The Natural Inquirer: Are you an educator, or do you have kids in school? Check out all the resources in “The Natural Inquirer,” produced by the Forest Service and the NGO FIND Outdoors, for students aged middle school to high school. The agency also has many other products available for younger children.
Living Under Smoky Skies—Understanding the Challenges Posed by Wildfire Smoke in California
A new report issued by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office says that the trend towards more smoke in California’s skies will likely worsen in the next few years, and the health impacts from breathing smoke will increase significantly. The report provides a few examples of the types of steps the state Legislature could take to mitigate the harm from these anticipated smoke increases. These include: supporting additional research and pilot projects to improve understanding of the best and most cost-effective approaches to address wildfire smoke; providing targeted funding for mitigations, such as purchasing portable air purifiers; or supporting efforts to improve information dissemination. Notably, another approach the state could take is to support expansions of prescribed burning. This is because, while prescribed burns generate some smoke, they reduce the risk of large, severe wildfires, which typically produce the most dangerous and impactful smoke.
Asbestos and Natural Disasters Guide
Learn why wildfire and other natural disasters are sources for the release of asbestos fibers that can lead to serious disease, such as mesothelioma. This free guide from the Mesothelioma Center explains how you can protect yourself and loved ones from possible exposure to asbestos fibers through proper masking (you need an N100or P100 mask), protective clothing including safety glasses, and use of air purifiers. First responders and others involved in cleaning up after fire are the most at risk from this pollutant, and should be aware of how to protect themselves.
Sierra Forest Legacy is looking to hire a new executive director. For futher details, see this page.
Calhoun, K.L., Chapman, M., Tubbesing, C., McInturff, A., Gaynor, K.M., Van Scoyoc, A., Wilkinson, C.E., Parker‐Shames, P., Kurz, D. and Brashares, J., 2022. Spatial overlap of wildfire and biodiversity in California highlights gap in non‐conifer fire research and management. Diversity and Distributions, 28(3), pp.529-541.
The increase in the size and severity of wildfires in recent years gives us all pause, while at the same time motivating our search for strategies and actions to reduce the negative impacts of extreme fire. Significant attention in the past 20 years has been focused on unpacking the relationships between forest management and fire suppression in order to develop management responses to improve forest resilience and reduce fire risk. The effort has led to an understanding that restoring the fire regime is key to conserving frequent fire ecosystems types like mixed conifer and yellow pine forests and reducing fire risk. Less attention has been placed on other plant community types, like woodlands, chaparral, and grasslands. In California, these types evolved with periodic fire that varied with site conditions and the specific plant community.
With the increased extent of wildfires in California in recent years, some scientists have begun to examine the range of natural resources affected by recent fires. Realizing that a comprehensive and detailed comparison of wildfire distribution and its intersection with patterns of biodiversity were lacking, Calhoun and colleagues embarked on their study to examine how recent fires and a changing fire regime may have affected California’s unique biodiversity. They also hypothesized that forest science and forest management have dominated the discussion of wildfire, both in the scientific literature and media, possibly to the detriment of the full spectrum of biodiversity in California. To investigate this, they conducted a media content analysis of the scientific literature and news media.
Their study focused on large fires (>100,000 acres occurring between 2000 and 2020) because of their belief that such fires “greatly surpass the size and severity of historical fires and have disproportionate impacts on social and ecological systems” (Calhoun et al. 2022, p. 530). They quantified biodiversity by looking at the intersection of wildfires and four ecosystem types: conifer, grassland, woodland, and chaparral. For each of these types, they evaluated biodiversity by quantifying species endemism (i.e., whether a species was uniquely found in a habitat type) and species richness. They found that large fires had intersected areas with high biodiversity across all four ecosystems types. See their Figure 3 (below) for these results.
Figure above: From Calhoun et al. 2022, Fig. 3.
They highlighted a particular concern for shrublands since that was the type most affected by fire and the high value of shrubland to biodiversity in California. They also point to a concern for shrublands since most fire policies are derived from forest management and “many tools that are successful for fire management in conifer forests often have unintended effects in shrublands.” Specifically, they identify for shrubland systems:
- More frequent prescribed fire and thinning restore natural landscape heterogeneity and ecological processes in some conifer forest ecosystems, but these types of strategies can erode ecological integrity in many shrubland systems.
- Frequent burning and mastication can provide opportunities for invasion by non-native annual grass species that may further alter the shrubland's fire regime. (Calhoun et al. 2022, p. 536). They conclude that “Diverse management strategies are required to meet each of their unique fire management challenges. Alternative strategies such as powerline hardening, [land use] zoning or other forms of landscape modification that are more appropriate for shrublands are necessary to preserve the fire regimes and biodiversity in these unique ecosystems.” (Ibid., p. 537).
Their overall results may be surprising to many.
- Most wildfires in California during the last 20 years have burned outside of conifer ecosystems (68% of the acreage) with most of the area burned in shrubland (38%)
- The shrubland and hardwood systems that are burning harbor high levels of biodiversity; more research is needed to understand how changes in local fire regimes impact conservation
- Areas within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) burned most often in shrubland and hardwood systems
- Despite the high degree of representation of ecosystems outside of conifer, only 30% of the academic literature and 43% of news media from the last 20 years focuses on wildfire outside of forests in California
In most of California, where plants and communities evolved with fire, the concern is the significant departure in frequency and intensity of the fire regime that we are beginning to see in most ecosystems. These changes are a result of fire suppression, drought, human ignitions, and climate change. Understanding the ecosystem types impacted by recent fires is key to developing conservation measures to protect and enhance biodiversity. It is also essential to the development of risk reduction strategies for the human communities and infrastructure that reside in these ecosystem types. Their results also point to the need to boost research on fire impacts in non-conifer ecosystems to better inform conservation practices. Changes are also needed to inform the public about the range of ecosystems affected by wildfire and that management solutions need to be designed for those unique types.
Calhoun and colleagues take the first step to highlight where recent large wildfires intersect ecosystems types with high biodiversity and to quantify the overlap of fires with endemism and species richness. The next step is to evaluate how a departed fire regime, e.g., more frequent fire or an increase in severe fire, will affect biodiversity and to design strategies to ensure that biodiversity is conserved.
Image above: Lewis's Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Lewis’s Woodpecker—named after Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition team, is an uncommon woodpecker that ranges in the western to central United States, wintering as far south as the U.S. border with Mexico, and has been found to range as far north as Canada in the summer. They may be found year-round in northern California and the Sierra Nevada, but their presence is nowhere certain, as they are nomadic and may wander hundreds of miles during the nonbreeding season. In our area, they generally only breed in the interior Coast Range and east of the Sierra crest. Their populations are also irruptive, which means that population size is unpredictable from year to year, depending upon food and weather conditions. They are considered partial migrants, which means that birds in the northernmost range will migrate, while further south they are year-round residents.
This is a large woodpecker, at 10.75 inches long and 21 inch wingspan. They don’t look like any other woodpeckers: overall, their color is dark, with a dark red face, metallic black-green back and wings, and a splash of rasperry color on the breast. Adult male and females look the same, and juveniles lack the red face.
Lewis's Woodpeckers generally breed in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees (snags). They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak savannah, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. Nests are constructed primarily by the male, in a naturally occurring cavity or one created by other woodpeckers, usually in a dead or decaying tree. The bottom of the cavity is lined with wood chips. After the female lays between 5 and 9 white eggs, the two parents take turns incubating, with the male taking the night shift. Hatching takes place after approximately 12 days, and the young leave the nest 4-5 weeks later.
Unlike other woodpeckers, Lewis's Woodpecker generally do not drill into tree bark to look for insects. More typically, this woodpecker hawks for insects on the wing, like a flycatcher or swallow. Their diet includes insects such as dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers, and large beetles and ants. They also eat nuts and fruits, and the acorn is a mainstay of their diet. They store acorns and other nuts and seeds in the fall and winter, but do not drill holes in trees to store them as do Acorn Woodpeckers. Instead, they store them in natural crevices. Lewis’s Woodpeckers may also spend up to 40 percent of their day defending these acorn stores from theft. They must defend their acorn caches individually, whereas Acorn Woodpeckers defend their territories as a group.
Lewis's Woodpecker populations have declined by approximately 48 percent between 1968 and 2019, according to North American Breeding Bird Survey. Due to their declining population, Partners in Flight rates them 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing them on the Yellow Watch List for birds most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The current estimated global breeding population according to Partners in Flight is 82,000 individuals. Lewis's Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing, and logging, which often result in higher densities of single age pines and fewer standing dead or decaying trees available for nesting.
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