Native Americans had the right idea.

That’s what many fire-focused Californians are coming to realize, that tribal restoration strategies like frequent low-intensity fires in forests are beneficial to Mother Nature’s greenery.

“There’s this idea that there’s been 100 years of fire suppression because of the forest service,” said Jennifer Montgomery, director of California’s Forest Management Task Force. “It’s longer than that.”

It’s actually triple that number. “When the Spanish came in and established the missions in California, they stopped the tribal people from burning,” Montgomery went on. “That’s 300 years that we’ve allowed the forests to become overly dense.”

In that time mindsets have shifted. Now, a majority of groups in the California wildfire arena are on the same page when it comes to fire suppression: namely, to manage instead of smother.

Montgomery, who was appointed task force leader in March of this year (see Changing of the Guard in the July 2019 edition of Moonshine), is guiding those efforts. She oversees a collection of people with diverse interests (think the U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts, and the traditional timber industry), but the same goal, “to increase the pace and scale of forest management.”

Eli Ilano, forest supervisor with the Tahoe National Forest, believes that “the more people we get involved in figuring that out and putting resources to make that happen, the better.”

Ilano’s long-term goal is to maintain areas through prescribed fire or other forest management approaches, creating conditions “that if a wildfire does occur, it’s a lower intensity wildfire and something much easier to manage.”

Montgomery said there’s general agreement with the task force that something needs to change.

“Everybody’s on board,” she said. The challenge to her is “trying to identify what are the right projects and the right places.”

Well, not everyone is on board. There are outliers, as Montgomery described, like Chad Hanson, who thinks California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is making “all the wrong moves” with his forest management task force.

Hanson is director and principal ecologist of The John Muir Project, dedicated to forestland ecological management.

HITTING A SNAG: Chad Hanson with The John Muir Project, pictured here in the Stanislaus National Forest, is an advocate for letting high-intensity wildfires burn when far from communities to preserve snag forest habitats — groups of standing dead trees providing shelter for many types of animals like woodpeckers, bluebirds, flying squirrels, and more. Photo courtesy Dan Galpern

“Gov. Newsom’s response to this [catastrophic wildfire] issue is to focus resources on logging and chaparral removal projects in areas far from homes, under the guise of ‘fuel breaks,’” Hanson wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink.

“[He’s] ignoring the current science, which is telling us that so-called fuel breaks typically don’t stop wildland fires [and that] logging usually makes fires burn faster and hotter.”

Hanson’s recommendation is to utilize firefighting state funds closer to home — literally.

“The most important and urgent need is for state and federal agencies to promptly devote resources to help homeowners become fire-safe,” Hanson wrote. “People need the technical knowledge, but also many need the financial and physical assistance to do this.”

Besides, Hanson said committing money to fuels reduction in remote forests isn’t helpful because high-intensity wildfires yield some of the best wildlife habitat — necessary when there aren’t human lives at stake.

Hanson talks about the process in The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, a book he co-wrote with Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at Geos Institute.

“Nature’s quite resilient if we allow her to be … and we don’t treat it with logging and road building,” DellaSala said. (Hence, nature’s phoenix.)

DellaSala’s own battle echoes what Hanson shared: Managing forests through logging does not mean lower-intensity wildfire.

In 2017, DellaSala presented as an expert witness to the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee. He took Congress’s fuels-reduction-saves-forests hypothesis and gathered data from severe forest fires in 11 western states over 40 years covering roughly 23 million acres of dry pine and mixed conifer forest. DellaSala and fellow scientists analyzed whether protected (limited management) areas like national parks and wildernesses were burning more extravagantly under severe wildfire.

DellaSala’s findings? “We found the opposite. Areas with the most logging have the most uncharacteristically severe forest fires.”

The Natural Resources Committee “went ballistic” against DellaSala’s data, which he chocks up to a religion-like mindset when it comes to forest management, and “anybody that questions it is going to be met with all this opposition that includes personal attacks by other scientists.”

To DellaSala, politicians of all affiliation have drunk the “active management fuel reduction Kool-Aid.”

“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever worked on because I don’t have a lot of allies that are willing to look at the science and the perspectives differently,” he said.

Perhaps the lack of allies is because there’s science backing the benefits of fuels reduction, too.

SAVING GRACE: Tahoe National Forest’s Eli Ilano explained there’s a fair amount of research and modeling suggesting that “the types of projects that we are designing and implementing are successful in achieving the results we’re trying to [reach].” Successful projects include prescribed fire in some overgrown stands of forest. Photo courtesy Tahoe National Forest

For example, during 2007’s Angora Fire, fuel treatments worked as hoped, reducing intensity of the wildfire from the forest canopy, known as a crown fire (the most destructive type of fire), to surface fire.

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to solving wildfire for either side.

“We want to make sure we’re having the right conversations based in science that are going to be defensible, understanding that science is not cut and dry,” said Montgomery. “And we may need to do some adaptive management as we move forward.”

Might that adaptation mean one day joining forces with Hanson and DellaSala’s camp? Hard to say, but the two aren’t backing down. DellaSala views the masses as a means for paving the way to change if he can effectively translate his research into education. Fixing the fight or flight trigger when it comes to fire — “that’s the key.”

“The fear of fire triggers the reptilian brain stem of ‘Wow, it’s coming. Got to do something,’” DellaSala said. “We’ve got to get beyond that and the only way to get beyond that, you’ve got to solve [it] first.”