Understanding Forest Management for Wildfire Prevention

The enormous wildfires ripping through California are a result of years of mismanagement of forest resources. How did this happen one might ask? The answer is far more complicated than simply blaming left or right.

I recently read a comment where someone actually said that Paradise, California and other areas that are burning are not in the woods. Clearly, this person has never taken the time to look at Google Earth and see that the area surrounding Paradise is very wooded. The neighborhoods and surrounding property have a lot of debris in the understory.

I also want to point out that Paradise is not in a National Forest area. This is not an issue with federal forest management, it is private property that has a lot of shrubberies, landscaping, debris, etc. Recently the president got in a bit of trouble for commenting about “raking” the woods. This comment has been taken and used in countless memes. I think this takes away from the point that if you have a heavy fuel load on your property, fire spreads more easily. Sure just raking your leaves is not going to prevent a major fire, but removing fuel loads does.

My forestry background

Besides helping manage my own woods for many years, I actually have a degree in environmentalism and forestry. Technically it is a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Forestry. I don’t have a degree in writing, so this might actually be the first thing you have read from me that can be backed up by formal education.

I also come from a long line of loggers and sawmill workers and was around for the spotted owl fiasco in the Pacific Northwest. My dad lost his job over that one.

Let’s go over a few things first.

Smokey The Bear has taught generations that all forest fire is bad. This helped spur decades of fire suppression in areas where fire is part of the natural ecosystem. Not all fire is a bad thing. In fact, there are some species that require it for survival. Fire is part of the natural order of things.

Homeowners that have acreages face challenges when it comes to managing their property to avoid catastrophic wildfires.

Even if you clear out the understory of your entire property, there is nothing you can do if everyone around you lets their land become overgrown and bramble. Matt and I are in that situation on a large part of our property. A lot of people like the idea of owning a larger parcel, but that doesn’t mean they will ever take on what is required to keep their place in a state that discourages wildfires.

The fact is that you cannot tell others they need to thin their woods or clean up all the downed junk in their woods or get rid of all that flammable landscaping they spent a fortune on.

Even if there is a large budget for the forest service and other agencies to take on heavy debris loads, that is not going to help the problem on private property,

There were an estimated 64 million people living in the USA before European contact. You can bet they were having an influence on the natural systems around them and shaping the future.

Native Americans knew about fire and used it as a forest management tool. In old accounts of the great Chestnut forests of the Appalachians, it is said that a wagon could be driven between trees in areas flat enough for transport of that nature.

Environmentalism has reached the point of sometimes being self-defeating

I love the woods, but I also realize that the facts of life are hard sometimes. All too often people fail to realize that they are part of the bigger picture. The cycles we see in a lifetime are nothing compared to the cycles the earth is truly in. Weather patterns and populations on a 30,000-year cycle can feel at the time that everything is going downhill or something is wrong. A changing planet is not always the friendliest to life as it exists at the time.

Species come and go

Let’s look at the big time frame of world history. Look at how many species have come and gone. It is clear that as things change some thrive and some do not. You see this in many areas of life and work.

In trying to be loving and protective, we have collectively shot ourselves in the foot regarding forest management in the USA as a whole.

So what can you do?

Keep debris at an acceptable level

Clearing out downed debris. This means removing leaves around your home. While you cannot rake a whole 5-10 acres or more, you can use animals to graze under the trees. Our sheep will even eat some leaves that drop in the Fall thus reducing the total load on the forest floor. The chickens like to scratch and cultivate the soil and leaves in the woods. Matt often goes out and throws corn around in the woods to encourage this behavior. It helps a lot with getting the woods in a state that we can get more green grass growing and have more food for our sheep.

Nature will manage itself, but that means people have to deal with those results and they are not pretty in many cases. Keep in mind that humans were interfering with nature for a very long time in North America.

Timber Sales

If you have a very wooded property or a lot of brambles, then you may consider having it cleared by a professional or at least getting some tools or machinery to do it yourself. I will tell you right now that timber sales are not near as profitable as you might hope. We made the mistake of hiring someone to do a timber estimate and even though we have some nice trees they wanted to pay maybe $80 per tree when I knew for a fact that the boards from one tree were worth thousands of dollars. There are middlemen that get their cut, but that is ridiculous.

You are better off hiring a buddy to lay some trees on the ground or do it yourself. The wood can be sold as firewood for a better price than what the timber sale will bring you. Yes, it is more work, but I bet you could do better even if you hired a little help for dealing with the firewood than the timber sale. Large and medium size limbs or even large round can be used for growing gourmet mushrooms.

Luckily, we have a lot of mushroom logs. We get mushrooms until Thanksgiving now that we discovered the Nameko mushroom. We dry our excess in the Nesco Food Dehydrator I reviewed a while back, and then we can eat on gourmet mushrooms for the rest of the year until fresh ones start being a possibility again.

Check out my post “How to Grow Mushrooms and Preserve Them“.

Firewood for heat and extra income

Firewood is not something we sold ourselves, but we have got a lot of fuel for heating over the years by clearing and managing our forest understory. My Dad uses wood heat whenever he can at his house, and we do the same at ours. While buying firewood in our area would be just as expensive as electric heat, when it comes from our woodlot. It is very economical and saves us some cash while achieving our forest management and fire suppression goals.

Be open to sharing some work with neighbors to keep borders and edges cleared.

If you have neighbors that are willing to work together with others than you may be able to better manage your green spaces as a group. There is talk of clearing some of the border fences with one of our neighbors as there is a lot of standing gnarled trees, some of which are dead or dying. There are enough cherry trees there that it is clear they were being avoided because cut and wilted cherry can be deadly to grazers that eat it.

Many people cut Cherry trees in the fall or winter after the leaves have fallen off and there is no worry of any grazers getting into them.

The leaf blower can be your friend and they are inexpensive

We used a leaf blower and extension cord to get some of the fire load directly away from our house. It worked great and was far better than raking our yard. We burned the leaves when conditions were okay to do so.

A few years back the fires in my area were awful. We had not to fire here but there was a fire over the mountain. The smoke was so thick that Matt and I only went outside when required and when we did we wore respirators with particulate cartridges in them. If you stayed outside without a respirator, you would feel tired and worn out much faster due to the smokiness. Of course, a respirator does a little of that too.

I felt awful about the animals that did not have a way to get much relief besides resting more often. We didn’t even feel right going to visit as close as Black Mountain because what it something started happening and we needed to be there. It is a tough call sometimes determining if you should stay or go. While I could get my dogs and cats out in a crisis, the other livestock would have to be left to their own.

Look beyond left versus right politics and see the big picture

I don’t know about you but I get tired of the extremism that seems to take over any debate. People on one side want nature to take its course and then try to find something to blame when that course isn’t what they had in mind while the other extreme is totally blaming environmentalism.

The fact is that people live where they live and we are either going to have to come up with a way to manage our forests that is responsible and realistic. The solution is not just to leave them alone and let nature take its course just like it is not a solution to clear cut everything.

Another thing I think we are dealing with when it comes to forest management is that people simply take offense when “outsiders” tell them how to manage their resources. It gets touchy though when “outsiders” are technically helping foot the bill through taxes. It makes people think they should have a say in what is happening.

This is a big country and I do think that part of the problem is that we get in positions where we have people that live in totally different areas and ecosystems trying to tell others how to manage their own ecosystem. In Alaska, it was clear that hairs were raised when states in the lower 48 tried to tell Alaskans how to manage their resources.

My advice to any State that is facing wildfire problems is that they review their rules and regulations and take a long hard look at how that affects the long-term forest management of the state. When it is difficult or illegal to do the right thing you can get in a major situation. The other solution is to just accept that to let things remain “natural” means dealing with fire. It may get better once fires clear out the debris but the occasional fire is going to be a part of your life. The catastrophic fires we see today are the result of minor fires not being allowed to burn in the past and people living in areas and changing the environment with lots of shrubs, vegetation, etc. How many of us have planted shrubs that are extremely flammable?

This is not just a California issue, the fire issue is happening in a lot of states. North Carolina and Tennessee have experienced a lot of fires.

Some logging is a lot better than none or a clearcut

Selective logging can be beneficial to the forest and help keep things clear. While old growth is pretty, the truth is that all trees have a lifespan. Take a look at my oak trees and you will see that at 100 years old, many start to die or decline. Sure you can go to places like Joyce Kilmer and see Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and other trees that are hundreds of years old but that is a rare thing. Many trees won’t even reach that age if taken care of and left entirely alone.

Some wildlife species actually thrive when there is some disturbance. Like anything, logging and disruption of habitat can be taken too far.  Extremism when it comes to environmental choices has been one of the most tragic factors that have led to some very poor choices on both sides.

Even small steps can make a big difference over time.

Clearing debris and thinning a forest takes some time.  While larger machinery can help, it can do a lot of damage to your land too. The craters and compaction that logging and earth moving equipment causes is enough that some property owners understandably do not want on their property.

I realize that raking acres and acres of woods is unrealistic. We have lived on our property for 10 years and we are still working on clearing out junk. Spending a few minutes here and there with a set of loppers can do a lot to keep the briars and bramble away from your property. Sometimes if I need something to fill in a little time, I will just go walk in the woods and cut down some of the flora that is coming up in my understory. With Matt and I both doing this often over the last year, we have seen a big difference.

We have cleared out a lot of the woods. This is me and the chickens a few weeks ago going to pick mushrooms from our logs. The entire woods used to be a tangle of rose bushes, briars, and tiny stunted trees.

Consider fencing and grazing your woods or letting someone else lease it for grazing

Grazing your woods can help clear out your property. Fencing property and managing livestock are not for everyone. On the other hand, there are plenty of people that would love to farm and don’t have the property for it. You may be able to lease your woods in exchange for someone fencing it or you may want to have it fenced and rent it. I will say that any lease agreements should be signed and not just verbal. You don’t want to be in the position of someone thinking they can just dump animals off and go away for a month at a time without any responsibility.

Cutting briars can also help encourage your grazers to do a better job. I know that our sheep do not like to graze where there are a lot of saw briars and rose bushes because they get stuck on them. I have been making a major effort to eliminate saw briars so they can do a better job and get into places they normally avoid.

Consider your fireline. Do you have one? Is it possible to have one?

The fireline I would like to have would be a road around my entire property. We have at least a footpath in spots and there are roads on some borders. How close you are to neighbors and other factors can all influence how good a fireline you can have without getting permission to cut things.

Do you have too many trees too close to your home?

One thing we regretted when building our house was how many trees we left close to the house. I loved the idea of a house with woods and was not thinking about every disaster that could happen.

We thought we cut enough so that nothing would hit the house in a windstorm at the time. I advise having very few trees within a few hundred feet of your home if you are on a larger parcel. Even those on smaller parcels should do an evaluation.

Pine trees are particularly prone to fires and flame.

If you have a lot of landscaping then just try to use some sense when it comes to splitting it up a bit. Continuous debris and dried tinder is how forest fires spread so fast. Stone paths and trails can help split it up and prevent a fire from spreading too.

What to do if wildfires are a problem in your area

A go bag for everyone

Of course, you should always have a go bag ready for everyone in the family if you live in an area where fire is a big risk or proving to be a major issue already. Seconds count, and you don’t want to be scrambling to throw things together and wasting valuable minutes that could very well be critical to the survival of your entire family. If a fire is coming you need to get out ASAP.

Make sure to have plenty of food and water. Heat, dust, ash, etc can all add up to being more thirsty and easily dehydrated than usual so you will probably find yourself drinking more than usual.

Be sensible about pets and livestock

Your dog’s and cats should already have carriers for evacuation. As far as livestock goes, you are probably going to have to leave them and hope for the best. Horses and other grazers have a better chance if left in a field where they can flee rather than being locked up in a barn or other flammable structure.

Don’t fall into the trap of spending too much time trying to save everything. There is a point where you just have to go!

Don’t wait to get out

Remember that evacuating fast enough is the most important thing. Getting out sooner rather than later is what you should strive for!  You do not want to be caught out on the highway with a wildfire rapidly approaching. some fires spread faster than others. If a fire gets into the crown of the forest it is amazing how fast a small fire can go from containable to simply out of control.

Study your evacuation plan and check for alternative routes that may be less congested.

Main highways can be a death trap in a fire. I have seen a lot of pics of traffic evacuating out of an area with a lot of forest fires and I can tell you right now that it made me think about how tempting it would be to take off on foot with a fire approaching that quickly and being stuck in traffic that is at a crawl. If you can evacuate safely taking an alternative route then although it might take longer during good times, you still may be better off. Of course, use some common sense when it comes to where fires are at and the direction they appear to be spreading. You don’t want to get caught in a remote area with a fire approaching rapidly either.

Have wildfires made you think more about your forest management plan? Do you have a major plan in place in case of wildfires pop up in your area?

  1. I believe that “balance” is essential in any management program. Many species live in or on the edges of the temperate forests of the PNW. Some game birds include the ruffed grouse, turkey, pheasant, and duck. Other feathered friends include the owl, crow, robin, sparrow, songbirds, etc. Some birds rely heavily on understory and will vacate a forest if their desired living conditions are absent. Still other species, such as bear, deer, moose, and elk also rely on the understory for their next meal. Of course, there are a multitude of rodents: squirrels, moles, voles, and mice, plus foxes, porcupines, raccoons, opossums, mountain beaver, nutria, weasels, etc. Each species has its favorite foods and its prey. Our diverse ecosystem becomes unbalanced whenever drastic changes are made to the forest.

    Neighboring “forest” properties can certainly be managed in vastly different ways. For example, imagine the problems that would arise if everyone practiced sheep (or pig, or cow) foraging on the forest floor–the result would be more meat for the table, but a lack of flora, fauna and critter diversity. Then imagine a different set of problems if everyone simply let nature take its course–greater diversity, but eventually that forest might burn up after a lightning strike.

    I don’t believe there is any “one size fits all” solution to forest management.

    It is always a trade-off. But I believe we should all strive for balanced solutions when managing forest holdings. I believe we can still enjoy timber sales, spotted owls, and domestic meats…just not in the same forest.

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