With the Yosemite Valley air still hazy from lingering smoke from this year’s record fire season, Michael Beasley surveyed one hillside hit by the 400-square-mile Rim Fire back in 2013.
"This is really a healthy-looking forest, to me,” said Beasley, looking over a spot where his crews intentionally burned 5,000 acres in 2002 as part of Yosemite National Park’s pioneering program to use prescribed fires under controlled conditions to ease the threat of extreme wildfire.
The retired forest fire chief – a designated “burn boss” at the park for a decade-- looked up into a tree blackened at its base from the megafire seven years before.
“This large tree is still alive, right here,” Beasley said. “It looks like a red fir -- it's still alive because all the fuels were cleared away in 2002 when we burned here.’’
Beasley said that’s because his crews removed a million tons of so-called surface and ladder fuels – a century’s buildup of small trees, dead needles twigs and branches – from the forest floor. Without the surface fuels, he says, the Rim fire still burned but did not shoot up and engulf entire trees.
But after budget cuts, Yosemite crews weren’t able to reach another part of the park, closer to the northern entrance. And it was hit with the full brunt of the Rim inferno.
“This area was really hammered,” he said.
“It does break my heart to see so many old dead trees,” he said as he looked out on the hillsides studded with thousands of bone gray, dead trees. "These areas did not stand a chance with 100 years of fuel accumulation and not a lot of burning.”
This year, California has seen 8,800 wildfires that ripped through a record 4.5 million acres. Forest experts like Beasley say they are frustrated at the slow pace of efforts they believe could make a difference. They say community concerns about smoky air, challenges from environmentalists and cost-cutting by politicians are slowing the use of critical countermeasures, like prescribed burns, that work to counter megafires.
Some within the firefighting community have been reluctant to embrace such programs – preferring to fight, rather than light, fires. And Beasley said it didn’t help the Yosemite program when a prescribed burn got out of hand in 2009, burning 7,000 acres in the Big Meadow Fire.
“The minute you say the fire was lit purposely, or being allowed to burn, not being suppressed enough or aggressively enough, then watch the knives come out,” he said.
“We are headed in the wrong direction,” said Kristen Shive, who served as the ecologist for the Yosemite effort until the Trump Administration axed her grant proposal to burn 30,000 overgrown acres in and around the park.
"That just wasn't a priority from the federal government’’ said Shive, who is now chief scientist with the Save the Redwoods League, “which is you know really frustrating to see.”
"It's a problem that we as a society have created -- of how we are loving the forest to death," says retired UC Extension forester Mike De Lasaux, who lives in Quincy, a Sierra town surrounded by the Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe national forests.
More than two decades ago, De Lasaux helped guide an unlikely alliance of local leaders, environmentalists and the timber industry alarmed about the threat from the overgrown and choked forests around them.
“Clearly we came around to the need to do something different,” De Lasaux said. “We saw the condition of the forest and we realized something has to happen.”
Enlisting the support of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Quincy Library Group went to Washington and managed to convince Congress to pass legislation that would ultimately fund the creation of 300,000 acres of fire defense buffer zones.
But what was supposed to take five years ended up taking 15 years. Costs mushroomed amid environmental lawsuits over logging on forest lands. Backers of the Quincy program hoped that the logging would offset the costs of cutting and hauling everything away. That cost more money, but it spared the area from the air pollution from controlled burns.
In the end, the final assessment concluded that although the program limited fire risk, the project suffered too many setbacks to be a model.
“We hoped at that point in time, there would become more of a national consensus to do this strategy we developed elsewhere,” said John Sheehan, one of the Quincy group members. “But it was not to be.”
Still, De Lasaux credits Quincy’s buffer zones for helping crews get the upper hand on the North Complex fire that surrounded Quincy in August.
"It was our work that made a difference,” he said. “It helped."
But not every forest ecologist is on board with such efforts.
“It's really just a misguided prescription,” said Chad Hanson, who heads the John Muir Project environmental advocacy group. Hanson says programs like Quincy are just thinly veiled efforts to justify destructive logging on federal land.
He says such efforts – known as mechanical thinning – won’t be enough to stop extreme wildfires, which are now climate and weather fueled. The best way to live with fire, he says, is let lightning caused fires burn. And to do more to harden nearby towns to survive them.
"We need more fire, small ones and big ones,” Hanson said. “What we need to ask ourselves is how do we keep fires from burning homes? How do we protect and save lives in vulnerable communities from wildland fire?"
But Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and UC Davis professor, said the Quincy project did show promise. “I think it’s a good model for the first step you need to do, which is bringing people together,” he said, adding that the state has to do something to catch up with the four to 12 million acres that scientists say burned annually before we started putting everything out.
“Use every damn tool you've got,” he said. “If we could have beavers on crack out there I'd be donating to that process -- anything that will speed up the pace and scale of this thing."
North says he’s encouraged by a state and federal pact this year to thin a million acres annually by 2025, either by thinning or burning or both. But, he says, that’s still a faction of what’s burned throughout California this year.
Shive says the state is at a crossroads when it comes to fire.
“There is no ‘no fire’ solution,” she said. “We have to learn to live with what people sometimes call good fire. The fire that does good restorative work. There really isn’t a solution where we are going to have 100-percent smoke-free skies.”
UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens agrees.
“Especially after this year,” he said. “If we don’t start thinking about proactive ways we can deal with this issue…I just don’t know if we’re ever going to move the coin.”