Fire and Water: Land and Watershed Management in the Age of Climate Change

California is a biodiversity hotspot, but its complex ecosystems are some of the first to model the consequences of a warming atmosphere. Wildfires are currently raging throughout California, burning through hundreds of thousands of acres and spreading rapidly. Climate change is fueling these wildfires — a problem that will only continue to escalate as the environment becomes drier and hotter.

Fire ecology experts are leading the search for solutions, as they seek to restore the healthy and natural role of fire in ecosystems, while combating the poor land and watershed management practices that have led us to this crisis. In this panel discussion from the 2016 Bioneers Conference, four leading fire ecologists discuss one burning question: How can modern society renew our relationship with the land to stop the wildfire crisis?

Featuring Jason Mark, editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine; Frank Lake, a forest ecologist working with the U.S. Forest Service, who is also a deeply knowledgeable holder of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge practices; Brock Dolman, co-founder of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a long-time leader in the permaculture community; and Chad Hanson, a leading fire ecologist who works in the San Bernardino National Forest.


Jason Mark

JASON MARK: My name is Jason Mark. I’m the editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and I do a lot of writing on environmental issues but, these days, a lot about climate adaptation. As we all know, even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, we’re locked into serious climate change dislocations in the century to come. Even in the unlikely event countries were to faithfully follow the Paris Accord Agreement signed last year, we’re still going to blow pretty far past 2 degrees centigrade temperature rise, certainly in the lifetime of my 1-year-old daughter. That’s going to have obvious consequences globally — for biodiversity, for ecosystems, for all the natural systems on which human civilization depends.

And it’s obviously going to have big impacts here in California. It’s going to dramatically affect the water and fire cycles and all our natural systems. Those changes might have been easier to manage if we were living more lightly on the land, but with soon to be 40 plus million people here in this construct called California, it’s going to be very tough to adjust. What’s that going to look like? How are we going to do it? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss with some leading experts on land management issues here in the Golden State.

We’ll start with Brock, and I’ll ask a question that has to be on a lot of people’s minds here: Is California likely to keep getting drier?

Brock Dolman

BROCK DOLMAN: California is likely the most hydrologically deranged place on the planet, and folks have been taking a whack at the integrity of watershed function from ridgeline to river mouth for quite a while now. Mark Twain said “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over” when he was commenting on California water politics in the 1870s, so we’ve been at this for a while. 

California contains many climates: if you go from the extremes of the wet Klamath Siskiyou system to the bone dry Mojave, with all kinds of regions somewhere along that scale, the rain totals can go from an inch or two yearly average in the deserts to some places that have nearly 100 inches. And we know there is far greater population density in the south and way more water availability in the north, and lots of big canals and dams disrupting water flows all over the place. The “dam age” has produced a lot of damage in this state. To heal it we will have to figure out how to “think like a watershed,” and how to craft the lifeboats called watersheds in the face of global weirding towards a resilient retrofit. That’s going to require modeling our behavior on the ecologically literate Indigenous knowledge of the first peoples of this region, and I’m really looking forward to Frank’s ideas on that. We will also have to examine how we think about earth, air, fire and water, and how we can learn to respect these fundamental forces so we can create conditions conducive to life for the long haul in this beautiful but dynamically changing state.

JASON: Brock mentioned earth, air, fire and water. Chad, what do we know about the history of fire in the state of California and what do you think we’re going to see regarding fire here as climate change intensifies?

Chad Hanson

CHAD HANSON: There’s actually been a lot of research on how much fire we have now versus how much we had before the era of fire suppression. Interestingly, we actually had a lot more fire historically, and that’s well known among ecologists, though it’s not as well known among the general public or policy makers. But in forests, we actually have a significant deficit of fire in the forests of California, and that’s broadly true across nearly every forested region of the West. It’s not true in every vegetation type. There are certain vegetation types where we actually have more fire now than we had historically, such as chaparral systems in Southern California and some other parts of the state, especially low elevation chaparral that’s in close contact with some large population centers. In those places you get an enormous number of unplanned human ignitions. So in those areas we have more fire, but in forests broadly we have significantly less fire; in many cases half as much, one-fourth as much, in some places one-tenth as much as we did historically, and generally it’s a deficit of fire of all intensities.

And the reason that matters is that there are many wildlife species that depend on post-fire habitat, so it has biodiversity consequences. As to where we’re going in the future, that’s harder to predict because climate modelers are not in agreement at all on what we’re going to see with regard to fire. There’s broad consensus that temperatures are going up and that they’ll continue to go up. What that means for fire is a much more subtle question. There are a number of studies that say we’re going to have more fire by the end of the century in forests, but likely not as much by the end of the century as we had historically before fire suppression. That’s one group, and that generally is based upon assumptions of hot or drier conditions in the future. 

Another group of scientists say, well, actually, under hotter, drier conditions, from a climate perspective, you would expect more fire, and we may see that temporarily, but ultimately by the middle or end of the century, we’re going to see less fire, and less intense fire because of vegetation shifts in the understory in a hotter, drier future, in other words, sparser understories and not as much to carry flames. And still other groups of scientists predict a warmer but wetter future with less fire. Many of them predict more fire in some places and less in others. Basically there are three different scenarios: moderate increase in fire relative to historical norms; a mixed bag with some increases and some decreases; and broader decreases in fire. For me as a fire ecologist especially focused on biodiversity, the question I’m most interested in is how do we keep fire roughly within the natural range of variability, not too high or too low, and the concern that I have right now is that in our forests we have fire way on the low end of the scale.

Frank Lake

FRANK LAKE: I want to add some context to this. I’m not only a research ecologist for the forest service; I’m also a tribal descendant well trained in the cultural beliefs and ecological practices of the traditional people along the Klamath River, and I work a lot with many California tribes. When we think about variability versus change, if we think about where we’re at climatically, we’re coming out of the “Little Ice Age,” one of California’s cooler, moister periods that extended back from 150 to probably 500 to 700 years ago, and a lot of the forests and ecosystems we have now developed in that cooler, moister period. 

What most people don’t realize is that, besides natural fires started by lightning, there were historically also a lot of intentional Indigenous ignitions throughout the state from the coastal headlands all the way to alpine meadows, through many different chaparral, other grassland, oak, and other forest types all the way up to mixed conifer, even true fir forests. They used fire extensively as a land management tool with techniques they had refined for many centuries. 

Tribal people saw water as a sacred element and still do, but they also saw fire as one of the most energetic ways to manage vegetation to maintain consistent water supply and rich biodiversity, the kind of diversity that underlies a strong social and cultural community and enhances resilience. So we need to think not only about the components of the natural fire regime but also about what we can learn from the systems aboriginal people here used to manage fire for biodiversity and for water management. 

JASON: That ecosystem and climate variability makes our work as stewards really tricky because how do you plan for change when the change could be all of a sudden really chaotic and manifest itself in such a wide range of variability. Brock?

BROCK: I think it’s helpful in thinking about fire behavior and water behavior, hydrologic behavior performance, if you will, to think of those as verbs and less as nouns. Some key factors are intensity and frequency: the intensity and frequency of storms or fires, but the impacts of those disturbances depend a lot on the condition of the land’s surface, and our current land management regimes in, say, the logging industry or in agricultural but urbanizing watersheds exacerbate negative impacts. Impermeable surfaces and road networks tend to increase runoff volumes and decrease water quality with sediment and pollutants. And our over-aggressive fire suppression ultimately leads to really big fires instead of more frequent but low-intensity, cool burns. 

So how do we work to manage vegetation within watersheds to be resilient when those big “pineapple expresses,” these immense atmospheric rivers from the Pacific bring huge bursts of water but distribute it totally unevenly? Just a week ago in one of these sorts of storms we got three inches of rain in Occidental where I live, but Santa Cruz got 11 inches and southern Humboldt got 14 inches. So some folks get hosed down and others just get a squirt on the side. 

We have to learn to pattern landscapes to be resilient in a situation in which occasionally and unpredictably you’ll get a bucketful on your watershed, but for long periods of time you won’t get much if any water. So I don’t think we live in a water-scarce of fire scarce area; we live in a water storage scarce area that we’ve failed to make sufficiently fire resilient. The question is: “How can we, hydrologically and pyrologically, literally sculpt the performance of landscapes to interface optimally with the increasing uncertainty that global weirding is bringing forward?”

JASON: So how do we? 

BROCK: As one of my great mentors when it comes to roads, the earth scientist Danny Hagans, says: “Nothing in nature mimics a road.” How we design our road networks, parking lots, roofs, farm fields, vineyards, forests, rangelands, etc., can either decrease or increase water runoff quantity (aka the runoff coefficient) and improve or degrade water quality. We have to rethink roads so they are no longer drainage networks but “retainage” networks. In general the optimal land use is one that slows, spreads and lets water gently sink into the water table. And as part of that we have to manage animal systems so they create regenerative disturbance regimes that increase the complexity of the vegetation and increase water infiltration and reduce runoff. So, in a nutshell, we have to design our interface with the natural world so that we slow, spread, sink, store and share the water.

When it comes to fire, to echo what Frank was saying, I think we have to honor and emulate that which is still applicable of the traditional ecological knowledge-based practices of the first peoples of this region who observed and worked with these ecosystems for 600+ generations, some 10 to 12,000 years of being people of place and witnessing the fluctuations of the land. We have to study their caretaking methods with deep respect and humility.

JASON: It does seem to me that as hard as water issues are, fire is a lot tougher. And the pre-colonization cultures that were shaping the landscape had a much smaller population density than we do today. How much of that traditional ecological knowledge is applicable now that there are a lot more people living here?

FRANK: Well, I think first of all I kind of wanted to dispel the myth that California was sparsely populated before European colonization. Obviously it wasn’t as populated as today, but it actually had one of the highest population densities in North America, second only to the Mexico Valley. And most of the Indigenous people in California were fire dependent and fire adapted cultures. Fire management played a key role in the production of their foods, medicines, building materials, and water supply. They learned over the centuries to use fire adaptively by adjusting their practices when climatic conditions became warmer, hotter and drier or colder and wetter. And they used a wide range of intentional burns, from lower to higher intensity depending on the conditions and their specific resource objectives. 

Of course the landscape is radically different now: some areas that had higher population densities for centuries are now national parks or wilderness areas, and other places now have massive urban infrastructure and development beyond what will ever be compatible with traditional Indigenous land management, but we can still be guided by their overall approach to watersheds, to optimizing permeability, and to conscious management of the fire regime.

JASON: Frank, could you discuss some of the research you’ve done on how to take that traditional ecological knowledge and have it inform land management practices today?

FRANK: Let me cite an example of a traditional food staple. Acorns were a very important food source for many California peoples. Many communities used fire in very specific ways in their oak forests, usually in the fall, in 5 to 7 or 7 to 15-year cycles depending on the specific place and local conditions, in order to reduce understory and competition from other tree species to promote larger crowns in the oaks. This boosted acorn production but it also benefitted a wide range of animal species from insects to birds to deer, antelope and elk that consume acorns and/or thrive in oak ecosystems, and that was understood as a benefit by those traditional cultures. The idea of helping the abundance of other species was understood to be part of the human mission.

Unfortunately many contemporary fire scientists I have to work with aren’t knowledgeable about this traditional knowledge. These first peoples wanted highly productive oak woodlands and a good acorn crop for people but also for the whole food web, so they sought to manage fire at just the right frequency and seasonality to achieve that goal, and because they had been at it in the same place for a very long time, they got very good at it. 

And they used the same approach to using controlled burns to enhance the variety, quality and quantity of basket making materials. They would burn in different ways with precise spacing in time and in different seasons to get either small shoots of plants such as California hazel for certain types of baskets, or firmer longer shoots for more rugged pack and cooking baskets. So they applied fire at precise times, for very specific purposes to get a desired outcome, and they took a lot of factors into account: soil types, the contours of the land, whether it was a riparian area, a certain forest type, or chaparral, or high meadows, etc. And I think that basic approach is something we can learn from—how to develop a cultural perspective that permits us to think more holistically about how to manage fire wisely and precisely to get desirable environmental and social outcomes.

JASON: Chad, do you think the land managers at state and federal agencies who work on fire ecology are of aware of these traditions Frank described? 

CHAD: There’s a broad understanding that historical fire patterns were always a mix of lightning strikes and intentional Native American ignitions, but I think that beyond that broad understanding, the particulars are not well understood by those folks. One of the biggest challenges is getting land managers to understand that a wide mix of fire intensities from lightning strikes and Native American ignitions shaped these forests. That’s the system in which the native biodiversity evolved, developed, was sustained and nurtured, and in fact, you know, we now know that there are many plant and wildlife species that have evolved over many millennia to depend upon particular types of burn intensity in fires. Some need more low-intensity burn areas; some like moderately burned landscapes; and some thrive in scorched zones. 

What I think is most misunderstood is that we do need some high intensity fires in some landscapes sometimes. They actually create a very, very rich habitat some species depend upon. For me the biggest challenge is getting land managers to understand the ecological value of mixed intensity fire regimes and encouraging them to allow more mixed intensity fire to occur in the forest, especially away from vulnerable human communities of course. 

We have to get away from this sort of 19th to mid-20th century notion that we have to suppress high intensity, super hot fires, and that those types of fires destroy the land. Actually that post hot fire land can produce some of the most biodiverse habitat, comparable to old growth forest.

FRANK: To add to that, by integrating contemporary fire science with traditional knowledge, we can study the changes between fires in an ecosystem with more clarity and understand the benefits of each stage. The first year the soil is black and seemingly lifeless, but animals are going to come in there, roll around in ash, eat the charcoal and get rid of parasites that way. After a while, the mycorrhizal community, which forms an indispensable nexus between the trees, the shrubs and the soil, will start to recover. The next three to five years are going to see a flush of wildflowers, which bring in pollinators, including hummingbirds, and then you’re going to have an abundant insect community, which is going to attract other birds, some of which for traditional people were their regalia species whose feathers are used for ceremonies, some, such as grouse or quail, were food species. Each stage of recovery offers different advantages to people and to a range of species in a complex cycle between fire events. So that traditional knowledge and land use pattern enriches my understanding as a scientist of the ecological value of a post fire landscape over time. 

JASON: And today we’ve got this patchwork of habitats, a mosaic pattern of wild lands, pastoral lands and peri-urban lands. We will really need better migration corridors so flora and fauna can move upslope or north, due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns.

FRANK: That’s another thing Indigenous groups paid close attention to: the connection between geographic and ecological zones. They built trail networks along critical ridge systems, along watershed boundaries, and sub-trails to significant patches of land with specific characteristics, so they could link the various parts of the landscape and manage fire and water flows most effectively, and protect zones of high biodiversity, high ecological integrity, and high human and wildlife compatibility, which were also often sacred sites.

JASON: Have any of you done any controlled managed burns?

BROCK: Private landowners can burn, but you have to take on the liability if something happens with that burn. And so we up at OAEC have done some very targeted, prescribed fires where we had very specific goals in a unique spot on a grassland because we had some biodiversity goals or some thatch removal goals. We had just gotten a couple of inches of rain, so very early in the morning we said some prayers and engaged in some pyro-intensive horticulture. It was a quarter acre here and a half-acre there, and it was really targeted. It was a gorgeous morning and it felt calm and spiritual, like painting with fire. The Troglodyte in me had a firegasm going off. It felt deeply humbling. You have to be really cautious and totally present. It’s an amazing process.

FRANK: I did a burn in an oak orchard on my land I’m restoring working with the Nature Conservancy, who work on projects in my area with the Karuk tribe, the mid-Klamath Watershed Council, and other community-based groups. We did a burn on my property, but it took working with the fire safety council and getting my neighbors on board to all come together to agree that we were using traditional fire in a contemporary context, to achieve multiple resource objectives. And for me it was great to have my 4 year-old son hanging out with the burn boss and beginning to feel responsible to his acorn trees that he will inherit along with the cultural responsibility for stewardship. And we burned. 

We also used the opportunity to do some acorn research on the bugs with my UC Berkeley students, and we improved the egress route between my neighbors and my property. And I helped to restore the oaks. Today when I see my acorn crop and listen to the woodpeckers, the jays, the squirrels, and see the bear and deer signs, everything’s telling me that it was a good fire. So if you do it right, you can achieve multiple objectives—community safety, resource enhancement, enhanced food security, intergenerational learning, and those best practices can then be emulated and spread through a community.

JASON: But do you feel that the big land management agencies at the federal and state levels are also starting to think about fire this way? 

FRANK: There’s still a long way to go, but I’m hopeful. I’m seeing in my work on traditional ecological knowledge and tribal fire management, working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior, that there’s starting to be a positive change and more cooperation between government and tribal foresters and groups such as the Nature Conservancy, but there will need to be a bigger social movement around fire education.

JASON: Brock, we were talking earlier about all the habitat value that’s created when you allow forests to regenerate naturally without going in there and logging right after a fire, and you were talking about fire as a partner. Could you could talk a little bit, switching back to the water theme, about animals as partners, wildlife as partners, and some of the work you’ve done there at the Water Institute.

BROCK: As a wildlife biologist, I have been fascinated with how nutrients cycle in ecosystems. To cite one example, anadromous fish such as salmon, and we are in the southern end of “Salmon Nation” here, hatch in streams in our regions and then spend a lifetime at sea and come back to spawn at the end of their lifecycles, and when they die, they not only feed people, eagles, otters and bears, but the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and slews of other minerals and nutrients they bring back into the watershed re-invigorate the land. You can find isotopes of those minerals directly traceable back to those salmon in the needles of coniferous trees far from streams, so the hydrological cycle forms relationships of nutrient exchange and return between different ecosystems. If the whole landscape is tended well, with respect and a deep appreciation of these cycles, as many Indigenous groups did, you create conditions conducive to the wellbeing of many species and of entire watersheds. 

And then there is one very special critter in the riparian part of our watersheds, and that’s our beaver. Right now many of our watersheds have been damaged in all sorts of ways, including by being overharvested and eroded by roads and off-road vehicles. We’ve reduced the complexity of those systems and their capacity to support diverse life, especially aquatic life, but really all life that depends on water. But beavers are forest farmers. They slow, spread and sink water, and they increase the wetted width of their habitats to grow the food that they eat because they’re herbivores. They eat bark and cambium and cattail roots and grasses.  They need to slow water down to grow riparian forests and wetlands, which happen to be then sequestering carbon and creating other habitat. They are great hydrological engineers, and we should hire as many of them as possible.

Right now in California we have a decreasing snow pack in many of our high elevation systems, but runoff volumes are increasing in mountain meadows and systems lower down. Our natural water storage capacity and distribution system is out of balance. If we can we work with beavers as a keystone species, they can interface with these processes and play an important role in re-establishing a healthy hydrologic cycle. And there’s some good science on beaver habitat mitigating the intensity of fire by creating fuel breaks in the bottom ends of these systems. Beavers rehydrate the valley bottoms and increase the wetted width of these linear corridors that then act as natural firebreak systems. So bring back the beaver in California! 

JASON: Frank, kind of on that same tip around collaborating with another critter like the beaver, what would traditional ecological knowledge, as you’ve studied it, have to instruct us about striking collaborative relationships with other animals, trying to get away from having our relationships with many animal species be so conflictive, as they so often are, in our industrial society?

FRANK: So I come from a line of storytellers, and I think traditional storytelling is a way to embed deep-time knowledge about ecological prescriptions for how to live in a specific place. Many of our stories involve animal personifications that convey traditional teachings about certain keystone species. Certain regalia species whose feathers are used in ceremonies are seen as highly valued, spiritual beings, and of course some animals provided crucial food and materials, but the stories about them indicate that they are indicators, that their presence is an expression of wealth and of the ecological integrity of the land. So Indigenous folks harvested some of them of course, but only in very specific places where it was allowed, because they knew that if they could no longer hear, say, woodpeckers, then they knew something was wrong with the land. And woodpeckers, and bluebirds, another sacred species, need fire in the landscape to thrive, so how well you manage the fire cycle determines whether you have a healthy population of the animals that are sacred and useful to you.

For a water quality indicator, many of the tribal traditional accounts mention various physical trees, insects, animals and reptiles as being physical manifestations of that water spirit. One of my teachings is that the Pacific giant salamander (this is primarily among the Karuk and Yurok and the Hoopa) is that spirit being who physically purifies and watches over the water. If you go to that spring on the hillside or you go to that creek, and you see that Pacific giant salamander, you thank them for guarding and protecting and purifying the water. If you’re going to that spring and there are no salamanders or just deformed or unhealthy or dead ones, it’s an indicator that something’s wrong in the system.

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