When the Creek Fire exploded to 160,000 acres in just 72 hours, ripping through a jewel of the Sierra Nevada just south of Yosemite National Park, California and the world looked on in horror and surprise.
But the stage had long been set for the megablaze, one of a half-dozen transforming millions of acres of Golden State landscapes to ash. Droughts supercharged by climate change dried out vegetation, aiding its transition into fuel. And as observers ranging from foresters to Californians living in the wildland urban interface predicted, the state's zealous, century-long fight to suppress fires meant this flammable concoction grew to unstable levels.
"This is a situation many of us have been dreading over the past five years," said Chris Dicus, a professor of wildland fire and fuels management at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. "All it would take is a single spark to ignite these trees, and that's what we saw happen."
Droughts also exacerbated another variable that has devastated Western forests: the bark beetle. Although native to the region, the beetle wreaks havoc under the wrong conditions, including droughts. According to statistics from firefighting officials, between 80% and 90% of the Creek Fire's fuel — a full 2,000 tons per acre — came from beetle-killed timber.
But was this truly what caused the Creek Fire to explode into something historic, an inferno that had consumed 278,368 acres in Fresno and Madera counties and was 25% contained as of 8:50 a.m. Sunday, even with more than 2,900 people battling its flames?
The answer's not that simple, experts say. While some researchers and government agencies believe beetle-killed trees are fuel that should be logged and removed, a number of scientists question whether those play a significant role in fires.
Cal Fire, for example, claims the one-two punch of drought and bark beetles convert forests to "dry fuel." But some researchers accuse land management agencies of bulldozing science and siding with the logging industry. Timber companies benefit from fire policies that encourage the private sector to thin forests, they say.
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Chad Hanson is a fire ecologist and director of the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project, a nonprofit advocating for responsible forest management. He sees logging for wildfire prevention as an "insidious form of climate science denial."
“They’re calling it fuel reduction," he said. "Really what they’re doing is removing the least combustible material, the tree trunk.”
Helicopter rescue: Scores of people were rescued from flames near Lake Thomas A. Edison.
Did Smokey Bear get it wrong?
Some academics estimate that prior to 1800, roughly 4.5 million acres burned across California each year, a significant portion of it sparked by Native Americans employing traditional burning practices. Ecologists call these "good fires" — blazes that are a necessary part of the Sierra ecosystem.
The difference between beneficial and harmful fires is a nuance that, they say, was all but erased in the era of Smokey Bear. Until recently, the U.S. Forest Service sought to prevent and contain wildfires at all costs. This included aggressive fire suppression even in remote areas that didn't pose an immediate threat to the public.
The result has been an overgrowth in California's forests. They're now two-to-three times thicker than at any time in recorded history. That birthed a smorgasbord for hungry fires that burn quickly due to the High Sierra's abundance of oxygen and the northern reaches of the strong Santa Ana winds.
"We do have a huge fuel problem," said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at UCLA. “What we’re seeing is sort of the perfect combination of everything that could go wrong has gone wrong."
Locals have watched the forest of their youth transform into an overgrown tinderbox.
"You look out in the forest, and it’s a hedge. Before, you could easily walk through it. Now, it's nearly impossible ... There are too many trees," said Brother Chris Donnelly, Huntington Lake Volunteer Fire Department's chief of 17 years. "This was a disaster waiting to happen."
Ravages of the bark beetle
In the Sierras, these raging fires have ignited another debate: what to do with millions of dead trees.
California's historic five-year drought has killed numerous evergreens and left hundreds of millions vulnerable to bark beetles, which infest and prey on water- and nutrient-deprived pines. More than 102 million trees have died from these two factors alone since 2010, according to Cal Fire, in some places leaving forests 85% devoid of living trees.
"We saw an incremental growth in trees. Then, a super drought came along and kicked those trees in the teeth, causing mass mortality," Dicus said, adding that the problem is exacerbated by climate change bringing hotter and drier conditions across the region.
More than 129 million trees in total spanning nearly 9 million acres have died across the iconic range since 2010, with the southern Sierra Nevada being the most heavily impacted region, according to a 2017 report from the Forest Service.
To solve the problem of so much fuel, some of the same people who once cheered the dismantling of mills and the lumber industry across California's wildlands are now clamoring for the return of responsible foresters who can help reduce Sierra fuel loads, Dicus said. From the Fresno Bee's editorial board to conservative blogs and President Donald Trump, a chorus has demanded various levels of logging.
While standing dead trees contribute little heat to wildfires, once they crack and fall to the forest floor, they become a ticking time bomb, according to Scott Stephens, wildfire ecologist and UC Berkeley professor. Typically fires are hottest at their edges, where they are actively growing, with burned-through areas measuring cooler. Not so with the Creek Fire.
"For the first 36 hours, satellite imagery picking up heat showed the fire's interior was just as hot as its edge," he said. "It's really unprecedented and so scary. All that energy is what caused the 35,000-foot cloud to form that created its own weather."
But logging and removing dead trees is a hotly contested idea, with many experts and environmentalists saying it's no solution.
Hanson from the John Muir Project pointed out that the Creek Fire ripped through scars of the earlier French and Aspen fires, both of which had later been logged but didn't stop this blaze. He also disagreed with Stephens' thought that dead trees are a highly combustible problem, saying they actually soak up large amounts of soil moisture and are difficult to burn.
Without logging, the highly combustible oil in trees' needles dissipates within two years of a tree being killed by drought or bark beetles, while the needles themselves decay into dirt. Meanwhile, leaving upright dead trees in place maintains a degree of forest-cooling canopy as well as windbreaks.
“Weather and climate — and therefore climate change — are the dominant drivers in wildfires, overwhelmingly," Hanson said.
Keeley, the USGS researcher, said fuel is still the major problem, but it's not the old growth trees targeted by logging companies. Young, small-diameter trees that burn more easily need to be cleared, but they don't produce useful timber.
Lacking a profit motive, that task falls to the government and is expensive. Logging also introduces easily ignited, invasive grasses when workers drive heavy machinery through forests.
“You can’t get a timber company that can make money cutting those trees down," Keeley said. "They can’t do it.”
What comes next?
California and the Trump administration — in a rare moment of accordance — recently signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly reduce fire conditions on 1 million acres annually by 2025.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also introduced legislation that calls for the creation of a Prescribed Fire Training Center. A similar facility in Florida has found success, generating dozens of jobs and helping to preserve some of the region's wildlands. In 2019 alone, Florida set 750,000 acres ablaze with controlled burns. Neighboring Georgia burned a similar number.
Meanwhile, California has employed controlled burns over just 75,000 acres, not even a tenth of what was completed in the Southeast over the same period, Stephens said. The Berkeley researcher said rethinking the state's approach to fire suppression could help revitalize mountain and foothill communities where economies have been decimated by the timber industry's decline.
"I think that could create another workforce that could be used extensively. Once you begin to do this work, the maintenance goes on forever," Stephens said, adding that the initial investment in thinning and prescribed burns would be less expensive than the long-term firefighting costs.
Prescribed burns, though, also come with controversy, as they don't bring the varying levels of heat — a factor that is ecologically useful — that more naturally occurring wildfires do. Additionally, there are only small windows of opportunity when firefighting agencies can control such burns.
Another factor to consider, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Edwin Zuniga, is that dead trees pose a risk to firefighters on the ground. The husks can fall and injure or even kill firefighters, meaning crews have to approach these blazes more cautiously.
With this year bringing a degree of fire never before seen in California's recorded history, researchers believe that it's time to make decisions on wildfire management.
"This has only become normal because of the actions and inactions of the past hundred years," Dicus said. "It's going to take a lot of time and money to fix the problem."
Stephens fears the window to effect change and prevent the new normal from becoming reality is closing. He sees the next decade as pivotal to California's resiliency. "If things don’t change in the next couple years, there will be an opportunity missed — probably some of the final opportunities that we have," he said.
Risking 'treasured places'
There's too much fuel in California's forests and not enough beneficial burning. Those are some of the major areas where there seems to be relative consensus among Western fire researchers.
We simply "got really good at putting out fires," said Dicus, who was a wildland firefighter for 10 years. He remembers being a frustrated 19-year-old on the front lines, thinking "I'm only exacerbating the problem. If I put it out now, it's going to grow up and burn hotter later."
For Dicus, the Creek Fire is personal. He was hiking alongside Lake Thomas A. Edison with his wife and narrowly escaped the blaze. From a vantage point near their campsite, they saw smoke plumes billow above the only road out and decided to leave immediately. At least 50 other people didn't get out so quickly and had to be evacuated in a daring helicopter rescue executed by the U.S. National Guard, which used night-vision and infrared sensors to navigate the dark and smoke.
"I spent a lot of time in that area exploring this summer. I thought I had found a new treasured place to recreate in the future," he said.
Dicus believes that if drastic steps aren't taken to shift California toward a more proactive fire management approach, including more "good fire" and clearing the forest floor of dangerous materials, there may not be many "treasured places" to return to in the coming decades.
Others like Hanson are quick to remind that not all forms of forest clearing and fire mitigation are created equal. "We just need more what we call ‘managed wildfire,’” he said. "Native wildlife and plant species in our forest have evolved to depend on a mix of fire intensity.”
Researchers largely agree that California and the federal government must take steps to reduce certain fuels, learn to coexist with wildfires and aggressively address climate change.
"We've got to be proactive. We can't just wait to see what happens because that is what we're experiencing right now," Dicus said. "It's not good for people or the environment."
Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Mark Olalde covers the environment for The Desert Sun and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter at @VTD_Joshy and at @MarkOlalde. Subscribe today for as little as $1 a month to keep on all things Tulare County and Riverside County.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Creek Fire ignites fire management debate on beetles, climate change