"The fire regime has changed from frequent, low intensity fires to infrequent, high intensity stand replacement fires"
(CASPO Interim Guidelines,
U.S. Forest Service, 1993)

"Extreme fire behavior and resistance to control will be the norm, rather than the exception." Regional Forester, U.S. Forest Service Region-5, July 1992


Decades of aggressive fire suppression and other recent activities have changed fire regimes of the forests in the northern Sierras. Fire history studies in the Sierras show that the frequency of relatively low intensity fires ranged from 5 to 30 years in the mixed conifer and eastside pine forests.

For example, consider the effect on the approximately 935,000 acres of mixed conifer and eastside pine type of the Plumas National Forest. If you assume an average pre-European settlement fire frequency of 20 years, it implies that 47,000 acres would have burned each year. In contrast, during a recent 20-year period 4,100 acres per year were actually burned on the Plumas.

Until recently this 90% reduction of acreage burned per year was considered a measure of great success for the fire suppression policy. Unfortunately, we are now being awakened to some hard facts:


The Forest Service fire suppression program is paid for in two main categories: Fire Protection (FP) and Fire Fighting (FF). FP funds are for the basic costs of equipment and personnel, while FF funds support the emergency expenses of actually fighting a fire. Recent FF expenditures on the Plumas Forest have ranged from $0.5 to $9 million per year (Figure 1).

Figure unavailable at this time

Figure 1. Plumas National Forest wildfire suppression program costs.

The occasional spike in the graph caused by one or two large fires that occur every few years is even more significant than average yearly costs on a single forest like the Plumas (Table 1).



Size (acres)

Suppression Costs

Reforestation Costs

Total Costs





































Another factor that contributes to the rising trend in toal fire costs is the movement of more and more people into the Sierras. Inevitably more people means more sources of ignition, greater loss of assets and risk to life when a fire escapes control, and the necessity for diversion of fire-fighting resources from forest to the urban interface when catastrophe threatens. The actual cost of wildfire goes well above and rises steeper than the Forest Service shows in its FP and FF accounts.

Unless the trend toward larger and more intense fires is turned around, it is inevitable that a conflagration of multiple out-of-control fires will overwhelm any fire fighting capability that we can afford or are likely to provide. Damage in that fire will be on a scale such that neither the forest ecosystem nor the communities that depend on it will be likely to recover during a single lifetime.


The Forest Service now acknowledges that its focus on fire suppression has led to three specific hazards:

  1. The accumulation of a large fuel overload on the ground.
  2. Crowding of small trees in the understory, creating a fire ladder that carries ground fire into the crowns of large trees, thus converting ordinary fires into stand destroying fires.
  3. Invasion of the understory by excessive numbers of shade-tolerant trees (principally white fir), which dominate the competition for nutrients and soil moisture, thereby adding the mortality of large trees to the fuel load and making the overstory trees even less able to survive crown fires.

These hazards can be reduced only by reducing the load of dead and dying fuel by thinning the understory. Unfortunately, to date the Forest Service program for fuels reduction in these forests has been only a token effort at best. For example, since 1982 the Plumas National Forest has treated about 600-900 acres per year under its "natural fuels" program as part of fire protection, and another 4,500 acres per year under the "brush disposal" program associated with timber harvest. At that rate it would take about 180 years to work through the whole forest.

But given that fact, how can the fuel load ever be reduced and the understory thinned at a rate which will significantly change our current inevitable course toward catastrophe?

The simple answer is that we have no other choice. It isn't a question of whether, but of how, where, and when to begin the fuel treatments. Do we start to work on this pre-catastrophe or post-catastrophe?

A more realistic answer is we know the job can be done because in many previous years the amount of material that need to be removed actually has been removed. The main difference is this: In previous years most of the material removed was in logs from the largest trees, leaving behind most of the logging slash to add to the fuel load, while in future years, say for the next 30 or so, most of the material must be removed as small logs from understory trees, and biomass, thus reducing the fuel load, not adding to it.

A thirty-year fuels program is not a very attractive proposition; it is not adequate given the "catastrophic" threat and it is not realistic to count on sustaining public or political interest in a "crash" program of that length. Fortunately, the Quincy Library Group (QLG) can offer a considerable improvement on the bare-bones 30-year program.

The QLG proposes that all sales should be laid out in patterns that are fully integrated with natural fuels treatments in a strategic fire protection plan.


The QLG strategic fire protection plan has three requirements:

  1. Four years of very high priority.
  2. During those four years, natural fuels treatments and sales of thinnings, salvage, and biomass should be done in strips of approximately quarter-mile width according to a prescription that makes these strips defensible fire lines, meets the intent of CASPO (California Spotted Owl) guidelines, and does the least possible damage to other ecosystem values.
  3. The acreage treated each year should be at least 1/32 of the total forest.

In practice the strips (similar in concept to shaded fuel breaks) should follow ridge lines, valley bottoms, and convenient roads in a pattern that would isolate all major watersheds (average size of 10 to 12 thousand acres) within four years.

The intent of the CASPO guidelines would be met because they are based on the concept that intense wildfire is a major short-term threat to owls (and by implication to other wildlife and ecosystem values). Under the QLG strategy there is maximum protection with minimum disturbance to owls or other ecosystem components because: (1) almost all of the treated strips would be along existing roadways, (2) lower density of snags and large down woody debris within the strips could be compensated for by leaving more of those materials farther off roads during subsequent treatments in those areas, and (3) the included roadways would permit efficient removal of the materials with minimal disturbance.

After four years, with a network of fundamental protection in place, a somewhat different long-term strategy would be phased in: you could continue to use strips to divide large areas or areas with high value and/or great fire risk, but most of the remaining forest would be treated more efficiently in areas, not strips. In either case, fuels treatment should continue at the rate of at least 1/32 of the forest each year.


What we have laid out are three possible courses:

  1. Do nothing different, just wait for "the big one".
  2. Increase fuels work, but follow conventional practice that limits strategic placement of fuel breaks to what you can accomplish under the "natural fuels" budget, and confines other fuel removal to sales areas designated in the conventional manner. This would eventually get the job done, but in scattered units that for many years would protect very little area except the actual areas treated.
  3. Increase fuels work, and do both "natural fuels" treatment and timber sales in patterns and under prescriptions that support the QLG Strategic Fire Protection Plan. That is, the sales would be based on understory thinning and biomass removal in a network of strips. This will more quickly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and at the same time make suppression efforts against the remaining fires more effective and less costly.



Figure 2. Relative Cost for three fuel treatment strategies.

In Figure 2, relative costs are scaled to reflect an assumption that the FP cost remains constant for the whole period.

Curve #1 shows no change of strategy. Fire suppression costs, and the loss of forest and non-forest resources continues to rise. The only break would be a huge spike when "the big one" occurs, followed by subsidence to a level that would support fire protection for a moonscape forest.

Curve #2 represents the shape to be expected if Fuel Treatment (FT) work is done in a way that follows historic precedent. It would initially cost money that cannot be saved by immediate reduction of other fire protections costs and fire losses. Eventually, however, these costs and losses would be reduced far enough that total cost would fall below the "no treatment" projection, and from then on a continuing return on investment would be achieved. Until most of the forest had been treated, there would not necessarily be many connections among treated areas, so for at least the first half of the period any reduction in FF or Loss costs would be gradual, and there would be only gradual reduction in the risk of catastrophe.

Curve #3 is the shape we believe the QLG strategy would produce. Again you have to add Fuel Treatment (FT) costs as first, but a network of treated strips would reduce the average size of large fires and facilitate the fighting of smaller fires, so the reduction of fire costs and fire losses would be earlier and steeper, with a quicker crossover to profit on the investment, and much earlier and more significant reduction in the risk of catastrophe.


There is a strong temptation to avoid the initial cost of fuels reduction and understory thinning, because it is not easy to show that a particular catastrophic fire could actually be avoided. On the other hand, we can't escape the certainty that our current course leads inevitably to catastrophic fire.

It's a classic case of "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish". We can easily look thrifty in the short run by avoiding the "penny of immediate cost to implement the QLG strategy. But that won't look so wise when a catastrophe hits that could otherwise have been avoided or made smaller by spending those early pennies on fuel reduction. At that point it will look foolish indeed to be spending many "pounds" on futile efforts to suppress the conflagration.