Scientists Find New Way to Help California’s Forests Survive Wildfires

Image: US Forest Service

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

As wildfires have become increasingly common across the West, there’s been a growing emphasis on forest management as a means of preventing and mitigating the effects of blazes. Emerging science suggests that a new way of replanting forests could protect areas from fires — rather than planting trees individually, at even intervals, the US Forest Service has found that planting trees in clusters may make forests more fire-resistant. 

Why This Matters: The question of how to keep forests safe is of dire importance for California — by June 6, wildfires in California had already burned nearly twice as much acreage since January as they had over the same period in 2020. 4.2 million acres burned in 2020, and this year by most accounts, is shaping up to exceed those figures. 

This new method of reforestation places emphasis on spacing and variety of planted trees. As National Geographic explained, “evidence in support of this new model comes not just from California but from China, the Amazon, Europe, and elsewhere. It’s a more natural way of doing forestry, and one that also puts these experts on the front lines of a pivotal struggle to slow climate change.”


Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

Conventional wisdom suggests that trees should be planted like any other crop — evenly and densely. In the past, this may have been effective, as California tended to have frequent, lower-intensity fires that could easily be put out before they burned up too much.

But as fires have grown increasingly severe, these dense forests have dried out and become tinderboxes that could explode at any moment. Instead, spottier tree layouts have been more fire-resistant, as the pattern breaks up vegetation in such a way that when a fire passes through, some groups of trees are left intact. 

This finding bucks conventional wisdom. Planting trees in even rows maximizes growth and prevents trees from competing with each other for resources. However, some worry that planting trees in clusters will prevent effective carbon sequestration. 

But advocates of planting trees in clusters suggest that wildfires are the biggest threats to carbon sequestration, and persistent conflagrations will prevent saplings from growing into trees that can store carbon.  

California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed an unprecedented $2 billion wildfire mitigation budget, in addition to $100 million for forest health projects, including reforestation.

Craig Thomas, a longtime environmental activist who leads the Fire Restoration Group, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of prescribed fire, emphasized to Bloomberg the importance of finding new solutions: “Are we going to allocate this funding to practices that basically repeat the failures of the past, or are we going to bring in the best available science and scientists and do what they’re recommending? When it comes to fire, we are on the wrong side of nature.”

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