Capt. William E. Simpson II – USMM Ret. contributed the following opinion article to Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.
First and most importantly; there is nothing normal or natural about catastrophic wildfire.
Catastrophic wildfire is man-caused and the genesis of these man-caused disasters are the responsibility of a minority of environmentalists and so-called scientists who I term as the ‘policy peddlers’ of defective natural resource and forest management policies.
Catastrophic wildfires are part of a chain of events stemming from the defective policies that result in the gross mismanagement of the public’s natural resources. In the case of catastrophic wildfire, the chain of events starts with the policy peddlers influencing others and has resulted in the mismanagement of apex predators.
When these policy peddlers meddle into large and complex interconnected ecosystems, which contrary to their own assertions they do not fully comprehend, they do so in the most reckless manner using pseudo-science that is tainted by personal bias stemming from their own ideologies.
When catastrophic wildfire strikes the totality of the devastation caused from the unnaturally excessive heat of these wildfires has only begun and is not immediately evident aside from the charred and bleak landscape that remains. I will touch on just a few of the links in the resulting chain of disaster.
After the flames die-out and the toxic smoke subsides, the winter rains come. And the train-wreck continues as we see in a video posted on the USGS website.
The wildfire debris- flow in the video at the link below was captured by Devore, CA resident Howard Davis. It shows an example of the soil and fire debris that is carried away as mud strewn boulders are rolled down the street in front of his house on Christmas Day 2003. The video was provided to USGS courtesy of Mr. Davis.
The bad news for Curry County, Oregon as well as many other counties in western states that suffered catastrophic wildfires is that the disasters that began in the summer of 2017 are still unfolding in 2018. Some of what we see in the video at the link above, is predicted for locations in western states, including in Curry County, OR, as is documented and predicted at this USGS webpage:
In fact, the predictions are proving correct already.
Many creeks, streams and rivers that are normally crystal-clear even in winter are already running chocolate brown with extreme turbidity as we see in the photo below provided by a resident of Curry County, Mr. Al Stroh:
The heavy turbidity and toxic compounds resulting from the Chetco Bar Fire in the unnatural runoff spells disaster for many aquatic lifeforms. Once the plants and their root systems are destroyed by the excessive heat from catastrophic wildfire, these critical soil stabilizing agents are gone and the soils are readily and rapidly eroded by the annual winter rains.
The anomalously high heat from this new breed of super-hot wildfire is fueled from excessive grass and brush, also known as ground fuels. These excessive ground fuels are the result of depleted deer populations in west coast states. Deer are natural grass and brush mowers and normally consume about 7-pounds of grass and brush daily.
In California for instance, where 2-million deer have been decimated by the over-population of mountain lions over the past few decades, deer are no longer grazing the excessive grasses and brush in and around forests and the wildland urban interface (WUI) as they had in past decades. The resulting excess in annual ground fuels amounts to about 2.5-million tons of highly flammable ground fuels! And now with warmer and longer summer seasons, these excessive fuels now present a more serious problem than ever before.
Both Oregon and California have serious apex predator population problems, thanks to policy peddlers. For instance, according to data from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Oregon should properly have about 2,500-2,800 mountain lions. The 2017 census of Oregon lions showed there are 6,400 mountain lions in the State, where hunting is permitted for many years, but has not abated the booming population where each lion kills 50-60 deer annually. This amounts to 320,000 deer killed by lions alone and is over 60% of the State’s entire deer population, a disaster well underway.
Excessive ground fuels (grass and brush) have become the new facet in the genesis of catastrophic wildfire and forest management. Foundational science supports this observation, as we read here:
According to Science Magazine: “By altering the quantity and distribution of fuel supplies, large herbivores can shape the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires across a landscape. There are even unique interactions among large herbivore populations that can influence fire regimes. For example, facilitative interactions between white rhinoceros and mesoherbivores result in reduced fuel loads and fuel continuity, and consequently fewer large, intense fires. Other factors can influence the frequency and intensity of fires, particularly in locations where the total area burned is strongly related to ungulate population size.”
Having read the foregoing, it all seems so obvious. However to many scientists and environmentalists who have not read or seen the foregoing it’s not obvious. And only the most ignorant or intellectually dishonest environmentalist/scientist policy peddlers would proffer an obtuse ‘let it burn’ solution when as we now understand the only real solution is to implement replacements for the missing native-species large-bodied herbivores.
Of course regenerating our deer populations will take decades of careful management and can only begin once the mountain lion populations are reduced to normal levels.
In the meantime, the BLM has 50,000 wild horses in corrals that can under existing law be redispositioned into and around remote at-risk forests to control excessive ground fuels as is cited in this article: https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/
Few scientists and environmentalists actually live 24/7 365-days/year in the wilderness forests of America.
So the forgoing paragraph from Science Magazine is not the ‘common sense’ knowledge that most people who actually live in the wilderness forests have. Instead the life-experience of living inside the biomes that embody these varied and unique forest and watershed ecosystems is very limited to handful of naturalists, many of whom agree with the thesis herein.
Nevertheless, policy peddlers continually pontificate upon forest and wildlife management policies and methods that are based-upon outdated and empirically proven failed dogma, which has failed over and over for the past 30-years.
Now to cover their embarrassing record, they scapegoat and try to deflect responsibility ridiculously claiming that ‘climate change’ is to blame, which has nothing to do with the mismanagement of apex predators that has led to the depletion of the deer critical to forest health. Of course they are boxed-in by their own flawed ideologies and the tactics that flow from wrong-headed perspectives; like suing government agencies that are trying to control apex predator populations.
During extremely abnormal heat of catastrophic wildfires, soils are extensively degraded and in many cases, forever altered adversely. A white paper published at NIH titled ‘Effects of Wildfire and Harvest Disturbances on Forest Soil Bacterial Communities’ summarizes some important points:
“Fire has profound effects on forest ecosystems. Surface temperatures have been reported to reach 1,000°C (1), and a number of physicochemical properties of the soil are affected. Vegetation and litter removal reduce albedo and result in increased surface temperatures (31). Severe heating of soil breaks down the structures of the inorganic parent materials, destabilizing soil structure (Ulery, A. L., R. C. Graham, and L. H. Bowen. 1996. Forest fire effects on soil phyllosilicates in California. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 60:309-315).
Fire creates hydrophobic layers within the soil structure, decreasing water infiltration and increasing soil erosion by water runoff (Almendros, G., F. J. González-Vila, and F. Martin. 1990. Fire-induced transformation of soil organic matter from an oak forest: an experimental approach to the effects of fire on humic substances. Soil Sci. 149:158-168; and, DeBano, L. F., S. M. Savage, and D. A. Hamilton. 1976. The transfer of heat and hydrophobic substances during burning. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 40:779-782).
Nutrient transformations occur when excessive heat is applied to soils. The effects on ammonium and nitrate concentrations are variable (13, 29, 33), while concentrations of phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium are reported to increase (46).
Despite substantial progress made in the above studies, knowledge of how forest soil microbial communities are impacted by wildfire and harvesting remains limited. One constraint of many studies on effects of fire is that they investigated managed fires (prescribed burns), which are neither as hot nor as disruptive as natural wildfires.” [or the even hotter catastrophic wildfires]
Well after catastrophic wildfire season, there other very costly dominoes that fall as the extreme erosion from catastrophic wildfire is carried down west coast streams and into rivers that dump thousands of tons of sediment into our navigable coastal waterways, reducing river channel depths and increasing hazards on the Oregon and California bar crossings.
A quick review of the published literature shows that the ‘let it burn’ policy peddlers have no clue about the subsequent tertiary effects and costs due to catastrophic wildfire and their obtuse policies in regard to the excessive erosion and sediment as it relates to dredging river channels and harbor entrances to key coastal ports.
The Port of Astoria and the Columbia River navigational channel and the bar, and others including Brookings Harbor at the mouth of the Chetco River in Oregon are all adversely effected by catastrophic wildfire.
The timing for Army Corps of Engineers dredging operations will as a result of catastrophic wildfire have to stepped-up to some extent and will cost taxpayers many additional tens of millions of dollars!
Of course the damage from excessive turbidity and sedimentation continues in the watershed and adversely impacts all aquatic and other lifeforms in the ecosystems, including the fisheries that seem so important to everyone engaged in debates about potential dam removals. Native Americans should be up in arms over the effects of catastrophic wildfires on salmon and other important game fish, however I have yet to hear about or read anything from them in this regard, as the fisheries are devastated to a much greater extent than any posited effect of any dam.
The following information about salmon eggs is from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:
“Although thousands are laid, up to 85% of the eggs can be lost before hatching. The eggs hatch after 6-20 weeks. Hatching times are influenced by water temperature, levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and vary for the different species.
- Chinook: hatching occurs at 12 weeks
- Sockeye: hatching occurs after 8 to 20 weeks
- Chum: hatching occurs after 8 to 16 weeks
- Pink: hatching occurs after 8 to 16 weeks
- Coho: hatching occurs after 6 to 7 weeks
A newly hatched salmon is called an alevin. At this stage, it looks like a thread with eyes and an enormous yolk sac. Alevin remain in the redd until the yolk sac is absorbed. At this point, they work their way up through the gravel and become free-swimming, feeding fry. Alevins must have cool, clear, oxygen-rich water to remain healthy. Excessive sediment or extreme water temperatures can kill the fish. Aquatic insects and other fish are an alevin’s primary predators. “
So as we learn, ‘excessive sediment’ (aka: turbidity) in the water kills both fish and suffocates the eggs through burial in sediments that fill the void in the gravel beds needed by the eggs and alevin for survival.
All the while, these same policy peddlers are allowing the BLM to kill-off the last remaining native-species American wild horses… our spirit horses, without a word. This shows how skewed the perspectives of policy peddlers truly are and how depleted their holistic overview remains.
The policy peddlers are intoxicated on their own outdated and flawed dogma. They rudely insist they right even though they own a record of empirical failure that is decades long.
How much longer can our natural resources withstand such abuses? How much longer will taxpayers suffer such foolishness? And how long can our vanishing natural resources and wildlife, including our native-species wild horses hold-on until the people of America take notice and stop supporting these reckless policy peddlers, who have no fiduciary duty to the public.