Forest Fuel Loads
Before European settlement, vegetation in California was dominated by a succession of more, smaller, and less damaging wildfires. Now, even fires that are not necessarily larger are burning more intensely. They are more costly to control and create greater risk of losses to the resources, improvements, and people in wildland areas.
The Sierra Nevada region is especially vulnerable to fire, due to historic fire management policies combined with unprecedented population growth. For most of the twentieth century, the response to fires in the Sierra Nevada was immediate attack fire suppression. Deteriorating forest health, increasing fuel loads, and other factors have led to more intense, destructive wildfires.
Over the last 80 years vegetative fuels have increased in tonnage per acre, resulting in unnaturally high fuel loads. Most of the public does not realize this and believe what they see now is "natural." Wildfires in this unnatural fuel load condition are very intense and more difficult to suppress. Add homes and personal property to these areas, and fire suppression is even more difficult.
Today, a primary goal of fire protection in California is to safeguard the wide range of assets found across wildland areas. These assets include life and safety, structures, range, recreation, hydroelectric power, fire-flood watersheds, soil erosion, water storage, water supply, scenic, timber, air quality, historic buildings, non-game wildlife, game wildlife and infrastructure.
Without fire, our forests grow dense and dangerous . . .
"Changes in land use and fire suppression policies over the past 150+ years have resulted in increased fuel loads over much of the watershed. This results in fewer small, low-intensity fires and more large, high-intensity fires than previous to that time . . . .
— Bear River Watershed Plan
Fire ecosystem management over the past century:
Unintended consequence = catastrophic fire, resulting in: