Forest Restoration












Changing Perceptions of Fire in Coast Redwood Forests

"There was no fire. In some way people lived without it.... Then the people discussed how they would get the fire from him who kept it.... If they could cause the spider to laugh the fire would shoot out of his mouth, and they could get it. All tried, but could not make him laugh. At last the skunk came dancing in with his tail stuck up. All laughed, and the spider laughed too. Then fire shot out of his mouth....The buzzard flew with it, zigzag, over the dry grass. Whereever he went, he fired the grass, and the flames spread."
George Burt, (Sinkyone) 1902
"A man dreamed and saw a long way off. He dreamed of fire, and it started to burn. He said: 'Look out, fire is going to start; don't you believe me?' Then fire did start. No one could get away from it. Coyote said that he was going to run to water. But the water was dried out everywhere and Coyote could not find any.... By and by he licked wet mud and that saved him. Maybe next time he will believe people when they tell him."
Jack Woodman (Sinkyone) 1928/9
"Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground. Old acorn on ground have lots worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bugs and worms come more every year. Indian burn every year so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn. Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn."
Klamath River Jack, 1916
"I heard and felt the splintered tree in the foreground fall in early October 2003. It was massive and old, and I can still feel it shake through me." S Norman [Credit: Steve Norman]
"The last part of our march led us into a thick redwood forest, upon a mountain, through which we were obliged to cut our trail, the ground being covered with underbrush and fallen timber. A fatiguing climb and an excessively bad descent brought us again to the South Fork. On the other side was a small prairie of about eighty acres, from which however, the grass was mostly burnt....Frequent showers again fell today...Several Indians...came into camp.... One tree near the tents...had been hollowed out to the height of probably eighty feet, and the smoke was even yet escaping from a hole in the side."
George Gibbs, Sept. 5-6, 1851, near Myers Flat
"'Few and evil' are the days of all the forest likely to be, while man...torments them with fires, fatal at once to seedlings, and at length of the aged also."
Asa Gray, 1872
"There is one cause of destruction from which this tree is entirely exempt--that is fire. Containing no pitch, but on the other hand, a large amount of water, it will not burn when green. No fire can run in a redwood forest. We shall, beyond reasonable question, have the use of our supply of redwood; shall not have the pain of seeing it go up in smoke. It is the only one of our coniferous lumber trees which is thus exempt."
Henry Gannett, 1899
The Lady Bird Johnson Grove likely burned with a 8-20 year frequency, despite being bathed in fog on a regular basis during the summer months.  [Credit: Steve Norman]
"The enemies of the Redwood are few, and it suffers from them less than other trees. The wind can scarcely uproot it, insects seem to do it little harm, and fungi seldom affect it. Even fire, the great enemy of all trees, though it may occasionally kill whole stands of young Redwood growth, is unable to penetrate the fireproof sheathing of shaggy bark with which the old trees protect themselves... [Fires] have made "goose pens" by burning out the litter from between the roots, and scarred the bark of the older trees; but the Redwood has suffered less from fires than has any other species. In the damp northern part of the Redwood belt the forest is too wet to burn."
Richard Fisher, 1903
"The big redwoods do not burn readily, but become weakened by brush fires about their bases and finally topple over with a great crash, carrying smaller trees with them. 'Great trees were falling all night,' said Park Warden Drool. 'When they fall they can be heard a mile and a half.'"
Merritt B. Pratt, 1919
The 2003 Canoe Fire [Credit Steve Norman]
" is a genuine enemy of the redwood forest and should therefore be kept out."
Emanuel Fritz, 1929
"For several generations the feeling that 'fires cannot hurt a redwood' has become so firmly established that any attempts on the part of the state fire officials to extinguish fires are obstructed, especially by local ranchers and small timber owners. Incendiarism is practiced not so much with malice as with a real feeling that fires are necessary or desirable in the redwood region."
Emanuel Fritz, 1931
The 1945 Trinidad fire was hot, but we know nothing of its long term effects because the old growth was logged.
"I am convinced that the periodic fires of the past (pre-white man) have determined the character of the redwood forest as the white man found it in 1850 et ante. It gave the forest an openness that accentuated the size and grandeur of individual trees and stands. I feel certain also that the reduction in the frequency of fires and their long exclusion in some places has so changed the forest that its 'physiognomy' has changed that it no longer looks as impressive as it once did (same is true of S. gigantea stands) largely because of the intrusion of younger trees that break the view and that actually may forever change the general forest picture, should fire be excluded. The picture may be better like lower Bull Creek Flat is now--but that flat is changing its face as the oldest trees drop out."
Emanuel Fritz, 1944
"The [Redwood Region Conservation Council] started out with fire prevention and education as of primary emphasis in its fundamental purpose, the cause of perpetuating our forest resources... Youthful artists of Redwood Region are encouraged to spread [a] message of forest fire prevention in poster and essay contests conducted annually by [the] Youth Work Committee."
Ben Allen, 1957
These four teenagers made nice posters, but did anti-fire advocates go too far with their war against fire in coast redwood?
"I tell you what I am more afraid of now. I cruised that Bull Creek flat in 1930. Now, just the other day we went through to find a corner or two, and to my surprise I couldn't crawl through it. When I went through it in 1930 I could see the ground as clear as this floor....I don't want to get too excited yet, but if that whole Bull Creek basin is that way, and it ever caught on fire, nothing would stop it. All that undergrowth of hazel and huckleberry is getting so thick, I don't see how it could hurt anything to cut a little of it out."
E. P. French, 1963
Fire prevention propaganda from the 1950s [Credit_Steve Norman]
"...the primeval redwood forest was a mosaic of ecosystems supporting redwood that existed prior to the arrival of the white man. Fire was an integral part of the environment... Redwood is favored over other species in the presence of fire by its thick, essentially fire-resistant bark, by its capacity to sprout along its stem and replace its branches when killed by fire, by its capacity to sprout from its root crown following destruction of the rest of the tree...
E.C. Stone and others, 1972
"The fire interval for light fires of the type discussed here [in the northernmost redwood range] is variable for the mesic near coastal sites, a fire interval of 250 to 500 years can be inferred on the basis of age distributions and to a more limited extent, fire scars. In intermediate sites, the fire interval is from 100-200 years and 50 years on xeric interior sites... In the absence of fire, or with reduced fire frequency as a result of fire control, Douglas-fir establishment would be reduced."
Stephen Veirs, 1982
Decades of reduced fire allowed this small cavity to heal over; Note that the decay associated with several of the seven fire scars remains. [Credit: Steve Norman]
"Regardless of fire history methodologies, ... the abundance of recorded fire evidence in coast redwood forests clearly indicates that fire had been important..... Continued development of protected residual old-growth forest and cutover redwood parklands in California toward an appearance of pre-existing conditions may, therefore, be dependent on a fire regime where prescribed burning substitutes for lightning and now-absent aboriginal ignitions."
Mark Finney and Bob Martin, 1989
"...recent assessments of historical fire regimes in coast redwood forests... have, for the most part, underestimated the frequency and probable role of surface fires in at least some coast redwood forests over the past several centuries."
Peter Brown and William Baxter, 2003
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