Prescribed fire improves habitat
Benefits result both for plants and animals
June 15, 2023 | View PDF
Prescribed fire, the intentional and scientific use of fire on the landscape, reduce risk to communities that dot the wildland landscape. But there are other inhabitants the Forest Service considers when preparing for a prescribed fire — the wildlife that calls those very same wildlands home, that rely on forests for food and shelter.
Brandon Dethlefs, a prescribed fire and Fuels specialist on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, recently walked the fire line on Backbone Ridge, overlooking Shasta Lake near Redding, California. He did not see destruction as the flames crept across the ridge, he saw renewal.
It’s a natural process, he says, one that has been a part of the landscape since the beginning.
“Historically fire burned through this area naturally every five to 10 years for thousands of years. That process kept the fuels pretty tidy,” said Dethlefs, referencing the dead trees, brush, and litter on the forest floor. “Prescribed fire is an important tool for us to restore that balance.”
Fire was not only used by Indigenous peoples but also has occurred naturally since time immemorial. It has been a key factor influencing the evolution of plants and animals.
Wildfire and Wildlife Experts Unite
The prescribed fire that Dethlefs and other firefighters with Shasta-Trinity National Forest implemented in early April focused on a 3,000-acre peninsula on Shasta Lake.
When planning a prescribed fire or any other action that will influence the land, the Forest Service gathers an interdisciplinary team of specialists — silviculturists, hydrologists, engineers, and fishery biologists, among others. They all contribute their expertise in planning a project like the one on Backbone Ridge.
Todd Johnson is one of those experts. He has worked with the Forest Service as a wildlife biologist for 25 years. He said that when it comes to stewarding the land and restoring fire to the landscape, plants, and animals are at the top of the list for consideration.
“I’m talking to the fuels guys all the time. They want to get the work done to reduce fuels across the landscape, but they are also very receptive to how to limit negative effects on plants and wildlife,” said Johnson.
The prescribed fire implemented on Backbone Ridge is a great example of how collaboration works, Johnson pointed out. The area is teeming with wildlife, and each species has its own special relationship to fire, so it’s important for wildlife biologists to consider the benefits and impacts.
Prescribed Fire and Vegetation
When it comes to forest health, thriving wildlife, and thriving vegetation are inextricably linked.
“One example, the black oak, is an abundant source of food for wildlife, especially around Shasta Lake,” said Johnson. “The acorn production feeds a variety of species. Black oak also tends to have good cavities for birds and mammals to establish nests and dens.”
These black oaks need fire to maintain their place on the landscape.
“Black oaks need fire occasionally, to kill off the encroaching conifers. When fire is excluded from a landscape, often Douglas-fir seedlings will grow. And if there’s no disturbance, such as fire, they’ll eventually grow their way up through the oak canopy, overtop the oaks, and then slowly choke out the black oaks, depriving them of sunlight and competing for water,” said Johnson.
The migration and propagation of Douglas-firs around Shasta Lake, due to fire exclusion policies in the early 20th century, can be seen today. “Excluding fire from the landscape allowed these trees to spread out across the landscape,” Johnson said. “But if fire had been coming through on a regular basis, there would be quite a bit less Douglas-fir around Shasta Lake than there is now.”
In his biologist role, Johnson also pays close attention to sensitive species. Shasta Lake is home to more than 30 nesting pairs of bald eagles. “So, when we are planning and coordinating the prescribed burn, we are focused on protecting those areas,” said Johnson.
One consideration — protecting big nesting trees like the ponderosa pine.
“Eagles prefer to nest in large trees like ponderosa pine. So, when we are looking at reducing wildfire risk to bald eagle habitat, we are focused on reducing fuels around these trees,” said Johnson. “We’ve lost a lot of these larger trees to high-severity wildfires in recent years, also drought, insects, and disease. Reducing fuels can mitigate each of those risks.
“We also don’t want to create any disturbances for them during nesting season, when they are incubating eggs and raising young chicks,” added Johnson.
There are a number of other species taken into account when planning such as deer, turkey, quail, songbirds, osprey, Shasta Salamanders, and bats.
Fire — Just Another Day for Forests
“For wildlife, trees and shrubs, it’s business as usual, said Johnson.” “It’s common for people to think that wildfire is bad for wildlife, but wildlife has evolved with fire. They have ways to deal with fire.”
During the Backbone prescribed fire, Johnson saw a gray fox emerge from the brush. “It just came down to the lake’s edge, hung out for a little bit, and then went back up into an unburned pocket on the hillside. It’s not an unnatural thing for them, just another day.”
Explore more! Backbone Prescribed Fire | Flickr Fire teams from the Shasta-Trinity National Forest conducted prescribed burns in Redding, California, on April 15 and 16, 2023. The project’s goals are to reduce dead and downed limbs, commonly referred to as surface fuels. Using prescribed fire to reduce these surface fuels will contribute to reducing fuel loading, aid nutrient recycling, improve wildlife habitat, and support a healthy forest ecosystem.