The key is forest management processes that mimic what nature would do. Maybe nature figured out, millennia ago, how to survive forest fires? It's only now that humans have too.
As California’s recent wildfires have burned more than four million acres of forest - at one point traveling an unprecedented 15 miles in one day - they’ve also revealed how better forest management could help prevent such fires in the future.
Amid the devastation, a few rare spots have been spared. One is a cut of land just east and south of Shaver Lake, a popular recreation spot: There, flames dropped from the canopy and moved along the ground, charring the bases of trees but leaving most intact and alive - in stark contrast with millions of other scorched acres.
The Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project, a 154,000 acre swathe of conifers and hardwoods in the Sierra National Forest avoided devastation thanks to a rare, 20 year joint effort in which environmentalists, loggers, scientists and the U.S. Forest Service collaborated to safeguard the forest. They did it by managing the area in a way that more closely resembled how nature would do it, thinning and planting trees for heterogeneity and healthier growth patterns.
While the loggers wanted to clear-cut and the conservationists wanted the forest untouched, the compromise between the two ended up creating a relatively fireproof forest.
The results are self-evident. The Creek Fire, California’s largest wildfire, ripped through the region - but in the project area, the flames remained low, creeping along the forest floor and leaving the trees intact and alive. “The regret I feel is that we didn’t gather the social wherewithal to do the conversations we’ve been having in the Dinkey collaborative about ten years earlier,” said one conservationist involved in the effort. “We chose a very oppositional framework: We’re good and they’re bad. We had ‘no’ down to a fine art. How do we define what ‘yes’ looks like?”
The effort has not produced perfect results, and they aren't the answer for every forest. But a number of experts see projects like this as a glimpse into a future where California’s woods might better withstand the fast winds and hot temperatures that drove this explosive year - and where old conflicts between loggers and conservationists could turn into meaningful cooperation.
“We’re closer to having and understanding the same vision than ever,” said Craig Thomas, the director of the Fire Restoration Group, a nonprofit focused on managing forests with fire. “Now I count as friends the people I used to growl at.”