(KTXL) — The Creek Fire in Fresno County is being fueled in part by millions of trees that died during the historic five-year drought that ended in 2017.
“There’s a lot of dead needles and branches and wood that is really fueling this fire,” Christina Restaino, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, told FOX40.
There are millions of dead trees in Northern California, too, along with areas of overgrown forests that natural fires once kept in check.
“The underlying conditions, forest conditions are really similar in that we have a lot of forests that are, simply, way overgrown,” Sierra Nevada Conservancy policy and outreach manager Brittany Covich said.
The U.S. Forest Service has been inclined to let remote fires burn to reduce fuels.
The North Complex West Zone in Butte County is part of a burn that smoldered for weeks in the Plumas National Forest, but federal fire officials say that wasn’t intentional. Instead, they say federal fighting capability was spread too thin to get it under control.
Cutting down dead trees and prescribed burns are used to reduce the spread of wildfires, but in the end, wildfires react to weather conditions.
“Winds are high, it’s really dry, there’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” Restaino said. “They’re burning so catastrophically because these are the conditions where we can’t control them.”
Restaino also heads a fire prevention program called Living With Fire. She said limited resources mean targeting prevention.
“So, can we put in a fuel break or a prescribed burn around communities?” she said.
California’s Sierra Nevada Conservancy funds that kind of targeted work, but with 25 million acres to oversee, the work is moving slowly.
Trees killed by bark beetles can stay standing for years but can be ticking time bombs.
“You have the very real potential for those trees to come down on the ground and become fuel for even larger fires,” Covich said.
The conservancy has to pay for fuel clearing projects carefully with limited funds.
“It’s expensive but I think what we’re seeing with the fires that are occurring right now, we’re paying for it anyway,” Covich said.
Studies in California and nationwide show fuel clearing strategies enable communities to better survive wildfires, but given limited resources, fire officials say it’s wise for property owners to implement their own prevention measures.