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Fire and Forest Management
San Bernardino Sun, October 4, 2009

Study: Dead trees did not fuel pair of blazes
By Stacia Glenn

Two major wildfires that devastated the San Bernardino Mountains six years ago were not further fueled by large stands of dead trees, according to a recently published study.

That counters what fire officials have repeatedly said over the years in discussions about forest management, where removal of dead trees to slow the intensity of fire remains a hot topic.

"I found that dead trees did not have any impact on whether an area was likely to burn at higher severity, so it would be ineffective to remove those dead trees if your goal is to reduce fire severity," said wildlife biologist Monica Bond, who was lead author on the study published online by the Open Forest Science Journal.

Bond and two other researchers inspected satellite images taken prior to the 2003 Old and Grand Prix fires that burned 14,500 acres of conifer trees and determined which mountain areas had the most dead trees killed by drought and the bark beetle.

They then analyzed images taken by the U.S. Forest Service after the fires to assess the severity of flames based on how much foliage survived.

Bond and Curt Bradley, a GIS specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said their findings should be considered in future forest management policy. They also expressed a hope that it will reduce the amount of logging done in mountain areas with significant numbers of dead trees.

More than 1 million dead trees were removed from the San Bernardino Mountains after the 2003 wildfires.

"After the fires in 2003, there were calls by industry groups to do more logging in areas affected by bark beetle and drought," Bradley said. "But dead trees are actually really valuable to the forest. They are actually habitat for a lot of animals and birds."

San Bernardino County Division Chief George Corley said he disagrees with the study's findings but agrees that trees play an important part in the forest. But there doesn't need to be millions of them, he said.

"San Bernardino National Forest's biggest, most destructive, hardest to put out fires occurred during and after the bark beetle kill," Corley said. "Anytime you have a dead fuel, it becomes part of the hazard."

Fire officials say they focused tree removal around communities to eliminate the danger of them falling on homes or power lines and left stands deep in the forest alone.

The study did not examine the probability of fire igniting among dead trees but rather focused on how intensely it would burn as flames moved through areas of dead trees.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Wendy Holden said their researchers are still reviewing the study and other related research.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton