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An overview of fire in the Sierra Nevada

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Abstract

Fire, ignited by lightning and Native Americans, was common in the Sierra Nevada prior to 20th century suppression efforts. Presettlement fire return intervals were generally less than 20 years throughout a broad zone extending from the foothills through the mixed conifer forests. In the 20th century, the areal extent of fire was greatly reduced. This reduction in fire activity, coupled with the selective harvest of many large pines, produced forests which today are denser, with generally smaller trees, and have higher proportions of white fir and incense cedar than were present historically. These changes have almost certainly increased the levels of fuel, both on the forest floor and “ladder fuels”—small trees and brush which carry the fire into the forest canopy. Increases in fuel, coupled with efficient suppression of low and moderate intensity fires, has led to an increase in general fire severity.


We suggest extensive modification of forest structure will be necessary to minimize severe fires in the future. In high-risk areas, landscapes should be modified both to reduce fire severity and to increase suppression effectiveness. We recommend thinning and underburning to reduce fire-related tree mortality coupled with strategically placed defensible fuel profile zones (DFPZs). DFPZs are areas in which forest structure and fuels have been modified to reduce flame length and “spotting”, allowing effective suppression.


This chapter is an overview of work by the fire-subgroup of the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project. Details concerning these findings are found in Skinner and Chang 1996; Chang 1996; Husari and McKelvey 1996; McKelvey and Busse 1996; Erman and Jones 1996; van Wagtendonk 1996; and Weatherspoon 1996.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title An overview of fire in the Sierra Nevada
Volume Chapter 37
Year Published 1996
Language English
Publisher University of California-Davis, Wildland Resources Center
Publisher location Davis, CA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description p. 1033-1040
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Other Government Series
Larger Work Title Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, Volume II
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Sierra Nevada Mountains