Scott Stephens: The Bright Side of Fire

October 14, 2009
Fire, once a key phenomenon in the balance of forest ecosystems, has gone rogue, thanks to years of detrimental land-use policy. Now, Scott Stephens and his band of pyromaniacs are restoring forests and setting the record straight.

by Brad Balukjian

Scott Stephens didn’t listen when they told him not to play with fire. Now he does it for a living. With wildfires blazing a path of destruction through Southern California recently, Stephens’ work on fire management has never been so relevant. An associate professor in ESPM, Stephens studies how fires affect forest ecosystems and how forests can be managed to maximize the benefits that wildfires provide while minimizing habitat destruction.

Stephens grew up in Humboldt County and then Napa, and first got into forestry as a kid when his father, grandfather, and three uncles all worked for a lumber mill. One of the most frustrating public misconceptions in fire science is that fire is always bad.
"One of the real problems with fire and the way we look at it is that it’s always in this bin of negativity," says Stephens. "I even said once in a Congressional hearing [Stephens has testified in front of Congress three times] that it’s a shame that we never have a Congressional hearing about the positives of fires."

But fire wasn’t always linked to images of blazing houses on the evening news. For thousands of years before Europeans' arrival, Native Americans used fire to clear areas for settlement, and in more remote areas, lightning-ignited fires acted as a natural stabilizing mechanism for forest health.

"Fires aid in nutrient cycling, volatilize nutrients, thin forests, prepare seedbeds for regeneration, and topkill plants so they can resprout. They provide a large number of fundamental ecosystem services," Stephens says.

Around 1900, the United States adopted a policy that fundamentally changed the structure of the nations’ forests, especially in the West, where vast tracts of pristine forest were found. The cornerstone of the policy was fire suppression.

"The Forest Service’s job was to provide wood and water to the American people. They saw so much empty space in the western forests [tree density was relatively low], and they assumed that fire was the reason why. So they thought, 'if we eliminate the fire, we’ll be able to grow a lot more wood and better serve the American people.'"

It worked in the short term, but the long-term consequences have been disastrous. For several decades, the number of acres of burned forest declined, and more wood was available for harvesting. But as fires were snuffed out, forests became too dense for their own good, and the amount of kindling soared. As people encroached on forest land, human-ignited fires became a serious problem, and the amount of burned acreage began climbing again. Of the 98,000 wildfires in the U.S. last year, 83% were started by humans. All of this has come at a huge cost, as our government has spent $1 billion suppressing fire annually in four of the past five years.

So what do we do?

While fires need to be suppressed in areas that directly threaten human life and habitation, more remote areas can be effectively managed to restore the balancing role that fire once played. Enter the Stephens lab, which is working on a long-term study of the ecological effects of fire and the effectiveness of prescribed burns and "fire surrogates" (cutting trees and thinning forests) in maximizing the health of mixed-conifer forests.

"With prescribed burns alone, you go into stands that were harvested multiple times, and burn maybe three times over ten years to kill the small trees and consume surface fuels to help restore the forest," explains Stephens.

"The other way to manage the forest is purely with harvesting and mechanical systems, where you go in there without any fire, and you cut the trees and then take the materials to a saw mill for lumber, or maybe you grind up the wood and send it to a power plant to make electricity," he says.

But no two forests are the same. While there may be some ways to generalize forest management, each forest’s unique properties must be taken into account in devising a plan.

"When you look at the diverse land and land use patterns and diverse uses of forests in California alone, I think you have to have the entire toolbox open and select the tool that seems to be the best fit socially, economically, and ecologically," says Stephens.

When it comes to smarts, it’s clear Stephens is no slouch. He got a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, a master's in bio-engineering, and then decided he might try his hand at fire ecology. With that kind of quantitative background, Stephens' toolbox is quite impressive. And in the spirit of ESPM, he has gone interdisciplinary, recently branching out into the social sciences, collaborating on a study of stakeholders' attitudes towards forest management.

But when you ask Stephens what the best part of his job is, his answer is unequivocal.

"The students that we work with, that's the most satisfying thing for me. Our students here at Berkeley are fabulous. It's great to see people move on in their careers and to see what they do," he says.

The feeling is clearly mutual. Second-year PhD student Lindsay Chiono, a member of the Stephens lab, says, "Scott is really down to earth. He takes a genuine interest in our aspirations and lives and what we're trying to accomplish."

Stephens' attention to his students was rewarded in 2005 when he won the department's Undergraduate Teaching Excellence award, the only accolade he chooses to display in his office.

With climate change and increasing development pressure, the challenges of forest management will only increase in the coming years. But if the past informs the present, then this ace ecologist and his entourage of researchers will be up to the challenge.