Maya Khosla

For several years, television and computer screens showcase California fire footage, especially during summer months. Flames burn miles of wildland while firefighters battle the advancing front. Aircrafts spew great plumes of orange retardant that descend on the rising smoke. Red and crimson-gold flames light up the night. The news is part of an ancient story. For over 350 million years, wildfires have been shaping and rejuvenating forests, grasslands, and shrublands.[1] New science indicates that imperiled wildlife such as the California spotted owl can greatly benefit from large, natural, wildfires.[2]

The American West experienced about 30-40 million acres of wildfires each year through the drought years of the 1920s and 1930s.[3] That is well over the 10 million acres that burned in 2015, the over 8 million acres that burned in 2017, our biggest fire-years in recent decades.[4] Scientists are discussing predictions about the potential for the increasing size of wildfires due to climate change, while the new science is throwing light on a crucial question: how can we protect the forests that are California’s legacy?

While most scientists agree that fires provide multiple ecological benefits, scientists debate the high value of natural wildfire as opposed to prescribed wildfires. The emerging science shows that prescribed burns, typically designed to burn the forest understory outside the fire season, cannot provide the suite of ecological benefits provided by natural wildfires.[5]

In Spring 2015, I followed a team of scientists through one ‘burn’ after another. The 2013 Rim Fire had burned through the path ahead, and affected over a quarter of a million acres of forest, conifer plantation, scrubland, and meadow—most of them within Stanislaus National Forest. Some 80,000 acres of Yosemite National Park also burned.

The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks.

The Rim Fire was initially declared to be the largest fire on record for the Sierra Nevada, described as “a catastrophe.” By May 2014, the Forest Service drafted an Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), proposing logging operations to clear-cut over 40,000 acres across parts of Stanislaus that were now dominated by blackened, dead trees called ‘snags.’ The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks. Written soon after the fire, the DEIS also documented little plant regeneration in the burned soil. The plan was to remove the snags and then spray a cocktail of herbicides to inhibit the growth of natural shrubs, and install conifer plantations. Operations were to begin in the summer of 2015.[6]

In June 2015, the scientists on the path ahead of me were Dr. Derek Lee and Monica Bond—a husband and wife team with an abiding interest in the fate of spotted owls after wildfire. We hiked through the soon-to-be-removed burn areas west of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite National Park. Much of what looked dead was really alive. Overhead, ponderosa pine branches were roasted to the color of dark toast—looking otherworldly in the bright blue morning glow. Dr. Chad Hanson, leader of our walk, pointed out new pine needles, emerald-greens peeping out through the layers of burnt brown. Like the tree overhead, thousands of mature, charred pines were in the throes of ‘flushing,’ bursting with new growth.[7] New oak leaves were rising from the ground where their parent tree once stood. We had to watch our steps. The forest floor was alive with seedlings of pine, fir, cedar, lupines, saffron-bright wallflowers, and, in more remote patches, Clarkia australis, farewell-to-spring flowers, among the rarest of ‘fire followers’ in Stanislaus.[8]

Just after the Rim Fire DEIS was released in 2014, a friend offered to fly me there in his Cessna. Below, Stanislaus National Forest looked like a rolling patchwork quilt—bright green expanses, great swaths featuring a blend of green and brown, and patches of darker, more severely burned forest. For the first time, I could see variations within the burn.

Large wildfires that burn through unlogged forests burn with a natural mix of low, moderate, and high severities, levels I could distinguish from the aircraft. Low severity burns through the forest’s understory, leaving over three quarters of the treetops green. Tree trunks are scorched around their base, and over 75% of all the trees remain alive. Moderate severity burns more intensely—with anywhere between one and three quarters of all the trees surviving the fire. High severity burns hottest; flames torch the tree crowns. Over 75% of all the trees burn into ‘snags,’ or standing dead trees—scientists call these areas ‘snag forests.’ High severity may range between 15% and 40% of the total area burned, and can be higher in areas that have been previously logged and turned into plantations.

Stills - Evergreen Lodge Spotted Owl

Evergreen Lodge California Spotted Owl sitting in a part of Stanislaus National Forest that burned with low-severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. A few minutes after the photograph was taken, the owl flew to a snag within a high severity area, and foraged there until well after dusk.

Photographs taken immediately after a wildfire can be misleading. Following the Rim Fire, the Forest Service estimated a record 35% high severity fire in the burned parts of Stanislaus National Forest, since most of the trees looked dead. One year after the fire, a second survey brought the high severity number down to 19.9%, less than half of the earlier estimate, and well within the range of high severity observed in historic wildfires within mixed-conifer forests of the American West.[9] Given a year, many trees were showing signs of life, new greens mixed in with the browns and blacks.

While I was flying over the Rim Fire in 2014, dedicated Forest Service field biologists were deep in the throes of surveys for California spotted owls across the post-fire forests below. The owls are recognized as sensitive species by the Forest Service. The biologists detected a record thirty-three pairs occupying historical owl territories. Most were living close to patches that had burned with high severity. Their surveys marked the beginning of a groundbreaking study.[10]

Spotted owls are known to favor old growth forests, remaining faithful to territories they use for nesting and roosting year after year. They are growing increasingly rare across the state.[11] I had assumed they would be long gone from the burn. But Bond had a different story. In the late 1990s, she joined a demographic study of spotted owls that had begun in the mid-eighties. Bond used fifteen years of data to see if owls were inclined to return and breed in their old stomping grounds after a wildfire had swept through. The study included four sites in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern California.

“I discovered to my surprise that the Forest Service typically did not survey for spotted owls in heavily burned areas,” Bond said. “So we actually had very little data from forests outside our demography study sites. There was an assumption, ‘of course, the owls aren’t going to be there.’”[12]

Bond and her colleagues conducted long-term spotted owl research in post-fire forests that had recently burned one or more well-established spotted owl territories. The study included the three subspecies: northern spotted owls (listed under the Endangered Species Act), based in the forests of northwestern California, California spotted owls in San Bernardino National Forest, Southern California, and Mexican spotted owls in New Mexico and Arizona.

Once the records were compiled, the team was in for a second surprise. All across the burned forests, they found the owls “fared well after wildfire.” The year after each fire, most returned to the same, now burned, territories they had occupied before, remained with the same mates, and reproduced with remarkable success—comparable to their lives before each burn.[13] Essentially, the raptors were thriving in undisturbed burned forests.

“That first study got my creative juices flowing,” Bond admitted with a chuckle.[14]

News about the results hurled a big question at managers and at the public, essential owners of our national forests and national parks. Do burned forests have value? The question is heavily burdened with a fact of our time. Severely burned forests are routinely clear-cut in “salvage logging” operations.

2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest

2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest where a snag and sprigs of new growth, pines, cedars, and firs frame the ground nest created by a pair of Townsend’s solitaires.

A decade after Bond’s first study, she and Lee teamed up with other scientists for a second, spanning eleven years, this time focusing on California spotted owls being surveyed by Forest Service biologists.[15] By this point, and after scrutiny from conservation groups, the agency had begun surveying heavily burned areas for owls prior to salvage operations. The research team compared burned and unburned habitats up and down the state, from Lassen National Forest in the southern part of the Cascades Mountain Range to Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierras. Their results told a similar story: spotted owls were continuing to occupy burned territories at the same rates as unburned territories, thriving in burned forests after wildfire. Subsequent studies revealed that the most productive, higher-quality territories were still occupied even when the owls’ entire core area burned at high severity.[16] Post-fire ‘salvage logging’ caused the owls to leave in what scientists call “territory extinction.”[17]

The abundance of growth springing up after fire attracts all manner of squirrels, voles, shrews, mice, and gophers—all high quality food for raptors like the owl. Witnessing the prolific growth of the burned forests she studied, coupled with the vibrant small mammal life Bond was no longer surprised at the quick return of California spotted owls she and her colleagues found. Wildfire brings the forest’s own fertilizers back in contact with soils, and the rapid pace of natural regeneration draws in the animals.

“As long as there are trees still standing for the owls to swoop down from, they can use these burned areas for foraging,” she told me.[18]

Walking through the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus National Forest, Bond and Lee asked themselves similar questions about the fate of resident California spotted owls. It was a hot spring and the mosquitoes too were evidently doing well. Once we were quiet and watchful, the air grew full of bird sounds. Woodpeckers drummed on bark. Lazuli buntings, seed-eating birds the size of sparrows, chittered as they eyed me from a blackened snag. Lazulis are on a long list of ‘fire birds,’ developed by Dr. Richard Hutto, a distinguished ornithologist.[19] At the top of his list are black-backed woodpeckers, another bird rare to California.

Early morning Sunday, 14 June 2015, biologist Tonja Chi woke me up. “Follow me.”

Half an hour later we were driving through Stanislaus National Forest along a road southeast of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite. We parked and crunched into an adjacent forest that had burned with low severity, immediately adjacent to a high severity part of the burn. Tonja walked with her eyes pinned to the ground. Not twenty minutes later, I discovered the logic. She was eyeing splotches of ‘white-wash,’ chalky white raptor scat under a large cedar tree. Looking up from the scat, she pointed to a limb high in a fir tree that was charred to about knee level, and alive. Two pairs of wide eyes were trained on us. Backlit by the rising sun, the fledgling California spotted owls looked haloed with fiery down feathers. The larger of the two fledglings stood about seventeen inches tall, the height of an adult. They moved their heads in circles, curious. Tonja found the male parent less than a hundred feet away, nodding off to sleep after a night of hunting and feeding his young.

By 2016, two independent teams had reported California spotted owls reacting to wildfires in completely different ways—one negatively, and the other positively. Gavin Jones and his colleagues reported dramatic declines in owls one year after a ‘megafire,’ the 2014 King Fire, which burned over 98,000 acres in Eldorado National Forest.[20] Meanwhile, Lee and Bond had worked with Forest Service data from Stanislaus National Forest, and found the owls were making a good living for themselves in the burn one year after the Rim Fire.[21] Their discoveries pointed in the direction of the earlier work.[22] Within the forty-five historical owl sites in the Rim Fire forests, the probability of a site being occupied by owls was 92%. These were the highest California spotted owl occupancy levels ever found anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, counting landscapes that had not experienced recent fire. Spotted owls were even settling down close to high severity burn areas.

Because the Jones study in Eldorado National Forest pointed in the opposite direction of most previously published work, it piqued much interest. Bond and Lee examined the trends and realized the California spotted owl population in Eldorado had been steadily declining for decades before the King Fire, partly due to intense logging and forest-thinning efforts on both public and private land. The trend of the population decline lined up perfectly with the lower number of owls after the fire, indicating that the fire itself was an unlikely cause.

2016 King Fire

2016 image showing clear-cuts in Eldorado National Forest that burned in the 2014 King Fire. Shortly after the clear-cutting, these areas were sprayed with herbicides to inhibit the growth of shrubs.

Now Bond and Lee joined Hanson to pore over the field-based data with care. They realized the study had considered approximately half the King Fire area. Within that half, five spotted owl territories had been reported as “extinct” due to the King Fire, when in fact those pairs had disappeared by 2011 or earlier—well before the King Fire began to burn. A single owl and another pair were reported as gone when they had in fact moved a few hundred meters away, within their existing territories. Two other pairs of owls that were present in post-fire areas went unreported. When the results were considered along with all the data that had been excluded from the study, the owls showed an overall trend of preferring undisturbed post-fire habitat rather than avoiding it – which was consistent with all the previous long-term studies. Puzzled, the team alerted the authors, the editor of Frontiers in Ecology, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, with a package of ground-truthed data.[23]

But their alerts came in on the heels of major logging efforts. Assuming the snag forest patches within the King Fire area of Eldorado National Forest were of no use to the spotted owls, or other wildlife, the Forest Service systematically removed those patches in the spring and summer of 2016. Working on similar assumptions, managers in Stanislaus National Forest followed their original plans and began clear-cutting snag forests within the Rim Fire area, citing the Jones study as part of their justification.[24]

Snag patches within the King Fire areas of Eldorado National Forest are largely gone, and they continue to be removed from the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus. Thousands of conifer seedlings per acre, which were sprouting up from the fire-enriched soils, have been squashed under equipment within the clear-cutting footprint—along with the native wildflowers, morel mushrooms and other native fungi. Snags that served as homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife have disappeared from Eldorado and from much of Stanislaus.

The husband and wife team and others could no longer explore longer-term effects of the Rim Fire on owls in Stanislaus National Forest. “The old paradigm—a lot of what we once thought—isn’t right,” Monica reflected. “Our spotted owl studies showed us: species that rely on old growth forests can also thrive in severely burned forests.”[25]

Scientists standing along the new frontier of knowledge agree that natural wildfires are the ancient agents of change, with high severity fire being a key component. Fire typically chars the outermost layers of trees, and leaves the interior intact, valuable. Hanson calculated the economic losses and gains from logging efforts across post-fire habitats. The revenue gained from selling burned wood ranges between $15 to $20 million per year. A conservative estimate of costs to taxpayers ranges between $50 million to $100 million. And there are inestimable costs to the wild.[26]

Attempting to work with fire, agencies like the National Park Service have routinely set low severity fires that primarily burn the forest understory. An increasing number of studies indicate that natural wildfires, with their distinct blend of low, moderate and high severity, offer greater ecological benefits.[27] Well over a hundred peer-reviewed papers have spoken volumes about the benefits of wildfire, the high biodiversity of post-fire forests, and their history in the American West and other parts of the world.[28] A growing number agree that post-fire ’salvage logging’ has disastrous consequences.

“The overwhelming diversity and superabundance of native plants and animals in severe burned forests tells us that this kind of fire is natural,” Bond says. “Not only is it natural, it’s necessary for western forest ecosystems.”[29]

Fire science is still relatively new, and the current management practices are geared towards fire suppression in the wild. Modern fire suppression efforts began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Smokey the Bear came into being in 1944, warning against forest fires. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton agreed to a ‘salvage logging rider.’ The rider trotted in on the back of an anti-terrorism bill, and was passed into law—allowing for massive logging and related post-fire operations across burned forests. In addition, many fuels reduction projects began thinning the forests in attempts to decrease their potential for high severity wildfires. Recent studies suggest that most fuels reduction projects within forests selectively remove mature trees and do little to decrease high-severity wildfire.[30] Current level of fire suppression efforts need to be more focused.

During 2016, Chi and I revisited the area where she had found the young owls in 2015. Just a few hundred meters away, swaths of post-fire habitat were gone. We could not find the owls. May 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $70 million grant to the State of California—to remove most of the remaining snag forests within the Rim Fire Area of Stanislaus National Forest. The wood is to be burned by the biomass industry, to produce energy and pollute the air above Yosemite with emissions, a process which Congress is hoping to define as renewable, though burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal. And yet there is hope—as forests and wildlife continue to thrive with the natural wildfires that shaped their evolution—that the management of our public forests will someday catch up with the science.

Yosemite Highway 120 Entrance 2, Autumn colors appear in a part of Yosemite that burned with moderate severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. The burned pines above now thrive.


[1] S. H. Doerr and C. Santin, “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371 (2016): 0345.

[2] M. L. Bond, R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, et al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002):1022-1028.

[3] Douglas S. Powell, Joanne L. Faulkner, David R. Darr, et al., “Forest Resources of the United States,” General Technical Report RM-234 (Fort Collings, CO: United States Department of Agriculture, 1992).

[4] In California, the fire season extends through the summer and fall seasons.

[5] Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, at al., “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere (2016): 1-13; T.  Schoennagel, Penny Morgan, Jennifer Balch, et al., “Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions” (2016),

[6] US Forest Service, “Rim Fire Recovery (43033): Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS),” Stanislaus National Forest, R5 MB-270, May 2014.

[7] Chad T. Hanson and Malcolm P. North, “Post-fire survival and flushing in three Sierra Nevada conifers with high initial crown scorch,” International Journal of Wildland Fire 18 (2009): 857-864.

[8] Roy Buck, personal communication, 30 May 2017.

[9] Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, “Letter to the Forest Service,” 11 January 2016.

[10] Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California.” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236.

[11] M. E. Seamans and R. J. Gutierrez, “Habitat selection in a changing environment: The relationship between habitat alteration and Spotted Owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 109 (2007): 566-576. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Findings on Petitions to List Species in California and Nevada” 17 September 2015.

[12] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[13] Bond, M. L., R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, at al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002): 1022-1028.

[14] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[15] M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” Journal of Wildlife Management 73 (2009): 1116-1124.

[16] D. E. Lee and M. L. Bond, “Previous year’s reproductive state affects spotted owl site occupancy and reproduction responses to natural and anthropogenic disturbances,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 307-319.

[17] D. L. Lee, M. L. Bond, M. I. Borchert, and R. Tanner, “Influence of fire and salvage logging on site occupancy of Spotted Owls in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains of southern California,” Journal of Wildlife Management 77 (2013): 1327-1341.

[18] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[19] Collard B. Sneed, Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2014).

[20] Gavin M. Jones, R. J. Gutiérrez, Douglas J. Tempel, at al. “Megafires: an emerging threat to old-forest species,” Frontiers in Ecology (2016): 301-306.

[21] Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236..

[22] M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119 (2017): 375-388.

[23] John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” 29 August 2016. Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” April 2017.

[24] United States Forest Service, “Rim Fire Project Decision,” August 2016.

[25] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[26] Interview with Dr. Chad Hanson, 11 August 2016, Big Bear City.

[27] Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, et al. “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere 7 (2016): e01255.

[28] Morgan W. Tingley, Viviana Ruiz-Gutiérrez, Robert L. Wilkerson, et al., “Pyrodiversity promotes avian diversity over the decade following forest fire,” Proc. R. Soc. B 283 (2016): 1703. Dominick A. DellaSala and Chad T. Hanson, eds. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix (The Netherlands: Elsevier, 2015).

[29] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[30] Curtis M. Bradley, Chad T. Hanson, and Dominick A. DellaSala, “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent- fire forests of the western United States?” Ecosphere 7 (2016): 1-13.

Maya Khosla is a Wildlife Ecologist with Ecological Studies and has written in Flyway, Yes Magazine, Humans and Nature, and other journals. Her work has been collected in Keel Bone (Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize) and Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek (non-fiction). Her new book of poems is forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers Press. Searching for the Gold Spot is her new film.

Copyright: © 2017 Maya Khosla. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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