Imagining a Future of Fire at Teakettle Experimental Forest

With the Teakettle Prescribed Fire Project

Written By: CWI Communications Consultant Amanda Monthei and Communications Intern Nory Land

It’s well known that the Western Sierra is a fire-adapted landscape, and this region’s subalpine forests are an exceptional example of fire as an essential ingredient in old-growth forest architecture—it only takes a short walk among the Sierra’s grandiose conifers to see that many of the most robust trees are blackened with fire scars. 

But fire is far from the villain in the story of the Sierra—it’s as native here as the old growth sequoias and sugar pines for which this area is known. 

Within the Teakettle Experimental Forest, located in the central Sierra, it’s obvious that the regular presence of fire created more favorable conditions for the ancient trees that exist there. This site has been federally recognized since the late 1930s, when it was utilized to understand watershed dynamics and management, fueled by hopes to increase water supply to the Central Valley. However, since 1997, Teakettle has been central to research studying the varied effects of fire and tree-thinning on specific ecosystem processes over time. 

Apart from this research, 90 acres of small experimental units within Teakettle’s total 3000-acres were burned in 2001 and again in 2017. But Teakettle in its entirety has not burned since before its federal designation 85 years ago. 

The Climate and Wildfire Institute, in partnership with local agencies, organizations, and other entities, aspires to change that, through an initiative called the Teakettle Prescribed Burn Project. 

“CWI’s role in the Teakettle Prescribed Burn Project is to secure and manage grant funding to support implementation of this project, as well as play a role in helping to support and organize collaboration between all the partners necessary to make this project a success,” said Scott Scherbinski, CWI’s program coordinator for the Teakettle Project. 

The goal is straightforward, on the surface: we aim to facilitate a landscape-level prescribed burn in an old-growth forest that has not seen fire at that scale in more than a century (the last burn occurred in 1865). With funding secured through a CAL FIRE Forest Health Grant, CWI is now leading this project, which was conceived by forest ecologist and principle investigator of the Teakettle Experiment, Dr. Malcolm North. The work will be informed by Dr. North’s extensive understanding of the Teakettle ecosystem and ecology, while project coordination and implementation will be facilitated by CWI. 

The total area for the proposed burn will not include the aforementioned previous burn units, but will add adjacent Forest Service lands that abut roads, which will serve as important fire lines along the burn perimeter. All considered, the proposed burn will be over 3200 acres—just a tad larger than Teakettle’s total area. 

In cooperation with local partners, we hope to use the Teakettle Project as a pilot in discovering new roads toward implementing landscape-level prescribed fire in ecosystems like this one. 

Perhaps with Teakettle—

we can conceive a relationship with fire that reflects the urgency of the current moment while fostering the creativity, collaboration, and community that we know will be essential to forging a sustainable coexistence with wildfire.

We believe Teakettle has the potential to offer a rare glimpse at what can often feel deeply theoretical in our work at CWI—an objective look at the implications of different management practices on the structure of a whole ecosystem.

“I think CWI, as an organization, has a unique lens in that we’re focused on policy, learning, building tools, and storytelling,” Scherbinski said. “And my hope would be that we can bring those resources to this project—not only to make it a success, but to amplify that success beyond the project, across the larger landscape, and beyond the boundaries of where we are currently working.”

Here, we can take the lessons we’ve learned in academia and apply them to the landscape right in front of us. Here, we can see in real-time exactly what processes or policies might be holding us back from bringing more fire to the land. And finally, we can witness the tangible impacts of fire on the landscape and envision its role in the future care of our forests.

In mid-July, CWI staff had the distinct opportunity to visit the Teakettle Experimental Forest with a group of partners, to explore not only the land itself but its cultural and ecological significance, as well as the history of management and research there.  

With Dr. North—a forest ecologist for the USDA Forest Service and a professor at UC Davis—as our guide, we learned about the history of Teakettle and the influence of disturbances on forest structure and composition, as well as a crash course in forest ecology over meals together in the cabin. We hiked the unit with a number of local partners, including representatives from the Forest Service, the Sierra-Sequoia Burn Cooperative, UC Merced and Davis, local tribes, local landowners, and others with a vested interest in the ongoing work at Teakettle and on the broader landscape of the Sierra National Forest. 

The Teakettle area itself varies in elevation from around 6700 to 9200 feet and flaunts towering old-growth sugar and Jeffrey pines, which dominate the landscape amidst equally magnificent red fir, white fir, and incense cedar. Lodgepole and Western white pine thrive in the upper reaches of the unit, where the subalpine forest gives way to the stunning and quintessential expanses of granite for which the high Sierra is known. 

As we walked alongside our partners on this project, it was repeatedly noted how excited everyone was at the potential for Teakettle to guide similar implementation work elsewhere—both in California and across the West. Perhaps with Teakettle, we can conceive a relationship with fire that reflects the urgency of the current moment while fostering the creativity, collaboration, and community that we know will be essential to forging a sustainable coexistence with wildfire.