Wildfire in the Sierra Nevada

Current Fires in the Sierra Nevada

This map displays active fires in the Sierra Nevada Region, including prescribed fires and fires managed for resource benefit. Understand how these fires overlap with past fires, where land ownership boundaries are, how water and power resources might be impacted, and more by exploring the more detailed map here.

Wildfire in the Sierra Nevada – Then and Now

Fire is a natural and essential process in the Sierra Nevada, but because many of our forests in the Sierra are overcrowded and unhealthy, many of today’s fires are not natural and often do not result in the same ecological benefits that historic fire or California Native American fire regimesdid.   

Recent fires, like the Rim, King and Butte Fires, have been larger and more severe than historic fires, and have caused a significant amount of damage to the resources the Region provides like clean air, water, wildlife habitat, recreational access, and carbon storage. In fact, more acres have burned in our current decade than in any other single decade on record across the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, and there are still two more fire seasons to go until records for this decade are closed out.


Wildfires of the past burned low to the ground and they burned fairly slowly, thinning out excess brush and smaller trees, and leaving larger trees to thrive without competition for resources like water and sunlight. These fires burned with mixed severity, mostly low and moderate severity, with some sporadic patches of high severity. In fact, on average, only about 20percent of the burn area burned severely enough to kill large trees. In our current decade, however, that percentage has increased significantly, and rather than burning at high severity across a few small patches, the Sierra Nevada is seeing more fires burn unusually large swaths of the forest at high severity. Nearly 40 percent of the Rim Fire burned at high-severity, and almost half of the King Fire burned at high severity, leaving patches the size of the City of San Francisco with no living vegetation. Research is showing that those large patches of severely burned land are not growing back as forest, permanently shifting our lush, green forests, to dry, highly flammable shrub and grassland.

These large, damaging wildfires are jeopardizing California’s water system, placing communities at risk, and offsetting California’s air quality and climate goals. Learn more about these impacts below or by visiting the State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests page.

A Path Forward

There is no “no fire” option in the Sierra Nevada, but there are steps that we can take to ensure our forests and communities are protected from the kinds of wildfires that do the most damage:

Prescribed fire and fire managed for resource benefit, under appropriate conditions, are important restoration tools that improve forest resilience and reduce the risk of large, high-severity fires. Every acre that burns under favorable conditions helps prevent the larger, unwanted fire and its larger, unwanted smoke event.

Ecologically sound mechanical thinning removes excess brush and trees, reducing the amount of fuel available to burn. Treated areas also provide a safe location for fire crews to slow or stop the spread of fire.   

The time-lapse image to the left shows thinning work being completed at the Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Visit our YouTube page to watch a video series on the role that fire and thinning play in creating resilient Sierra Nevada forests.

Reducing the Risk for large, Damaging Fires in the Sierra Nevada

Fortunately, the activities that reduce the risk for large, damaging wildfires also protect our forests from drought, insects, and disease. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) is working closely with partners through the Sierra Nevada Region to increase the pace and scale of restoration treatments and return Sierra forests to a more resilient state.

The Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program (WIP):

The WIP is a coordinated, integrated, collaborative program to restore the health of California’s primary watershed through increased investment, expanded infrastructure, and needed policy changes. The primary goal of the WIP is to increase the pace and scale of restoration across the Sierra Nevada, and utilizing both prescribed and managed fire, and ecologically sound mechanical thinning are key activities for achieving that goal. The SNC also supports and encourages partnerships with California Native American tribes within the Region during the planning and implementation phases of these restoration projects. Learn more at:


Fire Memorandum of Understanding (MOU):

Land management agencies in the Sierra Nevada have committed to a balanced fire program that will both reduce risks and realize the benefits of fire. In 2016, a team of federal and state agency officials worked with conservation and community fire protection groups to launch a new partnership focused on increasing the use of fire in California. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy is an active member of this partnership and is supporting prescribed and managed fire activities throughout the Sierra Nevada. Learn more about the Fire MOU here.

Understanding the Impacts of Large, Damaging Wildfires:

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Forest restoration is a complex issue, but progress isn’t impossible. Read More…
Published – 10/19/15

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Five years and a million acres burned Read More…
Published – 9/19/15

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Will El Nino really bring relief for California’s water supply? Read More…
Published – 8/12/15



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Resilient Lands and Waters Designation: A call to action for all who depend on healthy headwaters
Read More…
Published – 7/2/15

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King Fire burn severity – A look at potential impacts to water resources
Read More…

Published – 7/1/15

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State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report says forests are in decline, immediate action is needed
Read More…

Published – 9/23/14


Sierra Nevada wildfires could reverse efforts made to curb climate change
Read More…

Published – 7/8/14

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The Shirley Fire – Resources at Risk
Read More…

Published – 6/18/14