Introduction to the Landscape of Fire Sciences

From Olson et al.

Jon asked an excellent question in our previous discussion: “who counts as a wildfire expert?”. It seems to me that with the recent March for “Science” it’s probably a good time to dig deeper into some aspects of how the science business works in reality. So a simple question, like “who is a wildfire expert” is a great entry into looking at the landscape of scientific disciplines.

So let’s start thinking about different pieces of the wildfire puzzle. One piece is obviously suppression, as in large groups of people and equipment who manage wildfires. Well, there’s the behavioral psychology of groups, there are the modelers who work on the models wildland firefighters use, there are people who test those models through experience (but may not publish on the results themselves). There are people who make observations (the fire went to the ground in that strip). Within that bunch of sciences, I don’t know all the subfields but I’d like to hear from someone who can explain it. Here are a few from the Missoula Fire Science Laboratory:

Physical Fire Processes The factors that determine fire behavior (fuel, weather, and topography) do so through the requirements for combustion (fuel, heat, and oxygen).
Fuel Dynamics Research on fuel dynamics helps managers describe live and dead fuels that burn during wildland fires.
Smoke Emissions & Dispersion Scientists use field observations, satellite data, and models to describe smoke’s chemical composition, its movement within a fire’s heat plume, and its movement through the layers of the atmosphere.
Fire Ecology This research contributes to improved conservation, restoration of burned areas, and reduction of fire hazard.
Fire & Fuel Management Strategies Historical patterns of wildland fire are combined with information about climate and vegetation to predict fire occurrence and vegetation patterns.
Science Synthesis & Delivery Scientific publications form the foundation for science delivery.


Here’s a list of interesting pubs from the Joint Fire Science Program, you can see the variety of kinds of studies.

Given these approaches to fire science, only one of which is fire ecology, we can then review the backgrounds of the researchers in the PNAS study. I have looked at them all and produced the attached document here that describes their backgrounds.  We can see that most have a background in fire ecology, but not so much in fuel and fire modeling.  Could seeing things through the lens of “ecology” affect the way their perspectives? It being a focus on “natural” processes and maintaining them? More on this in the next post.

Summary of fire debate points

The latest from Headwaters lays out their point of view on several topics that have been discussed a lot on this blog (with cites).  The 2016 paper is posted in full and is pretty short and sweet.  The key points:

1. Fire size and frequency will increase under a warmer and drier climate

2. Fuel reduction on federal lands will do little to reduce acreage burned and homes lost

3. Not all forests need restoration

4. High severity fires often have ecological benefits

5. Insect outbreaks do not necessarily make fires worse

6. Land-use planning can reduce wildfire risk

7. Managing more fires to burn safely can reduce risk and increase ecological benefit

Case closed?

Monuments, Tourism and the Environment- Jim Stiles on Bears’ Ears

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune
Bears Ears buttes sit high over the surrounding canyon country in San Juan County. The formations are at the heart of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

This opinion piece by Jim Stiles was published in the Denver Post on Sunday April 9th. But when I went back to the DP couldn’t pull it so when to High Country News.

There are some interesting themes related to our recent discussion about wilderness, environmental impacts of recreation and marketing tools.

In this case, environmental groups seem to be saying that Monument designation will protect from things that are not really threats (to this parcel, in this physical/legal universe. But this seems particularly interesting about the Native Americans:

Finally, environmentalists ballyhooed that “the proclamation elevates the voices of the Native Americans.” Leaders of Diné Bikeyah had expected that they “would actively co-manage these lands side-by-side with federal agencies.” But the proclamation reveals otherwise. It is the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior who “shall manage the monument through the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.” A Bears Ears Commission “will provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans.” Another advisory panel.

The government added, “The (BLM) and Forest Service will retain ultimate authority over the monument.” It’s impossible to recount all the broken promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans — going back centuries — but this sounds like yet another deception. Native Americans have no legal authority to implement their preferences for the monument’s management.

Runaway tourism was once a serious concern to environmentalists, but the issue was dropped to pursue alliances with the recreation industry. The tourism nightmare that now defines Moab still doesn’t raise the ire of Utah environmentalists. Last year, when overflow crowds lined the highway and forced Arches National Park to close its entrance station, most green groups failed to comment.

SUWA recently asked its members: “Which threats to the Red Rock worry you the most? The choices were “Utah’s land grab?” “Mining and drilling?” “Off-road vehicle abuse?” “Road proliferation?” The impacts from industrial tourism were not even listed as an option.

Do the remaining wildlands of southeast Utah deserve protection? Yes, absolutely. Are there other options to do the job besides the creation of a national monument? Consider these:

*Strictly enforce the archaeological protection law. A monument might generate more funding for increased staff, but only if it experiences massive increases in visitation and damage. So instead of building extravagant visitor centers and costly “improvements,” create an ”ARPA Protection Unit” of trained rangers from the Inter-Tribal Coalition, the BLM and Forest Service. The new rangers could target the areas most vulnerable to vandalism and protect Native American practices and rituals.

*Seek honest and enforceable ways to empower Native Americans. Toothless advisory panels are an insult.

*Withdraw all oil and gas leases that are commercially marginal within the monument boundaries. End a pointless argument.

*Demand that Utah environmentalists sever their ties to the relentless recreation economy. Tourism can be as devastating to natural values as energy development, and both must be scrutinized. Be consistent.

Unless environmentalists address these issues, we may someday discover — too late — that monument designation has helped to destroy the very qualities its supporters want to protect. Protecting the Bears Ears region is an absolute necessity. Turning it into a marketing tool to be packaged and sold is a sacrilege. Bear Ears deserves better.

Analysis of Senator Barrasso’s “National Forest Ecosystem Improvement” Bill from TWS

A new summary and analysis of S. 879, the “National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act” – which Senator Barrasso (R-WY) introduced on April 6 – is available here. It was put together by Mike Anderson at The Wilderness Society.

The text of S. 879 is available here.

Below is Mr. Anderson’s summary of the bill.

“S. 879 would greatly increase logging of national forest lands, while reducing environmental safeguards and opportunities for public involvement in national forest management. Annual acreage mandates for mechanical treatments would compel the Forest Service to prioritize logging over all other uses and resources. Large expanses of forest up to 15,000 acres in size could be logged with no consideration of the impacts to water quality, wildlife habitat, or recreational opportunities. The legality of Forest Service management activities would be essentially unchallengeable in court, removing an essential check on federal agency compliance with the law. Two bedrock environmental laws – NEPA and ESA – would be undermined. In sum, the bill poses a serious threat to environmental stewardship, public involvement, wildlife conservation, and the rule of law in the national forests.”

As Population Increases, More Wilderness is Needed?

Thanks to Earthjustice for this photo of the Sunset Roadless Area.

The Denver Post reports on efforts to get more wilderness in Colorado, and it’s picked up by the AP.. interesting to take a look at this article and compare it to the Gold Standard of Journalism here. I am a fan of interior West newspapers, but please Denver Post, don’t have annoying music and videos when we simply want to read a story!

Here’s an excerpt:

Population growth and the development boom in the West are propelling the efforts to establish wilderness protection while it’s still possible. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials found, in a 2013 survey, that 70 percent of Coloradans consider wilderness or undeveloped open lands offering solitude very important or extremely important. And 72 percent ranked protection of more land as wilderness as “high-priority” or “essential” — an even higher proportion of residents than the high percentages favoring more forest campgrounds, community trails, urban greenways and parks.

But Congress consistently has failed to deliver on most wilderness proposals.

“We need to set aside land and protect it as much as we can,” said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, who went to Washington recently as part of a delegation of elected officials.

The locals extolled “economic values” of preserving nature — fellow San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman has said that, with the demise of mining, wilderness that enables recreation is Colorado’s new gold.

My question is what “development” is wilderness preserving “nature” from? I’d think, as a person who spent time making comparison tables of “things allowed in wilderness” and “things allowed in roadless areas,” that you could be more specific about the benefits of a wilderness designation. Perhaps your thinking would be “no mountain bikes”- it’s impossible to tell exactly from this article. But since the population in Colorado is growing, it’s likely to be more crowded in the backcountry whether it’s a designated wilderness or not. In fact, the CPW study cited in the story says “undeveloped open land” into which roadless areas, as well as other designations, would also fit.

Colorado ranks sixth among states for its amount of federally designated wilderness areas but has had few new designations recently. The state’s population is meanwhile growing at nearly twice the national rate.

What on earth does the state’s population growth have to do with designation of wilderness? This article seems to assume that these two concepts are related. It almost sounds as if the person who wrote this, or the group that spoke to them is thinking that houses will be built unless the area is designated wilderness. Maybe the lack of new designations means simply that enough was already designated? It seems to me like this article seems to simply accept the logic presented in (a press release? an interview with TWS?) without asking reasonable questions about the assertions made.

From the Gold Standard piece by Vince Byzdek here:

This method involves a kind of triangulation – seeking out multiple authoritative sources, vetting them thoroughly, disclosing as much as possible about the sources, and allowing people who are accused or challenged in our stories to have the chance to comment before we publish the stories. That means always including opposing views.<

Five Reasons Blog Posts are of Higher Scientific Quality than Journal Articles- by Daniel Lakens

In the press and here on this blog, folks sometimes talk about “the science says” in order to claim authority for a certain set of views. Given the not insignificant difference among fields (e.g., landscape ecology is not fire science is not medicine is not psychology) it is difficult to say very much about the science, or research biz, as a whole. Except that more funding is needed of course ;). Like journalism, or land management, there is the ideal of how science is conducted, and then there is the reality. In what contexts are scientific claims, or claims made by scientists (not the same) privileged? What do scientists choose to study and what do they not study? How do they value the findings of related fields? How do they place their findings in context and relate them to the real world? What studies are funded, by whom, and who decides? How are practitioners’ or policy makers’ views of importance or relevance, and practical knowledge, taken into account (if at all)?

Here’s an interesting piece by an experimental psychologist from the Netherlands. I excerpted each reason below. The comments are also interesting.

I think the topics he brings up are worth thinking about, and I hope we can incorporate them as we look at studies in the future.

1. Blogs have Open Data, Code, and Materials

When you want to evaluate scientific claims, you need access to the raw data, the code, and the materials. Most journals do not (yet) require authors to make their data publicly available (whenever possible).

2. Blogs have Open Peer Review

Scientific journal articles use peer review as quality control. The quality of the peer review process is as high as the quality of the peers that were involved in the review process. The peer review process was as biased as the biases of the peers that were involved in the review process. For most scientific journal articles, I can not see who reviewed a paper, or check the quality, or the presence of bias, because the reviews are not open.

3. Blogs have no Eminence Filter

Everyone can say anything they want on a blog, as long as it does not violate laws regarding freedom of speech. It is an egalitarian and democratic medium. This aligns with the norms in science. As Merton (1942) writes: “The acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant.” We see even Merton was a child of his times – he of course meant that his *or her* race, etcetera, is irrelevant.

4. Blogs have Better Error Correction

When I make an error in a blog post, I can go in and update it. I am pretty confident that I make approximately as many errors in my published articles as I make in my blog posts, but the latter are much easier to fix, and thus, I would consider my blogs more error-free, and of higher quality.

5. Blogs are Open Access (and might be read more).

It’s obvious that blogs are open access. This is a desirable property of high quality science. It makes the content more widely available, and I would not be surprised (but I have no data) that blog posts are *on average* read more than scientific articles because they are more accessible.

Something I would add to Lakens’ list, for fields with practitioners, like our own, is that blogs allow feedback from people in practice. If we think of a neurological study that says “at the molecular level, it appears that y is related to x so we hypothesize drug z might help” the neurologist practitioners might be able to say “yes, I had three patients that happened to be on that drug and they haven’t had symptoms, but only ones who also had condition q” possibly adding to our joint knowledge. It even goes to the patient, or in our case landowner, citizen, community member. It makes knowledge claims open to public discussion and while there are problems with this approach, if we are interested in finding out how things really work, it seems to me that open sources and discussion are the way to go.

Mixing Apples and Oranges

Today, Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell sent a letter to President Trump asking him to support more Forest Service wildfire spending. She says that the 10-year average spending amount of $2.4 billion Trump promises isn’t enough, which she illustrates with the following alarming statistic — “To date this year, wildfires have already burned 2.2 million acres: this level of activity is 400 percent above normal.”

She might just as well have cited the acres burned this year in Russia for how much relevance they have to Forest Service wildfire spending. Turns out that 1.3% (one point three percent) of the acres burned in 2017 are on national forest land. Private and state lands account for 96.9% of the acres, mostly grassland in Kansas and Oklahoma. And guess what? The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t pay the cost of fighting fires on private and state land.

Methinks the Trump administration, its OMB, the House Freedom Caucus, Heritage Foundation and other budget hawks have figured out that profligate wildfire spending is a Democratic Party-conceived federal jobs program that bears little, if any, relationship to actual on-the-ground needs. And, incidentally, does more ecological harm than good.

The Gold Standard for Journalism- by Vince Bzdek

Recently there has been much discussion of the wonderfulness of traditional media outlets, and the questionability of other sources of information. On this blog, we have reviewed articles in which the national news outlets have covered interior west and public lands issues poorly, or not at all. I like to think that everyone tries to do things right (good journalism, FS monitoring), but can fall short, due to a variety of pressures, more or less conscious biases, and so on.

Vince Bzdek is the editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, and wrote a thoughtful piece linked here comparing “real news” as opposed to fake news. I think the whole piece is worth reading, and provides us on this blog a handy list of criteria we can apply to news articles posted here. I’ll quote a few relevant paragraphs here:

Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.

Journalism’s first loyalty is to its citizens.

The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.

Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.

Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and comment.

Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive.

Journalists have an obligation to personal conscience.

We at the Gazette try to adhere religiously to these principles. In fact, any enterprise that purports to do real news should adhere to these principles, and you should hold us and them to these

About how to get at the “truth”:

The whole idea of objective reporting was never based on an assumption of bias-free journalists. That’s impossible, right? Instead, the concept centered on the idea that there is a “consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases do not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective; not the journalist,” according to the APA.

This method involves a kind of triangulation – seeking out multiple authoritative sources, vetting them thoroughly, disclosing as much as possible about the sources, and allowing people who are accused or challenged in our stories to have the chance to comment before we publish the stories. That means always including opposing views.

In addition, what stories an outlet chooses to cover, or not cover, is a judgment call of what is “significant, interesting and relevant” which can vary person by person. It’s not like that’s a bias, but as we see on this blog, different people find different things interesting.

One of the structural problems I’ve found is that with Forest Service stories, if it’s about litigation, the FS is not allowed to comment (of course this makes sense, but..). Even when it’s about a project not in litigation, when I was working, I found that many public affairs people were careful not to counter claims directly as that sounds “defensive.” So if what Bzdek says is true, and I do believe that having at least two points of view described in a story makes sense, then this structure actually may prevent journalists from doing their jobs well on these topics.

I’d be really especially interested to know what the journalists and public affairs folks who read this blog think about this.

The Future of Fighting Wildfires in the Era of Climate Change

You can read Bob Berwyn’s full article right here. The new study can be accessed here. Below are some highlights.

Thinning and suppression aren’t working, and fire scientists now say we need to let fires burn to help landscapes adapt to climate change  —  while controlling development in the red zone to limit damage….

The researchers behind the new study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that, instead of trying to fight every fire or thin vast areas in futile prevention efforts, the Forest Service should focus on protecting communities and limiting new development in fire-prone areas, while letting some fires — even large — burn, which will help Western landscapes adapt to climate change in the decades ahead….

America has spent about $3 billion on cutting crowded trees and clearing brush on 17 million acres of forest since 2001. During that same span, wildfires continue to rise, and there’s no proof that thinning is working. Schoennagel says most of the thinning has been on federal lands, but the dangerous fires are on private lands.

“I wondered for years why a different PR message is not going out. We cannot change this equation through thinning,” Schoennagel says.

“We need to shift our view and keep in mind what the future variabilities might be, and how we can manage for that,” Schoennagel says. That requires perceiving landscapes and ecosystems in a new way. For example, long-lived forests in mountain areas established themselves when climate conditions were suitable. In the climate-changed future, those conditions will no longer exist. “We should allow those areas to burn and adapt for future conditions. I think we see fire as a consequence, but it can also be a tool to help us keep pace with climate change,” she says.

Equal Access to Justice Act often aids those who frustrate forest restoration

“in most Western legal systems other than the United States, the prevailing norm is the English rule. The “English Rule for Attorney’s fees” is also known as “Loser Pays” which is contrasted to the “American Rule” where each party to the suit is responsible for it’s own fees. I’m not really interested in discussing the pros and cons of the two contrasting approaches to settling legal disputes. Inevitably such discussions end up in a fierce political fight about as desperate as a discussion of the existence of God between people on opposite sides of the fence.

What is interesting is that the article referred to in the title for this discussion thread points out that the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act, or EAJA follows the English Rule if a small claimant or any non-profit claimant wins a case against the federal government but follows the American Rule if the claimant looses. This may not be news to many here but the article provides some interesting insights including:

1) “The act was passed in 1980 to help veterans with disabilities pursue claims against the federal government”

2) “Over the last five years the payments for legal challenges to the Forest Service have nearly doubled, costing the taxpayer over $38 million in 2015. EAJA is not benefiting average citizens as Congress had intended. Thirty-three-hundred lawsuits were filed by just 12 special interest groups from 2001 to 2011. During this time $37 million was awarded to special interest groups, including awards of attorney fees of $500-750 per hour, according to research by Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen.” If I read that right the payments are rising exponentially with $37million paid out from 2001 through 2011 while 2015 alone cost $38million.

3) “No one counts the cost of jobs lost and families displaced after mills are forced to close due to lack of resources. Unfortunately, those folks do not have the same equal access to justice as these highly funded and financially motivated activist organizations.” I assume that the author is referring to the affected individuals not having the same access to the necessary up front money required to go to court on such a big issue as do the highly funded and financially motivated activist organizations.

4) “these EAJA payments come out of your Social Security Trust Fund”