Rain’s Ecosystem Service Value

The Columbia River Gorge’s Eagle Creek Fire will be history as about 5 inches of rain are forecast to fall within the next several days. Tongue-in-cheek, we can calculate the ecosystem service value of rain by analyzing the avoided cost of an alternative delivery vehicle — the Global Supertanker.

Five inches of rain delivered across the Eagle Creek Fire’s 48,387 acres is 6.6 billion gallons. The Supertanker can dump about 20,000 gallons per sortie, and, if a sufficient airfield is nearby, can perform about seven sorties per day at a daily rate of $250,000 (note that these calculations are for dumping water, not retardant, which would add a couple of bucks per gallon to the cost). It would take the Supertanker about 47,000 days to dump the equivalent of 5 inches of rain at a cost of $10 billion and change.

Ahh, blissful, beautiful, cheap free rain!

Thinning for Water in California: Various Disciplines Weigh In

Sediment basin for KREW (KIng’s River Experimental Watershed) from SNAMP website.

M of T noted in a comment that a force against MT (mechanical treatments) which may be necessary before PB (prescribed burns) is the problem of dealing with non-commercial material that needs to be removed. Her comment reminded me of this article in The Economist.

Thinning efforts are off to a great start but must accelerate, says Timothy Quinn, head of the Association of California Water Agencies. Five times as much forest should be thinned every year, estimates Roger Bales, a hydrologist at the University of California, Merced. To find out how much extra water a thinned watershed produces, the university has placed sensors in thinned and control plots in the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest north of Yosemite National Park. Depending on landscape and precipitation, thinned areas shed 10-40% more water into streams, Mr Bales estimates.

More accurate numbers will be available next year. The hope, says Eric Knapp, a Forest Service ecologist in Redding, is that a new thinning technique will prove to produce even more water when flow volumes from next spring’s snowmelt are known. Some plots are not thinned evenly, but rather by clear-cutting gaps with a diameter one or two times the height of surrounding trees. The idea is to clear an area big enough for a good snowpack to form, but small enough for shade to reduce evaporation and extend the melting season.

California’s governor recently signed a bill that facilitates thinning watersheds. But some environmentalists resist “cutting any tree for any reason”, as the Forest Service’s Mr Murphy puts it. And some think thinning doesn’t produce meaningfully more run-off. That’s the opinion of Chris Frissell of Frissell & Raven Hydrobiological and Landscape Sciences, a consultancy in Polson, Montana. Thinning has become popular in the state, but, he says, it disturbs soil, generating silt that harms aquatic life.

Clearing trees with fire is cheap if all goes to plan but only makes sense in certain areas. Thinning with big chainsaws on wheels can cost up to $650,000 per square mile. This could be recouped with timber revenue if big trees are felled. But the chainsaws are usually only let loose on smaller trees, so taxpayers must cough up.

One solution would be to get water utilities or hydropower producers to fund the thinning. AMP Insights, a consultancy which has estimated the value of water flowing out of the Sierra Nevada, reckons the extra flow would defray the cost of removing trees by 20% and, in wet years, by 60% or more.

Here we have one scientist (Bales) with monitors in plots saying that thinned areas get more water into streams, but (Frissell) possibly at the expense of aquatic life. We’ll explore that in greater depth in the future.

As Brian Hawthorne said earlier, thinning for fuel treatment is not the only reason to thin. Brian also mentioned restoration. Bales and others are thinking about dealing with climate change and water resources, another purpose, involving more disciplines. The scientists in the article come from a variety of disciplines.
Here’s Eric Knapp, forest ecologist.
Tim Murphy is a hydrologist/soil scientist (according to LinkedIn)
Chris Frissell seems to also be a scientist at U of Montana in addition to the consultancy the article mentions. Here’s his information. He is an aquatic ecologist.
Roger Bales works on water and climate engineering and is a professor at U of Calif Merced. Here’s his info.

Wildfire and Fuel Treatment Minus the “Blame Game”

It seems like one person’s “accountability” is another person’s “blame.” So let’s not use any inflammatory or pejorative words, and talk here civilly (no politicians in this room :)).

We in the interior west must live with fire. To do so we need an “All of the Above” strategy or a “Three Legged Stool”, 1. (community and personal actions) 2.(prescribed burning, mechanical treatments and WFU) and 3.(suppression). It seems to be PB, MT and WFU in which most of the disagreement lies. For a variety of reasons, once a wildfire is ignited, it’s easier to burn areas than if a project to burn them is planned ($ are there, not so much analysis and no litigation (yet)). And since planned fires can avoid environmentally sensitive area, be placed in areas that will help suppression, and put smoke in the air outside of “smoke season,” it seems logical to try to increase these. So what forces work against that?

In terms of forces that work against PB, MT and (to a lesser extent) WFU:

– Funding
– Air quality concerns and regulatory framework (does not reflect that PB will make for less fire season smoke)
– Fear of prescribed fires getting out of control/safety (e.g. state of Colorado stopped PB for a couple of
– Litigation, “bulletproofing” documents and associated related work

It seems to me that litigation is not “the problem,” but it certainly contributes to slowing down and stopping projects that lead to fuel treatment, and is one of many contributing factors. Litigation is particularly interesting because, in contrast to public meetings and comments, and appeals or objections, there is no timeframe. So we can imagine some tweaks that would speed up the ultimate resolution without messing with the legal fundamentals.

If we are to move to an “all of the above” strategy, we need to be able to openly talk about what factors would need to change to “get more fire on the landscape,” as so many have said is a desirable goal. Environmental protection, avoiding prescribed burns that turn into wildfires, and so on, all these are good things with good people representing those interests.

In your opinion:
What other forces are out there working against “more fire on the landscape?”

How can we all work together better to get more fire on the landscape?

University of Montana Forest Ecologist Takes Senator Daines to the Woodshed for Wildlife Blame-Game

Dr. Andrew Larson (center, seated) is an Associate Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Montana.

Last night Montana Senator Steve Daines, who hasn’t hosted an in-person town hall meeting in over 1,000 days hosted a ‘teletownhall’ to blame ‘radical environmentalists’ for wildfires.

Montana Public Radio News Director Eric Whitney sat in the studio and listened to Senator Daines’ phone call with University of Montana Forest Ecologist Dr. Andrew Larson.

You can listen to the interview here, and the transcript is below. Suffice to say, Dr. Larson took Senator Steve Daines to the woodshed and dumped cold water on his incendiary and childish “radical environmentalist” rhetoric.

P.S. For at least the past twenty years us ‘radical’ ‘fringe’ and ‘extremist’ environmentalists have been basically delivering the same message and points that Dr. Larson does in this excellent, in-depth Montana Public Radio interview. – mk

Last night Senator Steve Daines held what he calls a “tele-townhall,” one of the periodic conference calls he invites Montanans to join, in which he takes a few questions from callers. This one was also live streamed on his Facebook page. The topic was forest management and wildfires.

Senator Daines said Montanans are angry about the fires and smoke they’ve been enduring this summer, and placed the blame for the fires on, “Radical environmentalists, who are blocking projects to remove dead trees, even in some cases, trees, lodgepoles, that died from insect infestation,” Daines said. “We have radical environmental groups that do not represent the vast majority of Montanans, who believe in a balanced, common sense approach. They stop these projects.”

As he’s done before, Daines offered the Stonewall project outside Lincoln as an example of a logging project proposed by the U.S. Forest Service that could have reduced fire danger, had it not been stopped by a lawsuit. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued to stop the Stonewall, which was proposed for an area now being partially consumed by the 18,000-acre Park Creek Fire.

“The environmentalists are not responsible for that fire burning, and had the Stonewall project advanced, it’s very likely that the site would be burning today,” says Andrew Larson. He’s not an environmental activist. He’s an associate professor of forest ecology in the forestry college at the University of Montana.

“As an ecologist, as someone — I’m trained as a forester — I would expect and hope that that forest, that hypothetical treated forest, would burn. Because that’s what it needs to function, to be a healthy forest ecosystem. Montana forests are only going to function when they have fire in them. That’s a healthy forest,” Larson said.

I listened to Senator Daines’ conference call with Larson, who said he detected a change in the senator’s comments about wildfires. Daines has been saying that more logging would prevent forest fires. Last night he said more logging and forest management won’t entirely eliminate fire from the landscape, but will reduce risks from and severity of wildfires.

“I really was pleased to hear him say that. That’s, I think, a really important incorporation of some forest ecology, fire ecology knowledge into the types of things he’s saying,” Larson said.

“However, the entire conversation tonight on the tele-townhall mingled them, sometimes explicitly. More often there was the implication that, if we do more logging, more vegetation management, more thinning, we won’t have as many acres burned, and we won’t be breathing as much smoke; and that’s just absolutely not true,” Larson said.

“What we might be able to achieve with a more active vegetation management program are areas that don’t burn with as high a severity, we also might have safer working environments for fire managers.”

Larson acknowledged that it may seem counterintuitive that not removing vegetation from forests will have no impact the number of acres that burn in a given year, or the amount of smoke, but, “The total biomass that’s consumed might be less, but the only time you do not have enough fuel to carry a fire is going to be in the first year or two after a fire has burned,” he said.

“Even after you go and thin a forest, when it’s dry like it is now, it’s still going to carry a fire, it’s still going to generate smoke. So, in terms of day to day life, the experience we have during the fire season, we need to not get our hopes up,” Larson says. “You can anticipate more smoke. Even if we were to double, triple, increase the amount of area logged or thinned by a factor of ten or 20, we’re still going have smoke, we’re not going to stop the fires. We may change how they burn, and that’s an important outcome, it’s something that a lot of my research is directed at. But we need to make sure people don’t get their hopes up and expect something that the forestry profession, that managers in the Forest Service, the Department of Interior, can’t deliver on.”

A woman identified as Patricia from Ft. Benton, was one of the eight callers who were able to speak to Senator Daines last night. She asked about trees killed by pine beetles.

“And I was troubled, because I couldn’t understand why those trees were remaining, because they are a fire hazard, they are dead trees, so there is no reason for them to remain.”

Daines agreed, and said only, “radical environmentalists” would try to stop efforts to remove dead trees from Montana forests.

“That’s an attitude that I’m always kind of disappointed to encounter,” Larson said, “because a healthy forest has dead trees and dead wood. The snags — standing dead trees — and dead logs are some of the most important habitat features for biodiversity. You can’t have an intact, healthy wildlife community without dead wood in your forest.”

One of the lines Senator Daines often uses when talking about public lands management is, “a managed forest is a healthy forest.”

“One of the problems is, ‘healthy’ doesn’t have a scientific definition,” Larson said, “so, when we come at it from a technical perspective, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. Some of the most intensively managed forests in the world are in Northern Europe, and they are in a biodiversity crisis, because they have mismanaged their dead wood. They never let their trees get old, they never let ’em die. They cut ’em down and take them to the mill, and there is a horrible deficit of dead wood in those forests. And as a consequence, they’re compromised, they’re not functioning, they’re not providing the habitat for all the native biodiversity, the native wildlife species.

I asked Professor Larson what he thinks is important for Montanans who listened to Senator Daines’ conference call to keep in mind.

“My main points are, climate and weather drive fire. Healthy forests have to have dead trees in them. That’s not saying that we can’t cut some of the dead trees down. But you can’t have a functional forest without dead trees, they’re incredibly important for habitat,” Larson said.

“And the forestry profession, we need to be careful to not promise things that we can’t deliver,” he said. “And we’re never going to stop fire. We can help society live with fire, but that’s going to be a big team effort. We have to change our expectations. We need to expect that fire to come at some point, and not be surprised. We need to be planning for it — individual land owners, home owners — because that’s the environment we live in.”

Forest planning for hunting

“A number of environmental groups, including the Endangered Species Coalition, want to keep hunters who use packs of dogs out of public lands in Wisconsin, including the state’s national forests.  The groups say the hunters and their dogs have made the public lands inhospitable, and they want the federal government to launch an investigation into the practice.  Robert Williams is a Madison resident who frequently camps on public lands in northern Wisconsin. He says the packs of hunting dogs wreak havoc on the native wildlife.”

This brings to mind a similar situation in Louisiana. In 2012 the Forest Service amended the Kisatchie National Forest plan to prohibit the “age-old tradition” in Louisiana of hunting deer with dogs because of user conflicts.  In Louisiana Sportsmen Alliance v. Vilsack, a federal district court upheld the forest plan amendment. It stated: “We are conscious of the fact that KNF is a National Forest, owned by the United States and to be utilized in the best interests of all. The law empowers the agency to make precisely the kinds of decisions made here.”  (The Fifth Circuit then held that plaintiffs had not established standing to sue and dismissed the case.)  If the agency has the authority to regulate recreation that impacts species listed under ESA, then its failure to do so in Wisconsin might violate the law.  (However, under the 2012 Planning Rule, forest plans do not directly regulate users by themselves, and a separate closure order would be required.)

The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost

This piece, “The Science of Fighting Wildfires Gets a Satellite Boost” from Megan Molteni in Wired is certainly worth a read.

While the news media in Montana seems entirely intent on just letting Montana’s politicians – especially from the GOP – engaged in childish name calling like calling Montana citizens who are environmentalists ‘extremists’ ‘fringe’ or ‘radicals’ (thereby inciting hatred, and maybe even potential violence against environmentalists in Montana)….

Numerous national media outlets (here and here, for example) seem to have no problem picking up the phone and contacting actual, real-life Montana scientists and researchers who actually do things like study wildfires. Crazy, right?

This part of the Wired article caught my eye (emphasis added):

Here’s the straightforward logic of Zinke’s scapegoating: Environmentalists block the Forest Service from lowering the fuel load on the land, land catches on fire, and now it’s harder to put out. Thanks, tree-huggers.

But fire scientists say it’s more complicated than that. Many question the ecological (and economic) value of thinning forests out, for three big reasons. One, the evidence for its efficacy is both scant and at times contradictory. Two, probabilistic risk assessments show that the thinning doesn’t really help much because the likelihood of a fire starting close enough to interact with thinned areas is negligibly small. And three, in the worst weather conditions — dry, hot, and most importantly, windy — no amount of thinning or selective logging is going to make much difference.

[Geez, where have we heard these points before… – mk]

A case in point: that Park Creek fire burning outside of Lincoln. It started on a remote slope that wasn’t slated for any prescribed burns or dead tree removals. But such treatments wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, according to Carl Seielstad, a fire ecologist at the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis at the University of Montana, because the closest road is more than mile away, at the bottom of a slope.

If you know anything about fire behavior, you know it moves much faster uphill. And in this case there wasn’t much in that direction, except more trees. “Without any roads in this area there was nothing for firefighters to anchor to,” says Seielstad, pointing at a 3D rendering of the fire’s path he’s pulled up on his computer. “It’s fair to say that regardless of treatment, this area would probably have been impossible to contain.”

Well, as careful readers of this blog will recall, Montana’s Republican politicians including Secretary Ryan Zinke, Senator Steve Daines, Rep Greg “Gonna Body Slam Ya” Gianforte and even Sec of Ag Sonny Perdue all pointed to the Park Creek Fire in an effort to blame ‘fringe’ ‘radical’ ‘extremists’ environmentalists for wildfires throughout Montana. And of course the Montana timber industry had to jump on that blame the environmentalists bandwagon too.

Over the past 22 years, as I went from a seasonal wildland firefighter to a year-round forest and public lands activist, I’ve come to realize that one of the first things torched during wildfire season is the truth.

Hopefully more national news outlets continue to reach out to actual scientists and researchers in Montana to get their side of the story. Maybe someday soon more media outlets in Montana will be able to locate the wildfire scientists, researchers and experts literally living right under their noses, or maybe even right next door.

Success Story for “All of the Above”- Post Blow Down Actions in Boundary Waters

Severe blowdown in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and adjacent areas.

It might be illustrative (and encouraging!) to look at landscape scale fuel treatment strategies that did work- when all the forces are aligned- and what it takes to get things done and the effects. It’s also interesting to take the discussion (with the same elements, prescribed fire, mechanical fuel treatments, wildfires) away from the western US. Oh, and this one has Wilderness to add to the complexity.

Let’s look at a success for an All of the Above Strategy and how it happened. Remember 1999 and the 500,000 acres blowdown event that occurred in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?

The obstacles to preparing and planning for the fire seasons to come were formidable. First, they needed to develop an entirely different set of suppression responses. The sheer scale of downed timber made it difficult to move around in the blow-down. This created conditions that negated the effectiveness of most direct attack strategies. The fire management personnel had to develop a set of ‘check and hold’ techniques. Also, the potential size of a blaze and the threat it could pose to communities and lands outside the forest meant that emergency response would
involve local, State, and federal resources. Extensive planning and coordination was required.

Second, the Forest needed to implement large-scale, landscape level fuel treatments and they needed to do it as quick as possible. This was made more difficult by the fact that most of the blow-down was in the nation’s most popular Wilderness area with a local economy dependent on uninterrupted access to the backcountry. There would have to be new levels of cooperation and communication established with the
local communities that would be the most impacted by the fuel treatments.

The fuel loading was beyond the experience of the land managers and fire personnel on the Superior; and they needed a quick upgrade in skills and training to do able to do the large-scale fuel treatments, primarily large acreage prescribed burns. Again, they had to develop interagency and public/private partnerships that were only loosely organized at the time of the blow-down.

The Forest quickly requested and received alternative NEPA procedures from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the White House allowing expedited salvage logging, mechanical fuel treatment, and prescribed fire in the area around the Gunflint Corridor. This allowed the land
management staff to get a quick jump on the work that needed to be done. The National Forest staff made a conscious effort not to short-circuit any of the regular public involvement procedures. They held tours. They conducted pubic meetings. And, they established a monitoring board to oversee the fuel reduction efforts. But, most importantly, they got to work.

Here’s a description of how it worked and the results in the Cavity Lake Fire in Advances in Fire Practice.
Here’s the a fuel treatment effectiveness report.

Here’s a couple of possible observations of why things worked so well:

(1) Alignment among federal agencies (and state and local)
(2) Sense of urgency
(3) Budget
(4)”Leadership” (this is in quotes because it’s a bit fuzzy wuzzy for me, would like to understand more about what this means and how it plays out).
(5) Focus (a bit like fire suppression, a clear sense of priorities)

I’d be very interested to hear from people who participated in this project and their views.

Is Private Property the Key to Keeping Firefighting Costs Down?

Regular readers know that the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting expenses just keep going up. Some believe that a dramatic decline in federal land logging over the past 30 years is the reason. Others say long-term cycles of drought, while some blame increasing number of wildland/urban interface homes.

If federal land logging policies are to blame for rising firefighting costs, why have Cal Fire’s costs skyrocketed, too? Cal Fire provides fire protection services across 31 million acres in California, including over 7 million acres of private timberland, e.g., Sierra Pacific’s timberland holdings. Cal Fire doesn’t pay the freight for federal land fires.

Fire ecologist explains why this summer’s wildfires are so dramatic, and why the West will have to learn to live with a more severe burning season

This interview with Dr. Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, is excellent. It was conducted by Joe Eaton, who teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Unfortunately, this piece didn’t appear in any Montana media outlets, but rather was printed in CityLab, which is run by The Atlantic.

Imagine how different the discussion and debate about wildfires, public lands management and logging would be if experts and facts like this were part of the discussion. Well, in defense of the environmental movement, we’ve been bringing up many of these same points and facts both this year, and in many wildfire seasons over the past few decades. – mk

The West Is on Fire. Get Used to It.

A fire ecologist explains why this summer’s wildfires are so dramatic, and why the West will have to learn to live with a more severe burning season.

By JOE EATON SEP 11, 2017

The West is burning, and there’s no relief in sight. More than 80 large wildfires are raging in an area covering more than 1.4 million acres, primarily in California, Montana, and Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Taken together, that’s a wildfire larger than the state of Delaware.

California has declared a state of emergency as wildfires burn outside Los Angeles and threaten giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park. In Oregon, the Eagle Creek fire is tearing through the scenic Columbia River Gorge. Seattle, Boise, and Denver are socked in under a haze of smoky air and ash that experts predict could linger until the first snowfall in the mountains.

But nowhere are the fires more devastating than in Montana, where more than 1 million acres of forest burned this summer, and more than 467,000 acres are currently burning in 26 large fires that line the mountainous western side of the state.

Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, is used to seeing smoky air from his office window in September, but nothing like the thick smoke filling Missoula Valley right now. He recently spoke to CityLab about the fires raging across the West, what we can do about them, and why this year’s big burn might be the new normal.

Breathing the air in Missoula today feels like chain-smoking Chesterfields. Schools aren’t letting the kids out at recess, and public health authorities are saying active adults and children should avoid outdoor exertion. It’s easy to get the impression that this is an extraordinary and unprecedented fire season. But you study forest fires over a timespan of thousands of years. How unusual or unique is this fire season?

It’s not—even in the context of the 21st century. In the Northern Rockies, we had a very large fire year in 2012, in 2007, in 2000, and to an extent in 2003. In this region, 1910 remains the record-setting fire season. If we surpass that, I would be surprised. Events like these are not common on a year-to-year scale. On the other hand, when you look at the role fire plays in ecosystems, you have to look at a longer timescale, and these rare events are what’s expected every once in a while.

Why is this fire season so dramatic?

The main reason there is so much burning right now is the strong seasonal drought across the region. The term we use is that these fires are “climate enabled.” The drought makes most of the vegetation, live or dead, receptive to burning. In Missoula, we had the driest July and August on record and the third-warmest July and August. With those types of conditions, we expect widespread burning. But people underestimate the role that seasonal climate plays in these events, and we start to grasp at lots of other things to explain it.

Aside from the bad air, are most urban residents in fire-affected parts of the West safe?

Aside from that really important impact, I give a cautious yes. There is a risk. And that risk is highest in the wildland-urban interface. If you are living there, you should know that you are living with a much higher risk for exposure to wildfire. And part of the job of educators and U.S. Forest Service outreach is to make that risk known. Eventually insurance companies will also get on board. Floods are obviously on insurance companies’ radar front and center. Wildfire is still not frequent enough that they design programs around it.

Should people in the fire-prone West be living in places like that—in the suburbs and exurbs out in the forested edges of urban areas?

Every place on our planet has some natural phenomenon that is not friendly to humans. If you live on the East Coast, you are going to experience hurricanes. If you live in the Midwest, you are going to experience tornadoes. If you live across forested regions in the West, you are going to experience wildfires. We need to develop in a way that is cognizant of these processes—that is not ignorant of the way the planet, and the environment you live in, works.

Why are these fires so hard to put out?

This goes back to why the fires are happening. The fuels are extremely dry. And most areas burn during extreme weather conditions—the days when it’s hot, humidity is low and there are high winds. These are the conditions in which fires quickly double in size. They are also the conditions where it’s most dangerous to put people in front of the fire. Also, a lot of these fires start in very remote areas with rugged terrain, and just putting people on the ground comes with some risk.

Montana alone has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to suppress wildfires this summer, and two firefighters have been killed. Is that having any impact, or is it like driving down the expressway throwing bags of money out the window?

When you say it’s not working, the key question is, What’s the goal? “It’s not working” assumes the goal is to have no fires. We will fail if that is the goal. Most of these ecosystems that are burning have evolved with fire. We expect them to burn. We need them to burn if we want them to continue to exist.

So it’s like trying to stop rain?

It’s like trying to stop an earthquake. Trying to stop a volcano. To me, the goal can’t be to have no fire. That’s gotten us into trouble when we pursued that goal. I think the metric should be how much area has burned that we wanted to burn compared to how much burned that we didn’t want to burn. Or closer to the nugget, how many resources were harmed—how many houses were lost, how many people were either directly or indirectly killed?

You don’t see raging forest fires as a failure of suppression efforts?

No. Knowing how climate enables and drives these large fires, I think that it would be impossible to put these fires out.

There is a school of thought that says we should not suppress wildfire because it allows smaller trees and underbrush to accumulate, which leads to larger, hotter fires later. So why not just let it burn?

I think as soon as you live in these environments you will quickly abandon that too-simplistic view. Maybe when I was a graduate student living in Seattle that seemed more like a possibility, but you can’t just let it burn. That would not be wise. It really comes down to what you can afford to burn and what do you want to protect. If the fire is in the wilderness, that’s great. If it’s burning toward a community, that’s not so good.

There’s good fire and bad fire?

There is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum would be the wilderness fire that is not going to impact anyone—good fire. The fire that burns down your house or kills people—bad fire.

Another school of thought says we should allow more logging to clear trees and help prevent wildfires. Does that hold water?

I don’t think that holds water. That is based on the assumption that fires are occurring because there is more fuel available to burn than in the past. That’s generally not what’s driving this. It’s the drought. It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread.

The simple answer—if you want to eliminate fire, then pave it. There will be no fire.

Is climate change partly to blame for this year’s fires? Are wildfires in the West set to get worse because of it?

That’s what future climate models project. We can’t say this individual fire was because of climate change. We can’t say this year was because of climate change. But these types of years are what we expect to see more frequently. I heard an analogy that I think is useful. If a baseball player is using steroids and hits a home run, can you attribute that home run to steroids? You can’t—but you know that at some point some component of that was brought to you by this artificial input to the system.

There was a study that came out last year, which looked at fire occurrence in the Western United States over the last 40 years using climate modeling. The conclusion was almost half of burning we have seen over the past several decades can be attributed to climate change due to anthropogenic sources. The fire season has gotten significantly longer across the West, on order of 30 days or more during the past few decades.

What are you and your family doing to live through the fire season?

Personally, I made the decision to not live in the wildland-urban interface. I live in the urban part of Missoula. We had one HEPA air filter. Last week we ordered two more. That’s our adaptation.

Watershed, Wildfires and BMP’s – Montana

Continuing improvements in harvesting equipment have facilitated industry’s ability to meet or exceed the guidelines of Montana’s Best Management Practices. (from Exec Summary of 2016 BMP Report Montana

2nd Law said a while back here “Logging on the other hand, is much more likely (than wildfires) to harm watersheds, especially commercial logging that requires dragging logs and maintaining a road system.” At first when I read his comment, I thought “I wonder why he/she thinks so differently than Denver Water, Santa Fe and Flagstaff about the relative risks?”

I think sometimes the more legally trained/inclined and the more ground resource trained/ inclined have a difference in how we think about things and how we talk about things. I wrote about this before in 2010 here (concrete v. abstract thinkers).. do we go into different lines of work because we think this way, or do we think this way because of the line of work we’re in?) but the above comment reminded me of this difference. (For older FS people, when I worked in RPA, my colleague Susan Mockenhaupt called interactions between Jim Caplan and Mark Reimers, “Thoreau meets Perot”).

For those who think like me, 2nd’s statement is the very beginning of a discussion.
What do you mean exactly by “logging?” Is that what we would call “tree-cutting and piling for burning” or “removal of logs via road systems” “removal of logs by helicopter”? Because we could see all those having different potential impacts on watersheds. But 2nd did specify “dragging logs” and “maintaining a road system” (why would you need to do that compared to temp roads?).

Then my next thought would be:
“wouldn’t that depend on … how much risk to the watershed, which would depend on soil characteristics, steepness of slopes, amount and nature of fuels, and so on…frequency of fires and that depends on…”

To the extreme, that would be why, Asheville’s watershed risks would be different from Santa Fe’s. And of course, wouldn’t that depend on BMP’s how they’re designed, whether they’re used, and how well they work?

So I looked around and found this 2016 report summary for monitoring Montana’s BMPs, since Montana seems to be the site of much watershed controversy compared to the other states we’ve looked at.

From the full report for 2016 here, pp 37-38

Evaluate the general effectiveness of BMPs in protecting soil and water resources.

Conclusions drawn from the field review results since the 2000 review cycle inclusive are very straightforward and consistent; when BMPs are applied correctly, they are very effective in protecting soil and water resources. This combined with the efforts of many loggers, landowners, agencies, and
mills to go above and beyond the standards to minimize sediments has kept overall results high and has 38 brought real improvements on the ground, where it counts. When teams review a site they don’t just look at the actual BMP. They look at whatever the BMP was designed to protect as well. Is there silt entering the stream? Are roads rutted beyond typical usage patterns? And so forth. The idea is to look at all aspects of any particular BMP and see if it is working and if not why not. Teams note if it is a fault of the operation, outside factors, or of the BMP itself. The BMP Working Group reviews the combined results and determines if any changes to the BMPs themselves need to be made.

It seems to me that the choice of a) fuels treatment including mechanical treatments vs. b) accepting wildfire impacts is very much a function of the soil, water, vegetation, and weather conditions, plus the design of the treatment, including effectiveness of mitigation measures such as BMP’s in a specific watershed. Now, you can argue that Montana’s checking process is not an accurate representation of what happens on the ground, but that is a very different convo at a very different scale, (with different people being expert).