Science: Recent Front Range fires not fundamentally different from similar events that occurred historically under extreme weather conditions.

Fire Study
A new scientific study titled Historical, Observed, and Modeled Wildfire Severity in Montane Forests of the Colorado Front Range should be of interest to blog readers. The study is by Rosemary L. Sherriff, Rutherford V. Platt, Thomas T. Veblen, Tania L. Schoennagel, Meredith H. Gartner.  View the full study here.

Abstract

Large recent fires in the western U.S. have contributed to a perception that fire exclusion has caused an unprecedented occurrence of uncharacteristically severe fires, particularly in lower elevation dry pine forests. In the absence of long-term fire severity records, it is unknown how short-term trends compare to fire severity prior to 20th century fire exclusion. This study compares historical (i.e. pre-1920) fire severity with observed modern fire severity and modeled potential fire behavior across 564,413 ha of montane forests of the Colorado Front Range. We used forest structure and tree-ring fire history to characterize fire severity at 232 sites and then modeled historical fire-severity across the entire study area using biophysical variables. Eighteen (7.8%) sites were characterized by low-severity fires and 214 (92.2%) by mixed-severity fires (i.e. including moderate- or high-severity fires). Difference in area of historical versus observed low-severity fire within nine recent (post- 1999) large fire perimeters was greatest in lower montane forests. Only 16% of the study area recorded a shift from historical low severity to a higher potential for crown fire today. An historical fire regime of more frequent and low-severity fires at low elevations (,2260 m) supports a convergence of management goals of ecological restoration and fire hazard mitigation in those habitats. In contrast, at higher elevations mixed-severity fires were predominant historically and continue to be so today. Thinning treatments at higher elevations of the montane zone will not return the fire regime to an historic low-severity regime, and are of questionable effectiveness in preventing severe wildfires. Based on present-day fuels, predicted fire behavior under extreme fire weather continues to indicate a mixed-severity fire regime throughout most of the montane forest zone. Recent large wildfires in the Front Range are not fundamentally different from similar events that occurred historically under extreme weather conditions.

11 Comments

  1. Sooo, if we could magically remove humans from those forests, everything would be “just fine”, eh? That would include eliminating cities, towns and communities, highways, cars, firefighters and foresters (everything the eco-extremists want removed!). It is all-too-easy to ignore certain issues when “modeling” occurs. Modeling often multiplies errors, especially if one is not careful to “keep things real”. I do agree that higher elevation forest management ideas are still in flux. Sadly, the Forest Service is also still in flux about prescribed fires, too. It is easy to be in favor of more prescribed fires, if you don’t factor in the fuels and liability issues.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Matthew!

    This illustrates the same case we just discussed here. Here’s the Denver Post story (Denver Post, if you read this, you have the worst search engine ever!).

    The forests above 7,400 feet are not in high need of restoration. They have not fundamentally changed. There are dense stands up there today, many established in the late 1800s, pre-suppression trees. It is dense because it is naturally dense. It is not dense because fires were suppressed and trees grew in.”

    Thinning forests around watersheds where cities draw water supplies, and to protect homes, may make sense, she said.

    “But do we have to thin large areas away from people and away from watersheds? That’s more questionable, especially because it is so expensive.”

    That’s exactly what the professors said that I referred to here. We would tell them we weren’t thinning “large areas away from people and watersheds.” We asked them if they were aware of specific projects they could name and they couldn’t name them. I think that such projects would have been appealed by the ever watchful Rocky Smith and others, but I did not see them in the seven years I worked there so..

    But here we are, years later, and they are saying the same thing. Hence the need for the People’s Database.

    Here is the post on the same topic by Bob Berwyn.. I think it’s more nuanced- kudos, Bob!.

    Still, I think there are important things to say about this paper.

    1. They say fire conditions are more or less the same and therefore not influenced by climate change.. If I’m reading this right.

    .

    Thinning treatments at higher elevations of the montane zone will not return the fire regime to an historic low-severity regime, and are of questionable effectiveness in preventing severe wildfires. Based on present-day fuels, predicted fire behavior under extreme fire weather continues to indicate a mixed-severity fire regime throughout most of the montane forest zone. Recent large wildfires in the Front Range are not fundamentally different from similar events that occurred historically under extreme weather conditions.

    However, the print headline for the article in the Denver Post was “to thin or not to thin forests”, not “climate has not changed wildfires in the Front Range.”

    Here’s this quote again:

    Thinning treatments at higher elevations of the montane zone will not return the fire regime to an historic low-severity regime, and are of questionable effectiveness in preventing severe wildfires

    But the fuel treatments are not designed to “prevent wildfires”; they are designed to help people suppress them before they damage valued resources, and they can be effective. Besides the people who study their effectiveness actually look at fires and fuel treatments, not at historical conditions.

    This is sleight of science… First you claim that people have a different goal and/or practices than they actually do, and then assert that your research is relevant.

    Any of us can see the facts found, and not get to those conclusions drawn. It’s ironic to me that this logic would not work among the humble bureaucrats involved in administrative appeals, yet NSF will fund scientists who don’t link facts found and conclusions drawn (and don’t have a review process). Wouldn’t it be interesting if outsiders could raise claims about papers that would be reviewed by some process? Kind of like “scientific paper administrative appeals”?

    • Sharon, in essentially accusing the study’s authors of being dishonest, you say “But the fuel treatments are not designed to “prevent wildfires”; they are designed to help people suppress them before they damage valued resources, and they can be effective.”

      But that’s not necessarily what the Forest Service itself typically says. For example, Little Slate Project (Nez Perce NF, Idaho) FEIS, where the selected alternative includes extensive commercial thinning: “fire suppression has contributed to forest conditions and landscape pattern that are unnatural”… and “fuel treatments would be conducted in all treatment units to reduce the potential for future wildfires.”

      Or Rennic Stark Project, Lolo NF, Montana, Environmental Assessment: “Without fire as a disturbance agent, the forested lands are shifting towards uniform, overstocked stands dominated by shade-tolerant species… Studies indicate the most appropriate fuel treatment strategy for reducing hazardous fuels includes forest thinning.” Solution? “Fuels treatments…are needed to reduce the potential for crown fire initiation and fireline intensities.” Of course, reducing “potential for crown fire initiation” is wildfire prevention.

      I just picked the first two that were in my files, there are plenty more. It has become standard timber sale rhetoric, at least here in Region 1, to solemnly note (paraphrasing here) that “decades of fire suppression have resulted in unnatural fuel buildup” so that “aggressive fuels treatment is needed to head off the catastrophic wildfire that will inevitably result”, but not to worry, “extensive commercial thinning and Rx burning will head off that catastrophic wildfire.” Regardless of whether there’s truth to the argument, it is repeated over and over in timber sale NEPA documents, and (fairly effectively) plays on public fears about wildfires.

      This new paper may not drastically alter the playing field, but it’s another piece in the puzzle even if some folks may not like how it fits. Calling it “sleight of science” is out of line, in my opinion (especially considering that their choice of words is almost verbatim identical to phrasing to be found in USFS documents), plus it seems you may be confusing the scientific article with the Denver Post article about it, newspapers commonly distort the meaning of scientific articles they report on, and that’s not the fault of the scientific authors.

      • Guy… the study is about the Front Range of Colorado. I don’t think there is “extensive commercial thinning” on the Front Range.. I doubt whether there are any “commercial timber sales.” Derek? Anyone?

        For the Front Range, I don’t think my statement is ” out of line” at all. Now, if they argued that their research applied to Montana, that would be a question, but they didn’t.

        I think the Stark project as you quoted may be kind of vague (was that the purpose and need section or some other verbiage?), but fuel treatments, if designed and carried out appropriately, can help with crown fire initiation and intensity of fire. Which is not “preventing severe wildfires” (I quoted that from the abstract, not from the news story) but “managing conditions within wildfires to help with suppression.”

        • Missing the point. THIS is rude and insulting:

          “This is sleight of science… First you claim that people have a different goal and/or practices than they actually do, and then assert that your research is relevant.” (Sharon quote).

          I know you haven’t spent much time in the academic science world, but if you had, perhaps you would better appreciate that calling someone a faker, liar, manipulator, etc. (see above) is either out of line, or at least you had better be able to credibly back up your words. Which you did not do.

          • Guy, in reality I have spent a great deal of time in the “academic science” world.. I worked at CSREES on the Fund for Rural America program and for Forest Service Research as their Washington Office Silviculture and Genetics Program Leader. I was the Science Lead of a CEQ/OSTP Task Force on Releasing Genetically Organisms into the Environment. I was the Chair of the Forest Science and Technology Board at SAF. I have reviewed plenty of papers for scientific journals served on panels reviewing forestry departments in the US and Canada (including reviewing their research).

            I think most people know me well enough to know that I am not calling people “liars.” I am just saying the facts found do not justify the conclusions drawn. Over time I have seen a pattern (it used to be, back in the pre-dawn time of my schooling that reviewers would have caught this) where researchers increasingly overstate what their conclusions have to do with the real world.

            If you said that “some EA says something that is not supported by the data cited,” and you said they are trying to justify their project, (call it “project marketing” instead of “sleight of science”) I would not say that you are calling them “liars.”

            Same deal here… tendency for researchers to overstate the utility of their work and claim that it is relevant to policy, by saying something doesn’t work that people aren’t actually doing.

            I call it “sleight of science” because I see a pattern here that I posted about in 2010 http://forestpolicypub.com/2010/03/03/science-or-scienciness-sleight-of-science/

            referring to this http://forestpolicypub.com/2010/03/01/science-or-scienciness-situations-that-shout-watch-out-1-3/

            When people claim that “scientific information” should be especially privileged in policy discourse, then it seems to me that there should be appropriate QA/QC on that work, including the link between facts found and conclusions drawn. Which, in many cases, there does not appear to be.

            PS I would put my qualifications at the interface of science and policy alongside anyone’s.

      • I found it very difficult to apply my thinning bias to some of the types of stands I saw on the Bitterroot NF. I wanted to be able to thin out all the lodgepoles out of a true mixed conifer stand but, I couldn’t force a square block into a round hole. The lower elevation pine stands on south-facing slopes did fit. The complexity of those forests should not be under-estimated, as I learned.

        I do also agree with Sharon that opportunities for effective fire safety projects be accomplished, not for “stopping fires” but, more for mitigation of intensity and growth, as well as for safety.

  3. No Sharon, there is no “commercial thinning” on the Front Range. However, the Arapaho NF has a lot of WUI “thin/hand pile/burn” projects between the People’s Republic of Boulder and Nederland, the little town that leads the nation in pot stores/capita. They aren’t too shabby of projects either, averaging 3000 acres a piece. Of course, they cost $1000/acre to implement. My favorite is the Lump Gulch Project, which is clearcutting 1600 acres of MPB killed lodgepole right up to the city limits of Nederland. And no…no litigation. I guess it’s different if the gray ponytails “live” in the forest. Eminently pragmatic. Deliciously ironic. (hey, did you hear the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance(BCA), bane of the MBNF, has quietly closed their doors with nary a press release after 25 years of defending a trees right to die of MPB). I can think of 4 projects that are treating the Ponderosa/doug fir in the lower Montane and another that’s clearcutting 3000 acres of MPB LLP around Winterpark. And I mean along the property lines of subdivisions. Eminently pragmatic, deliciously ironic.

    As far as the study above. Veblen and Schoenagel are good folks, and in my journey of personal truth they have opened my eyes up, but I think they trend towards advocacy in their conclusions. They are, how you say, rather reactionary to timber harvest in the context of MPB or wildfire. It’s no surprise that in the steep slopes of the Front Range the HRV P-pine had mixed and high severity. The USFS states that in the EA’s for the above projects. 90% of the Front Range had a canopy closure of <30%. The gist of their conclusion seems to state "don't do anything to reduce fire hazard, because it burnt anyway 100 years ago." I agree with Sharon, that the authors seem to be concerned with some kind of "landscape level restoration through logging" threat, when that isn't the intent of the USFS projects I've seen. At a $1000/acre with absolutely NO revenue…I certainly hope not.(one of the projects I looked at listed "possible revenue" as "tree bark, sawdust bedding, bio-fuel, firewood, ect. with no mention of sawtimber). Perhaps the authors could tell us what percentage of the forested acre were logged in the last 50 years. They don't know, but I'll guess it's around 3%. The Arapho as a whole had around 10%…but that came from the lodgepole and spruce on the "West Side." The study doesn't address anything about the efficacy…but I'm a big fan of forensic forestry, so a good read.

    They do mention that the "lower Montane," that with the frequent fire low fire intensity low density big tree regime, has been altered from the HRV. After doing a little Google Earthing on the 2012 High Park fire outside Fort Collins…ya…don't look to low intensity there. The fire has "mapped" the creeks. As in the only place green is along the creeks and rivers…classic refugia.

    I wish Veblen and Schoenagel would take their considerable talents to the West Side, layout 250 sites, and reconstruct how much of the HRV lodgepole burned after a past MPB epidemic. Perhaps they could find some "un-burned" spruce/fir stands, preferably on south slopes(not usual habitat) that show a "thinning release" 100 years ago from a MPB epi, date it, then transfer that date to surrounding even age lodgepole. Just pontificating.

  4. Thanks, Derek.. I had confidence that I would have run into a big project while I was working .. for one reason if a big project hadn’t been in WUI I’m sure someone would have appealed it and it would have come to our office on appeal. Besides, there’s the practical matter that there are/were lots of dead trees which COST LOTS OF MONEY TO REMOVE (as you pointed out) when you don’t have markets, and the FS tends not to go willy-nilly planning projects in the backcountry when people are asking for projects around their communities and there is only so much money to go around.

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