Three Fire Strategies- by Stephen Pyne

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Here’s a link to a post in Slate and below is an excerpt:

Resistance. Fire suppression continues to thrive because there are fires we need to stop, but the strategy has also reinvented itself from simple firefighting to an all-hazard emergency service model that effectively looks like an urban fire department in the woods. This makes sense in places defined by urban sprawl, but it’s expensive, and it has not shown it can manage fire. If the strategy retains the strengths of fire suppression, it also magnifies suppression’s weaknesses.

Restoration. Restoration’s ambition is to get ahead of the problem. Yet the vision has proved expensive and complicated. Federal, state, and local jurisdictions are all involved with many projects. Before controlled fire can, in fact, be controlled, there often need to be expensive pretreatments like forest thinning. Emissions from long-burning fire can linger, causing other problems. Between the financial, political, and social costs, there is little reason to believe that the country will muster the will to rehabilitate, at the rate or scale required, the tens of millions of acres believed by the Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and the Government Accountability Office to be out of whack. Probably the best we can hope for is to shield high-value locales like exurbs and municipal watersheds.

Resilience. A new strategy from the West accepts that we are unlikely to get ahead of the problems coming at us. Instead of attempting to directly control burns, it confines and contains outbreaks. Of course there are some fires that simply bolt away from the moment of ignition, and there are some that must be attacked instantly because they threaten people or critical sites. But many fires offer opportunities to back off and burn out. These are not let-burns. Rather, fire officers concentrate their efforts at point protection where assets are most valuable. Elsewhere they will try to pick places—draw boxes—which they can hold with minimum expenses, risks, and damages. Some patches will burn more severely than we would like, and some will barely burn at all, but the rest will likely burn within a range of tolerance. Such burnouts may well be the West’s alternative to prescribed fire on the Southeastern model or to unrestrained wildfire.

Sharon’s thoughts: I agree with Pyne’s rock, paper, scissors analogy.

The idea of “whackness” though, continues to be “wacky”, IMHO, in this time of climate change. And the cost has always been too big to do everywhere (although in some circles, this has not been popular thinking). I remember a Forest Service field trip around 2007 with Fred Norbury (then Associate Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems at the Forest Service if I recall, an economist by background). We were looking at fuels treatments on the Pike part of the PSICC, and when Fred was told their per acre costs, and how often the treatments would have to be redone, you could almost see the calculations going on behind Fred’s eyeballs. Not to speak of the air quality issues, difficulty in finding a window, liability and so on. This dog (“restoring the West”) was never going to hunt, for a variety of philosophical (restore to what? why pick that?), and practical reasons, not the least of which was the price tage. I’m glad Pyne said it out loud.

Now, I would not term the third either “resilience” or “new”. People have been using that approach to fire management since way before I retired. I don’t know what it was called, or even if it had a name (fire people seem to always be making up new terminology) but people have been doing it. Using the right tool and the right strategy for the job seems like “common-sense” fire management, that reflects protecting values at risk and public and firefighter safety, while trying to spend less.

It does seem to me, however, that there are lots of situations where values about public lands can and do differ, and the wisest team of fire people are not always going to get the “right” answer in terms of what the fire will do and what the impacts will be. There is so much second-guessing in the world today, and assuming other people are screwed up, ignorant, incompetent, malevolent, and so on (especially on the internet). I don’t doubt that this “not-new” approach is needed. But I wonder whether our litigious and disagreeable society is ready for it. What do you all think?

14 Comments

  1. Notice that the esteemed Dr. Pyne doesn’t advocate the “Whatever Happens” mindset. (Or, how about “Analysis Pyrolysis”??… *smirk*)

    America just isn’t “progressive” enough to accept a scientific approach to this giant problem, as evidenced by their desire to “let nature take its course”.

  2. Sounds like forest planning to me. The three strategies should line up with a plan’s land allocation scheme. The planning process just needs to identify the “places defined by urban sprawl” to suppress, “high-value locales like exurbs and municipal watersheds” to restore and “burnout” zones for prescribed natural fire. I’d love to see a good example of a forest plan that fully integrates fire management goals like these. (Not to mention some effort by the federal government to minimize the expansion of areas defined by urban sprawl and exurbs near public lands.)

  3. The memory and knowledge aren’t fresh, but they tell me this. There was a case or two that said fire plans made decisions that are subject to NEPA. The FS response was to play a little hot potato with NEPA regarding where to do it, and forest plans were the final answer. There were some efforts to develop guidance for including fire planning in forest plans, but that seems to have fizzled out. Without guidance, there is a good chance that forest plans will not adequately support fire management decisions. At some point the FS will be playing ‘find the NEPA’ again in court. (The answer they would probably like is that fire management is exempt from NEPA.)

  4. “This dog (“restoring the West”) was never going to hunt, for a variety of philosophical (restore to what? why pick that?), and practical reasons, not the least of which was the price tage. I’m glad Pyne said it out loud.”

    Sharon, you have nailed it with this comment. The job is much too huge, too costly, and with exploding urbanization against our NF boundaries, the risks of prescribed burns is too high. In spite of Larry’s constant drum-beat re thinning and prescribed burns, it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes.

    We must learn to live with the new situation… hotter, more fire-prone weather plus much too much pressure by development near or within the forests. Cities and counties must step up their control over who builds where, and the manner that this new development is permitted, with strict fire prevention codes that are actually enforced. Too much of our current fire fighting is targeted towards saving homes and lives. Not to say that we should ignore this real need, but USFS (and other agencies) budgets should not be stripped in order to protect a million dollar home on a ridge-top next to an obvious fire hazard zone.

    It is a brave new world, ever-changing and too often changing in the wrong direction. Talking thinning and “restoration” is frankly pissing into a hot gale. Too little too late.

    • Yep, Ed, let’s just embrace the arson and man-caused fires, as well as “protecting” the fuels that feed them. I see you are buying into the “Whatever Happens” mindset, lock, stock and barrel. Yep, blame the victims for where they live, despite the fact that they have lived there, their whole lives. Yep, disregard the Indians style of managing their forests. Yep, all forests are expendable, and Dr. Pyne doesn’t know what he is talking about. THIS is the new narrative of preservationism, blaming the past to block the future. Blaming humans for living where their grandparents lived. Blaming climate change for fuels buildups. Blaming rich people for Wilderness firestorms, and their costs. Blaming timber beasts for incinerated pristine wildlife areas. Welcome to 1984!

      Of course, I’m not saying that every single acre of the west has to be restored, as you imply. However, there are a great many areas that could use thinning and prescribed fires but, you’re saying we need to drop those plans, in favor of doing nothing.

  5. I am always amazed at the amount of time and energy that goes into NEPA when it comes to harvesting a few trees. Then a fire comes along and they don’t hesitate to burnout whole watersheds.
    I think you will find that most of the forest fires burn a long way from any urban sprawl. At least you can rebuild a house, but try rebuilding a 400 year old tree.
    I think the answers are as complex as our forests. But doing nothing is not the answer. We should not be afraid to try everything we can think of to protect our forests and keep them green and alive.
    I personally have never had the experience to view where fire has been beneficial to the forest. Even where it doesn’t out right kill the trees the underbrush might be killed for a few years but then comes back thick as ever, often outcompeting the tree seedlings. And they you have reburns that are pretty good as killing out any remaining tree seed source and the trees that have managed to establish themselves after the fire. The brush just grows back, or when the trees do sprout they often come back as thick as dog hair, and you have a bigger mess than what you started with. I just have a hard time seeing how fire helps our forests even though I can see where trees have survived fire before. I have come to the conclusion forests survive in spite of fire, not because of fire. I keep looking though.
    I wonder too if there isn’t to much money now connected with fires which has somewhat corrupted the process.

  6. Larry, not sure you can read or understand common English. I never inferred any of the foolishness you attribute to me.
    First, most of the folks living in the “hot” zones along forest boundaries or southern California ridgetop development are not old timers, but relatively new or brand new residents who wish to live near a natural environment. Forty years ago when I moved to north Idaho the NF boundaries were almost totally devoid of any residents, but now these lots are going for premium prices, and I can tell you they are a hot commodity. Mostly newbees coming from “you-know-where” with no common sense about what it means to live in a mountain-forest setting. All they see are beautiful trees and deer and… So they build where and how they wish, in most cases.
    Your telescope focus on thinning and burning is so powerful that it seems to cloud out the reality of politics and funding of the NF system. I do NOT wish to eliminate thinning/burning from the options out there; I am just saying that we must learn to live with the reality that there is NOT the political will, nor the budget dollars, nor the public support for a nation-wide billion dollar program (it would take that much) to thin overstocked stands in the NF system.
    I firmly believe, as I sit here awaiting another almost record-breaking 99 degree day, that global warming is a reality and is changing our forest management options. More bigger, hotter fires throughout the West are happening and will continue.
    Please don’t label me a “preservationist”. You don’t know me well enough, and I have posted nothing here to deserve that label. I support reasonable forest management on sites that can tolerate equipment disturbance and cutting without soil or water quality damage. In my past USFS days I participated in many, many debates over the somewhat over-hyped benefits of thinning. Often these benefits were overblown or totally unfounded, or too costly in relation to the benefits.
    I admire your experience and knowledge in thinning. But your extreme focus on just one aspect of forest management makes it difficult for some of us to take you seriously.

    • Your insult is duly-noted, Ed. I push so hard for thinning because that practice has been severely curtailed (to near ZERO), in the Sierra Nevada. And then you tell us to “live with it”. That is what preservationists say, too. “Global warming” is an excellent reason for doing thinning but, you just want to “punt” and go with “Whatever Happens”. Again, blaming mansions for ultra-costly Wilderness fires does not hold any water. Letting fires burn costs billions of dollars, and doesn’t “balance out”, economically… or ecologically. Take the new flooding in Colorado Springs, for example. Those post-fire costs continue to accumulate, and will continue until the ground loses its hydrophobicity.

      How about we take those massive wildfire costs and apply it to……. wait for it…… THINNING?!!!! (in appropriate areas) And, yes, there IS public support for thinning. Congress chooses to ignore that fact.

  7. Larry, I would love to have both a dedicated one billion dollar forest-fighting budget just to fight fire, and I would support and love to see a billion dollar fund for forest thinning. It should not be one or the other. This country is rich enough to afford an investment in its national forests…just don’t order two or three less fighter jets each year!!
    Who on this blog is “blaming” mansions or houses in the WUI zone for Wilderness fires (your caps, so you infer you mean designated wilderness, not roadless acres)? Certainly not me, and I have noted no other respondents doing this. I just know that all this WUI development is grossly enlarging the fire-fighting costs and exposing too many firefighters to unnecessary danger trying to save a house or mansion.

    • When single Let-Burn Wilderness wildfires top the $100,000,000 mark, that really adds up, in a HUGE hurry. How many WUI fires cost that much?!? The Westfork Complex (in Colorado a few years ago) was allowed to burn for 9 days, totaling 150 acres. Clearly, it was safe to suppress that Wilderness fire but, it was then allowed to grow even more, resulting in over 100,000 acres burned, caused multiple health alerts in distant places, and tied up initial attack resources in advance of the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. We need to face facts, here. Letting fires burn is what is causing much of the huge costs. They commonly let fires burn until it is too late to deal with them in a safe and (cost) controlled manner. Can you name just ONE WUI fire that has cost over $100,000,000 (not including property damages, and burning on Forest Service lands), burning over 100,000 acres? Of course, safety is paramount but, whatever happened to “Fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first”? It is very important, IMHO, that we put out fires when it is safe, instead of letting fires burn through budgets during the middle of summer. We need a ban on such fires, during the summer months, saving billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres.

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