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.

18 Comments

  1. More of “Whatever Happens”, outside of the tiny WUI’s that preservationists want to designate. Yep, let it die, rot and burn…. then see what grows back. Bye-bye birdie nesting habitats. Good-bye to historical structures. Where do we get clean water from burned watersheds? Wooden railroad trestles and forest bridges don’t need any protections, do they? Whatever happens is just fine, with some people. The real problem with thinning and prescribed fire is that we cannot seem to do them on a scale that has a significant impact. There are multiple barriers to doing more, as the Trumpsters will soon find out.

    • “Whatever happens …” aka “natural ecological processes” that operated on this landscape for millennia and created the places we later designated as national parks.

      Also, this article does NOT advocate for non-intervention. It just does not give a full-throated endorsement of Larry’s favored commercial logging methods. The article just recognizes the limitations of mechanical fuel reduction methods, and that fire is going to do most of the ecological work going forward. The specifically emphasizes active management:

      targeting fuels reduction to increase adaptation by some ecosystems and residential communities to more frequent fire; (iii) actively managing more wild and prescribed fires with a range of severities … Strategic planning for more managed and uncontrolled wild fires on the landscape today may help decrease the proportion of large and severe wildfires in the coming decades and may enhance adaptive resilience to changing climate. Prescribed fires, ignited under cooler and moister conditions than are typical of most wildfires, can reduce fuels and minimize the risk of uncontrolled forest wildfire near communities. In contrast to wildfires, prescribed fire risks are relatively low, and more than 99% of prescribed fires are held within planned perimeters successfully. … We need to develop a new fire culture. Despite these and various legal and operational challenges, the benefits of prescribed fire and managed wildfires to ecosystems and communities are high. Promoting more wildfire away from people and prescribed fires near people and the WUI are important steps toward augmenting the adaptive resilience of ecosystems and society to increasing wildfire. … [T]he effectiveness of this [fuel reduction] approach at broad scales is limited. Mechanical fuels treatments on US federal lands over the last 15 y (2001–2015) totaled almost 7 million ha (Forests and Rangelands, https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/), but the annual area burned has continued to set records. Regionally, the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming. Forested areas considerably exceed the area treated, so it is relatively rare that treatments encounter wildfire. … [R]oughly 1% of US Forest Service forest treatments experience wildfire each year, on average. The effectiveness of forest treatments lasts about 10–20 y, suggesting that most treatments have little influence on wildfire. … [T]he prospects for forest fuels treatments to promote adaptive resilience to wildfire at broad scales, by regionally reducing trends in area burned or burn severity, are fairly limited. … Home loss to wildfire is a local event, dependent on structural fuels (e.g., building material) and nearby vegetative fuels. Therefore, fuels management for home and community protection will be most effective closest to homes, which usually are on private land in the WUI where ignition probabilities are likely to be high. …

      • My “preferred” method of fuels reduction work is tied to site-specific conditions. Sadly, the needed thinning and prescribed burning continues to fall way short of the “preferred” pace and scale that would result in a significant benefit. It is unfortunate that our forests will suffer and wildlife will lose irreplaceable habitat through firestorms. It is also unfortunate that people will suffer, including the very young, and the very old. Pretending that today’s firestorms are “natural and beneficial” is very harmful, especially when fire suppression and climate change are factored in. Sadly, some people are just fine with reducing old growth ‘fuels’ through drought, bark beetles and firestorms.

        • “Firestorms?”
          Fact-free arguments are tiresome.

          An analysis of trends in burn severity in the Northwest over the last 20 years found that —

          “there is still no trend toward higher burn severity… MTBS data does not support the assumption that wildfires are burning more severely in recent years. … The Unburned-to-Low and Low severity classes are also interesting because their proportions are relatively stable from year to year. The Unburned-to-Low class averages approximately 28 percent of the burned area with only ±6 percent variation from year-to-year (one exception in 1995) for the entire data record. This compares with the high severity class, which averages 15 percent of the area with ±11 percent variation. Also, in 82 percent of the years the combination of the Unburned-to-Low and Low severity classes was 60 percent of the burned area. The lower end of the burn severity spectrum appears to be fairly consistent across the data record and regularly comprises a majority of the burned area.

          ” MTBS: Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity: Report on the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest Fires (1984 to 2005). http://mtbs.gov/reports/MTBS_pnw-psw_final.pdf

          • Of course, such studies do not deal with the associated bark beetle blooms. Survivors of the fires often die from cambium damage and bark beetles. Yet another example of a study that excludes significant facts. Both the Rim and King Fires in the Sierra Nevada were, truly, firestorms, burning up to 80,000 acres in just one day. I’m sure that it was the same thing with the Biscuit Fire.

            Burn mortality is probably a more useful measure.

          • 2ndLaw

            You need to start checking your links to see if they are still valid before you post them from wherever you get them.

            A) Your dead or useless links:
            1) From your 4/20/17 4:48pm post immediately above = dead: http://mtbs.gov/reports/MTBS_pnw-psw_final.pdf
            2) From your 4/19/17 11:37am previous post = takes us to the home page for forest and rangelands: https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/ rather that to your article.
            3) From your 4/19/17 11:48pm post below = dead: http://www.californiachaparral.org/images/Odion_et_al_Historical_Current_Fire_Regimes_mixed_conifer_2014.pdf

            In case you can’t tell I like to see references links. When they exist they allow me to see if someone got off base and if so where you or the authors went astray.

            B) In reply to both of your comment posts above:

            As to your claim in your comment immediately above quoting that “there is still no trend toward higher burn severity… MTBS data does not support the assumption that wildfires are burning more severely in recent years”
            –> The percentages may not change much but if the total acreage burned increases (and it did) then guess what – We have more acres burned in the high severity class. Your source either doesn’t understand what they are talking about or is deliberately misleading.
            –> Work up the 5 and 10 year running averages from 1960 to 2016 at this link and you will quickly see that acreage burned has steadily increased while the number of fires has decreased since around 2,000 exactly 10 years after the federal harvest level was instantaneously cut by 90-85% allowing densities to increase significantly and allowing fires to run further before they could be stopped naturally or intentionally. You have validated this by admitting that thinnings only reduce fuels for 10 to 20 years. Now we are 27 years past 1990 which by your own admission increases acreage lost to wildfire. More big acreage fires = fewer fires since burned dirt with small amounts of widely dispersed fuel left don’t burn very easily or very long and since multiple fires that merge are only treated as one fire for record keeping purposes.
            –> Until I see your source, I can’t really comment anymore other than to say that the Official Numbers show that your or your source’s conclusions are nothing but self contradictory smoke and mirrors.

            “Fact-free arguments are tiresome.” Maybe so but they are better than faux science twisted to support a false assumption. And BTW, the facts behind Larry’s points have been demonstrated on this blog many times so they aren’t fact free. You just prefer to ignore inconvenient truths and then drop the discussion when you are asked to answer questions as to how you refute the opposing facts.

      • “Whatever Happens” also includes many of man’s (mostly negative) impacts upon an unnaturally overstocked forest. We cannot ignore the reality of man-caused wildfires. Same with climate change and historical fire suppression. We should not be pretending that today’s forests are “natural”, and needing to burn…. to a crisp.

        Regarding “commercial logging methods”, a commercial-sized piece is (generally) 10″ in diameter on the large end and at least 10.5 feet long, to a top diameter of 7″. There is nothing wrong with thinning (from below) trees with an average diameter of 14.5 inches. Thinning the flammable understory, while preserving the old growth. (At least, in my hands-on experience)

  2. I think there are a few misplaced assumptions in the article. First, we don’t just thin the forest to make them more fire resilient, and healthy, but also to produce timber.
    If letting the forests burn and turn to brush is the way for the ecosystems to adapt to climate change why not just go in and log them first, save money and smoke?

  3. There are so many things wrong with this article and Bob’s summary that they would be difficult to enumerate. I think people in Colorado whose houses haven’t been burned up in recent fires would think that suppression is “working”- I guess it’s all in how you define it 😉

    This is an example of what I wrote about in 2010- sleight of science in which people claim that they have a new solution but don’t seem to really understand 1) what people are already doing and 2) why they are doing it.http://forestpolicypub.com/2010/03/03/science-or-scienciness-sleight-of-science/

    I agree with Bob, about with the next steps in logic, maybe we should stop rerouting trails for endangered fish as fires will likely burn and sediment up the streams anyway? I just wish that science publications would ask people currently working in a field to review articles that make claims about what current policies entail.

    Anyway for those who are interested here is the actual abstract:

    Wildfires across western North America have increased in number and size over the past three decades, and this trend will continue in response to further warming. As a consequence, the wildland–urban interface is projected to experience substantially higher risk of climate-driven fires in the coming decades. Although many plants, animals, and ecosystem services benefit from fire, it is unknown how ecosystems will respond to increased burning and warming. Policy and management have focused primarily on specified resilience approaches aimed at resistance to wildfire and restoration of areas burned by wildfire through fire suppression and fuels management. These strategies are inadequate to address a new era of western wildfires. In contrast, policies that promote adaptive resilience to wildfire, by which people and ecosystems adjust and reorganize in response to changing fire regimes to reduce future vulnerability, are needed. Key aspects of an adaptive resilience approach are (i) recognizing that fuels reduction cannot alter regional wildfire trends; (ii) targeting fuels reduction to increase adaptation by some ecosystems and residential communities to more frequent fire; (iii) actively managing more wild and prescribed fires with a range of severities; and (iv) incentivizing and planning residential development to withstand inevitable wildfire. These strategies represent a shift in policy and management from restoring ecosystems based on historical baselines to adapting to changing fire regimes and from unsustainable defense of the wildland–urban interface to developing fire-adapted communities. We propose an approach that accepts wildfire as an inevitable catalyst of change and that promotes adaptive responses by ecosystems and residential communities to more warming and wildfire.”
    I think you need a subscription to access the whole paper.

    • Many readers seem to be stuck in the old way of thinking … over-confident that we can manage fuels and control fire at huge scales. The evidence just does not support this. Fire will do most of the ecological work regardless of what we do, lets recognize that and begin to behave accordingly.

      Logging for fuel reduction is not a sound strategy to manage fuel and fire.
      • Only a small fraction of needed density reduction can support an economically viable timber sale. See Rainville, Robert; White, Rachel; Barbour, Jamie, tech. eds. 2008. Assessment of timber availability from forest restoration within the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-752. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 65 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr752.pdf. (“Hoping to boost their economies and also restore these forests, local leaders are interested in the economic value of timber that might be available from thinning treatments on these lands. … [W]e found that on lands where active forestry is allowable, thinning of most densely stocked stands would not be economically viable.”)
      • Removing commercial sized logs as part of fuel reduction degrades habitat while doing little to modify fire behavior. If conducted at large scales, the effects of commercial logging for fuel reduction will be socially and ecologically unacceptable. Lehmkuhl, John; Gaines, William; Peterson, Dave W.; Bailey, John; Youngblood, Andrew, tech. eds. 2015. Silviculture and monitoring guidelines for integrating restoration of dry mixed-conifer forest and spotted owl habitat management in the eastern Cascade Range. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-915. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 158 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr915.pdf. (“Tradeoffs between fire resistance and NSO habitat quality are real. Our results demonstrate that balancing the goals of increasing fire resilience while maintaining habitat function, especially nesting and roosting, for the NSO in the same individual stand is a difficult, if not an impossible, task. Even lighter thinning treatments typically reduce canopy cover below 40 percent. The reality is that nesting and roosting NSO habitat is by definition very susceptible to high-severity fire; owl habitat value and fire risk are in direct conflict on any given acre. …”);
      • Most fires are climate driven, rather than fuel driven. The warming climate is likely to make this effect even more pronounced. Schoennagel et al 2017. Adapt to more wildfire in western North American forests as climate changes. PNAS 2017; published ahead of print April 17, 2017. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1617464114; https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/Adapt_To_More_Wildfire.pdf; Odion, D.C. et al 2014. Examining Historical and Current Mixed-Severity Fire Regimes in Ponderosa Pine and Mixed-Conifer Forests of Western North America. PLOS One. February 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 2 http://www.californiachaparral.org/images/Odion_et_al_Historical_Current_Fire_Regimes_mixed_conifer_2014.pdf;
      • There is a low probability that fuel treatments will interact with wildfire. William L. Baker, Jonathan J. Rhodes. 2008. Fire Probability, Fuel Treatment Effectiveness and Ecological Tradeoffs in Western U.S. Public Forests. pp.1-7 (7). The Open Forest Science Journal, Volume 1. 2008. http://api.ning.com/files/1kp0vDW*F1cqOeO4-GdXE1AHOATghmIAN2x9qLpH3aA_/FireandFuelTreatments.pdf;
      • The effects of fuel reduction are modest. Fuel reduction reduces the extent of fire by less than 10 percent. See M. A. Cochrane, C. J. Moran, M. C. Wimberly, A. D. Baer, M. A. Finney, K. L. Beckendorf, J. Eidenshink, and Z. Zhu. 2012. Estimation of wildfire size and risk changes due to fuels treatments. International Journal of Wildland Fire. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF11079. http://www.publish.csiro.au/?act=view_file&file_id=WF11079.pdf.
      • Commercial logging will often make fire hazard worse, not better. Reducing the forest canopy will make the stand hotter, dryer, and windier, produce more activity fuels, and stimulate the growth of ladder fuels. Jain, Theresa B.; Battaglia, Mike A.; Han, Han-Sup; Graham, Russell T.; Keyes, Christopher R.; Fried, Jeremy S.; Sandquist, Jonathan E. 2012. A comprehensive guide to fuel management practices for dry mixed conifer forests in the northwestern United States. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-292. 2012 http://www.firescience.gov/projects/09-2-01-16/project/09-2-01-16_09-2-01-16_rmrs_gtr292web.pdf.
      • There are still a lot of good reasons to maintain forest density – to provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife that prefer relatively dense forests and abundant dead wood habitat, to store carbon, to protect soil and watershed values, etc.

      Considering all of this, forest managers need to recognize that they cannot thin their way out of the fuel predicament they are in. Forest managers will eventually come to realize that the vast majority of the ecological work will be accomplished by wild and prescribed fire.

      • “Reducing the forest canopy will make the stand hotter, dryer, and windier, produce more activity fuels, and stimulate the growth of ladder fuels.”

        I don’t buy into this. Historical records show stands with less density and more spacing. Additionally, don’t firestorms also “make the stand hotter, dryer, and windier, produce more activity fuels, and stimulate the growth of ladder fuels”? Basically, people like 2nd Law prefer a much slower process to reach the same goals. How long does it take to ‘grow’ an old growth forest, after a firestorm has vaporized the old forest? 200 years? 300 years? 500 years? 1000 years?!?!?

      • 2ndOutLaw

        A) Re your concluding comment above: “Considering all of this, forest managers need to recognize that they cannot thin their way out of the fuel predicament they are in. Forest managers will eventually come to realize that the vast majority of the ecological work will be accomplished by wild and prescribed fire.”
        1) So you have no concern for the down wind damage to human health as discussed here in a recent discussion thread. Too bad but protection of humans is the #1 goal of both the USFS and the EPA as discussed in another recent discussion thread.
        2) Too bad that you don’t realize that the “old way of thinking” (presumably extinguishing all fires asap) is already gone when possible. The “new” way has been recognized by foresters and has been implemented for many years. Controlled burns have been used long before I even got into the business eons ago and they aren’t as easy as you imply. We’ve discussed all of this on this blog site many times in recent years. So your “new” is not new anymore and some of your “new” is “old”.
        3) Too bad that you don’t understand that thinning goes hand in hand with controlled burns. Try setting a control burn in an overly dense stand without first thinning it and watch it turn into an inferno. Sure the effects of thinning may only last x number of years but then (depending on growth rate and fuel loads such as brush and other ladder fuels) you either thin it again and/or run a control burn on it again depending on the conditions specific to the species and site and its climate characteristics.
        4) Too bad that you don’t realize that overly dense forests don’t provide any overly dense habit when they burn up.
        5) Too bad that you don’t realize that there will be plenty of hot spots in controlled burns and opportunistic situations where wildfire can be let run for a while in certain directions under certain weather conditions in order to provide “abundant dead wood habitat” in a more dispersed manner over time and place thereby providing for more sustainability of “dead wood habitat” so as to disperse opportunities for dependent species thereby reducing the possibility of spreading any communicable disease or parasite thereby to increasing sustainability.
        6) Too bad you don’t understand that integrated landscape level forest management does exactly what we both want and will over time reduce acreage burned more than your burn only approach.
        7) Too bad that you don’t understand the complexities and high risk of failure in deciding to let a wildfire go on the spur of the moment as opposed to a controlled burn. But then you haven’t read multiple explanations of the difference in danger between the two as given on this blog site.

        B) Re your: “There is a low probability that fuel treatments will interact with wildfire” and “The effects of fuel reduction are modest. Fuel reduction reduces the extent of fire by less than 10 percent”
        –> By your numbers it sounds like you just shot your argument in the head. Isn’t that the objective? And if we prioritize fuel reductions on areas around recreation areas and roads and other high traffic areas through out and on the boundaries of our federal forests as discussed in another recent discussion thread, the reduction will grow even larger since 50% of the acreage lost was caused by a human intentionally or unintentionally. Too bad you missed that.

        C) Re your: “Most fires are climate driven, rather than fuel driven”
        –> Interesting but physics tells us otherwise. If you don’t have sufficient fuel you can’t have a fire regardless of the climate. Yes, warming and drought reduce the moisture content of forest fuels but that only makes the need to reduce the quantity of fuel even more important. Too bad that you don’t understand the difference between ignition and spread rate or that if fuels are minimized both are reduced which, in turn, significantly decreases the opportunity for the fire to create its own winds thereby preheating and further drying the fuels ahead of the fire regardless of what the climate was before the fire started.

        D) Re your: “Only a small fraction of needed density reduction can support an economically viable timber sale.” Did they consider “in woods chipping” for plant fuel or for pulp where it would work and where proximity to a plant/mill allows? Oh, forgive me, I seem to have forgotten that envoros destroyed the very industry infrastructure that was paying for the management that kept wildfire acreage down. And what good has their conflicting needs “single species management” done for the enviro’s poster boy the NSO? How come the failures of enviro’s (without any in-depth understanding of what they are talking about) qualifies them as experts.

        E) Re your: “If conducted at large scales, the effects of commercial logging for fuel reduction will be socially and ecologically unacceptable.”
        –> Only because enviros will continue to spread false hope for failed solutions.

        You may be a slick lawyer who can dig up all sorts of references but your tongue has exposed the fact that your poor knowledge of what you are talking about seriously limits your ability to discern between well thought out and validated research versus suspender snapping supposition by researchers in a hurry to get a whole lot of pubs out for various reasons. Here is a clue to help you tell when you are dealing with supposition as opposed to established science. Supposition uses an abundance of words like “might”, “could”, “possibly” and etc.

        However, I must admit that your posts here indicate that you have made some good first steps towards the truth. Besides control burns and opportunistically letting some wildfires run, what other active forest management do you agree with?

  4. 2nd- we don’t have to engage in dueling citations about the utility of fuel treatments. You said:
    “Many readers seem to be stuck in the old way of thinking … over-confident that we can manage fuels and control fire at huge scales. The evidence just does not support this. Fire will do most of the ecological work regardless of what we do, lets recognize that and begin to behave accordingly.”

    I simply disagree that there is “overconfidence”. I would, instead, characterize it as “Fire managers and suppression folks are doing the best they can with what they have informed by fire science and experience.” They have been managing fuels and controlling fires. At huge scales? I suppose so, if you are talking about western North America! Fire at different times and seasons has a variety of desirable and undesirable effects- which people are, in fact, managing. I don’t think anyone has ever said people can “thin their way out of this.” I guess from where I sit, in rural Colorado, it looks like insurance companies, the state, landowners and communities have been working on developing strategies dealing with adaptation to fire at least since HFRA in 2003, and I don’t see where this is a “new” idea and honestly I never heard anyone proclaim the “old” one.

  5. This study seems to add something to the debate…. from maybe a more objective voice?

    https://phys.org/news/2017-04-scientists-impact-high-severity-conifer-forests.html

    “The ability of some Western conifer forests to recover after severe fire may become increasingly limited as the climate continues to warm, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Harvard Forest found in a new study published today in Global Change Biology. Although most of these cone-bearing evergreen trees are well adapted to fire, the study examines whether two likely facets of climate change—hotter, drier conditions and larger, more frequent and severe wildfires—could potentially transform landscapes from forested to shrub-dominated systems.”

    • Larry- As you have said before, and many people from the “Years when Reforestation was A Good Thing to Do” would not be surprised, that in parts of California shrubs will grow up before conifers get started, and trees are difficult to establish once that happens. I remember this happening before climate change became an issue. I think you can think “whatever veg comes back is fine” or “it needs to be what we used to have” ” I like trees and so do woodpeckers” or “we need to promote species that ecologists think are resilient/adapted to climate change”. As for me, we’ll probably never have the bucks to manipulate many acres much (and without herbicides on NFs) so I think we’re going to do mostly #1 regardless.

      • Before CASPO came into effect, there were “herbicide-dependent” projects on the shelf, as herbicide use had been scrutinized and temporarily banned. Of course, those projects would have used clearcutting. The Forest Service did try using grubbing contracts but found that “Grubbing just pisses the bearclover off”. (Actually, we do need to employ the bearclover as a vehicle to accomplish more prescribed burning)

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