The Summer of Fuel Treatments

It’s the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” and my project for this summer is to try to understand the differences between people who say “fuel treatments don’t work and people shouldn’t do them” and those who say “fuel treatments can work and people should do them”. What’s really behind that? On what observations do people base their claims?

We can’t expect journalists to do this (the whole thing is too complex). The scientific world doesn’t provide fora to jointly examine claims and counterclaims within a discipline, let alone across disciplines. I guess that leaves it up to us. We have the opportunity to lay out different claims and jointly examine them, and learn jointly what the different values, assumptions, and observations lie behind these points of view. We can even tell our own stories of fuel treatments we have seen that worked or did not, and we can hear from people with direct experience in suppression as well as people who publish scientific papers. We can ask questions and get answers from each other.

Who knows? We could create one small space, where for one small topic, people could model civil disagreement, and gain a respite fromthis two pronged approach from Canada to defining fuel treatment effectiveness, but my search was fairly superficial and maybe others can help. Here are the two prongs:

1. Did the fire behavior change as a result of the treatment? Yes or no.
2. Did the treatment contribute to the control of the wildfire? Yes or no.

I found this in a discussion linked to this Canadian research group, that has a variety of interesting ongoing projects. Here’s a link to an “effectiveness of fuel treatments” write-up in Sasketchewan with interesting photos. Here’s some summary findings:

1. Weyakwin
• Fuel treatment increased visibility into the stand.
• Fuel treatment increased firefighter safety in terms of movement and visibility.
• Under the fire weather conditions the extreme fire behaviour took place, fire crews were able to control and suppress a spot fire that would have likely increased in size and intensity and spread into other values.
• Items located around homes can act as a receptive fuel for embers to fall into. Keeping these areas clean is a homeowner’s responsibility and can contribute to protection of one’s town.

2. Wadin Bay
• An active fire front moved into the community.
• The fire moved into the fuel treatments.
• People were able to safely suppress the fire within the treatment area.
• A permanent home and two seasonal cabins plus other values were lost, and there was potential for further losses.
The Wadin Bay area had very thick stands at pre-treatment, which would have made travel within the stand difficult and dangerous given the observed fire behaviour in untreated portions of the hamlet. The combination of increased visibility and decreased fire intensity enabled firefighters to bring the fire under control and ultimately save several structures from burning

And here’s a photo

Figure 18. A good example of fire damage on left side and the lack of fire damage on the right in block D

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24 Comments

  1. Sharon is right that fuel treatment is complex and warrants more discussion so I’m glad she launched this thread. My hunch is that the photo caption for Fig. 18 was copied from the source paper.
    After working in the forest for 50+ years and witnessing many events including large and small fires, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, bugs, avalanches, etc. I no longer use the word “damage” when thinking about how those events affect the forest. In the photo above did the fire “damage” the forest or did it open things up and perhaps stimulate the growth of understory and groundcover species? Will the new growth provide more forage for certain species? Will the standing dead trees resulting from the fire provide habitat for fire-dependent species in a forest that previously wasn’t suitable for them?
    I no longer look at the forest as a stand of 2 x 4’s and thus don’t see “damage.” Instead I see a natural process that has been influencing forests for a long, long time. Much longer in fact than our species is generally capable of thinking about.

    • Yes, OW, you’re right, I just copied the caption from the source paper. You raise an interesting point- that people can disagree about the desirability of post-fire habitat.

      What also occurs to me is that “people were able to safely suppress the fire that was threatening the community” means the fuel treatment was effective in that sense. While reasonable people can disagree about whether fire-induced changes in vegetation are desirable or not, it seems fairly simple to say “this fuel treatment worked so we could get a handle on fire suppression.”

  2. Most Forest Service units try to do some sort of “fuel treatment effectiveness” review after each fire season to evaluate how well the fuel treatments worked in modifying fire behavior. These are fairly informal, but may result in a research General Technical Report (GTR) or a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal. I think the 2-pronged approach that Sharon outlines is a good one. In my experience, where they don’t work (for one or both prongs) is when there is extreme fire weather – then all bets are off. And I have seen directly where not thinning/doing fuels treatments has changed fire behavior so it is less and where thinning/fuels treatments have allowed more wind to move through the stand and create a “bellows” effect that has increased the fire behavior. I think this is generally an exception, but it can occur – so fuels treatments are not a 100% guarantee that fire behavior will change, especially when it is very windy and embers can go far enough to create spot fires on the other side of the treated area…

    • Isn’t it ‘natural’ for there to be more of a breeze in a stand with fewer small trees, like what pioneers found? Pretending that overcrowded forests are ‘the new natural’ seems to be where preservationists are setting up camp. We can plan for firestorms…. or not. We can preserve arsonist and bark beetle habitat, too, or not. We can sacrifice rare and irreplaceable wildlife habitats…. or not.

    • Thank you TM, I think a lot of people do those “fuel treatment effectiveness” reviews outside the FS- for example, these folks were in Canada. I plan to post more of these through the summer so those of us outside the fuels community can get a better picture of how things work.

  3. Sharon

    Regarding your objective: “my project for this summer is to try to understand the differences between people who say “fuel treatments don’t work and people shouldn’t do them” and those who say “fuel treatments can work and people should do them”. What’s really behind that? On what observations do people base their claims?”

    1) “people who say “fuel treatments don’t work”
    — a) What’s really behind that?
    —-> IMHO, this is the primary response of those who haven’t had the education (access to 80 years of research which proves that they are mistaken) or the exposure to actual sufficient controlled burns and thinnings to observe that they significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.
    —-> After over 50 years in the business, I am of the opinion that the root cause is a hatred for clearcuts and forestry practices in general as they existed in the 50’s. In addition, the thought process of most non-foresters is short term. So when they see litter on the ground it doesn’t look pretty and pristine. They don’t realize that the forest before the activity wasn’t pristine when it was established. They think that the forest that they know and love, in their favorite places, always existed and looked like it does now. They don’t understand the dynamics of forests.
    — b) On what observations do people base their claims?
    —-> We have had many posts on this site that made these claims. A lot of them are opinion pieces, some are observations of situations where the odds of success were zero because of the firestorm that had built up before it hit the treated area and some were analyses cited as research without having any knowledge of the confounding factors that produced results different from 80+ years of repeatedly validated consistent results which comprise the contradicting established science and the physics of fire.
    —-> From these confounded results, the opponents of forestry jump to the conclusion that since it didn’t work in these cases, it doesn’t work anywhere. Ignoring the probabilities that most fires don’t start out as firestorms. they see no reason to intervene to keep a significant number of fires from turning into unstoppable firestorms.

    2) “those who say “fuel treatments can work and people should do them””
    — a) What’s really behind that?
    —-> Change your item #2
    ——–> From: “those who say “fuel treatments can work and people should do them””
    ——–> To: “those who say “fuel treatments can work and people should do them”” when the fire science (conditions on the ground and in the stand and predicted weather conditions) indicate a high probability of success.
    —->The physics of fire and 80+ years of research that has consistently produced repeatable results in the fire lab and in different conditions in the field. Many of the old studies by the USFS and forest industry are not easily located since the main body of this research can’t easily be obtained on the internet.
    — b) On what observations do people base their claims?
    —-> Here are but a few discussion threads posted on this site which include references to research – references are to be found both in the opening post and in the comments:
    —-> 1) Inside the Firestorm http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/05/04/inside-the-firestorm/
    —-> 2) More on Wildfire and Sound Forest Management http://forestpolicypub.com/2014/05/03/more-on-wildfire-and-sound-forest-management/
    —-> 3) Scientific Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity http://forestpolicypub.com/2014/04/11/scientific-basis-for-changing-forest-structure-to-modify-wildfire-behavior-and-severity/
    —-> 4) The Impact of Sound Forest Management Practices on Wildfire Smoke and Human Health http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/03/31/the-impact-of-sound-forest-management-practices-on-wildfire-smoke-and-human-health/
    —-> 5) Articles of Interest on Fire http://forestpolicypub.com/2014/04/05/articles-of-interest-on-fire/
    —-> 6) The Role of Sound Forest Management in Reducing Wildfire Risk http://forestpolicypub.com/2014/03/12/the-role-of-sound-forest-management-in-reducing-wildfire-risk/
    —-> 7) Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over two decades http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/03/04/humans-sparked-84-percent-of-us-wildfires-increased-fire-season-over-two-decades/
    —-> 8) Conifer regeneration poor after high-severity fire http://forestpolicypub.com/2016/12/22/conifer-regeneration-poor-after-high-severity-fire/
    —-> 9) Giant forest fires exterminate spotted owls, long-term study finds – See more at: http://news.wisc.edu/giant-forest-fires-exterminate-spotted-owls-long-term-study-finds/#sthash.Sfwe4Pye.dpuf http://news.wisc.edu/giant-forest-fires-exterminate-spotted-owls-long-term-study-finds/

    Well that shot my evening that was to be spent on researching links for my future NSO post

    • It is really unfortunate that some people want those 16% of wildfires not caused by humans to roam ‘free-range’. They conveniently ignore the realities of humans, and how they live in and around our forests. Their ideas about how ‘humans are a cancer upon the Earth’ take precedence over realities and scientific facts. Sadly, Congress (and the courts) will eventually find ways to marginalize every opponent to active forest management and ‘tree-hugger’. I have been saying all along that it is the Consensus part of the three ‘C-Words’ that will be the most troublesome. Some people are willing to use a ‘nuclear option’ to win battles. I will remain objective, despite other people’s flawed views.

  4. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wildfires-on-the-rise-due-to-drought-and-climate-change/

    Wildfires on the rise due to drought and climate change:

    More than 100M Americans live in or near forests and grasslands that can erupt in flames. Steve Inskeep reports on fighting wildfires, which cost federal agencies almost $2B last year

    THE FOLLOWING SNIPS FEATURE THE WORK AND REARCH OF JACK COHEN (which myself and others have often highlighted here on this blog):

    Since 1990, a total of 468 firefighters have died in the wildlands including these men. They were elite firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In 2013, they deployed to fight this fire outside Yarnell, Arizona. Time lapse video shows how the wind shifted the fire in a dangerous new direction. The 19 men were trapped, and killed. In the town they died trying to protect, no residents were hurt, but 129 buildings burned.

    Events like this add urgency to the work at a U.S. Forest Service lab. In this building in Missoula, Montana, scientists study how fires spread.

    And one of them, Jack Cohen, made a specialty of how to better defend homes.

    Jack Cohen: Clearly we’re not gonna solve the problem by telling people they’re gonna have to move their houses into a city from being out in the woods.

    Steve Inskeep: Not gonna happen.

    Jack Cohen: Right? It’s not gonna happen for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that the population who live there, including me– aren’t gonna do it.

    Steve Inskeep: Is it reasonable for a homeowner in that situation, a fire bearing down on their neighborhood to just say, “Look, I pay my taxes. There are firefighters, there’s a fire department. The forest service, if it’s public land, has thousands of firefighters. It’s their job; put it out?”

    Jack Cohen: So what if they can’t? Then the question becomes one of, “Well, if the extreme wildfires are inevitable does that mean that wildland-urban fire disasters are inevitable?” And my answer to that is no.

    Jackson Training Session

    Cohen: At no point did anybody identify how homes ignited.

    Cohen realized if he understood the way houses catch fire, he could figure out how to protect them.

    USDA VIDEO: Protecting Your Home From Wildfire

    Cohen: What ignited this house and burned it down were the little things.

    The little things. Cohen learned that a wildfire throws up a blizzard of embers that wind can drive up to a mile. The embers, also known as firebrands, start new fires, if they land on something flammable. Like wooden shingles. Wooden decks. Firewood against a wall. Pine needles in a gutter.

    Jack Cohen: And most frequently the things that it’s igniting is debris around the structure. It’s the stuff that’s there primarily because we live there.

    Jack Cohen says he knows these are danger spots because he ran simulations with life-sized homes in a lab.

    Jack Cohen: We have firebrand generators, and you can watch millions of these brands then begin to collect wherever they land. If the base of the house has flammable material we end up with fire. We see the gutters igniting and putting flame right up against the eave line. What if we don’t have anything that can support fire within five feet of the structure? What if we don’t have pine needles in the gutters, right? Then the firebrands, it doesn’t matter from how far they come, don’t ignite anything.

    Steve Inskeep: Just clean the gutters?

    Jack Cohen: Clean the gutters. Clean the debris off your deck.

    Last summer’s fast-moving fire in Kern County, California, became a real-world demonstration of Jack Cohen’s research. Kern County requires property owners to clear 100 feet of defensible space around homes. You can tell the ones who probably did, and the ones who likely didn’t. One week before the fire, an inspection found that one house looked like this. A week later, the house looked like this. Fire Chief Brian Marshall says he didn’t have enough fire engines in the county to protect every vulnerable home.

  5. While I appreciate the discussion, I’m not sure Sharon framed the discussion correctly when she wrote:

    “My project for this summer is to try to understand the differences between people who say ‘fuel treatments don’t work and people shouldn’t do them’ and those who say ‘fuel treatments can work and people should do them’. What’s really behind that? On what observations do people base their claims?”

    So, I went ahead and added some more specifics, based on observations and thoughts I hear coming from many people and organizations within the public lands and forest protection community. For example, I’ve never heard anyone within the public lands and forest protection community make a blanket claim that “fuel treatments don’t work and people shouldn’t do them.” If I’m wrong about that I’d like to see a few examples of where anyone has made that blanket claim.

    Anyway, here are my revised statements:

    “Fuel treatments in the backcountry, or across the landscape, don’t work – especially under extreme weather conditions such as high winds and drought – and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to have the U.S. Forest Service do ‘fuel-treatments’ (aka logging) across federal public lands.”

    “Fuel treatments within and directly adjacent to homes, subdivisions and towns can work and homeowners should take more responsibility to make sure their homes are ‘fire-wise’ and county commissioners should take more responsibility and not approve every single new subdivision within the WUI.”

    • There are no long-term, site-specific and peer-reviewed studies that support these statements as a comprehensive solution to all our wildfire problems. When your home is just 15 feet from a Forest Service boundary, the radiant heat alone, from an approaching wildfire, is probably enough to ignite something. Each situation must be judged by the facts.

      Leaving out key impacts on humans is a trademark of the eco-community, when it comes to wildfires and forest health.

    • Matthew

      Regarding your statement: “I’ve never heard anyone within the public lands and forest protection community make a blanket claim that “fuel treatments don’t work and people shouldn’t do them.”
      –> Agreed, I haven’t heard “public lands and forest protection community” make those claims either. You, David Bebee and, I believe, 2ndLaw are the two who have repeatedly made statements to that effect here on this site with your basis being that most fires are wind driven so there is no sense in doing fuel treatments. Glad to hear that you are revising your statements from here forward – progress is our most important product.
      –> I agree with you that high speed wind driven fires are pretty much unstoppable until they run out of fuel, get rained on heavily or are smothered by money.
      –> However, please reconsider my repeated efforts to explain that most fires do not start out as high wind fires. The value of fuel treatments is in keeping those fires from crowning and creating their own winds/fire storm. http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/05/04/inside-the-firestorm/ Since we don’t know what areas will burn in the future we can’t just apply fuel treatments where the wind won’t be blowing hard. So, fuel treatments are worthwhile since they are meant to address the majority of fires where the fire itself is what creates the high winds. Minimizing the abundance and placement/structure of fuels is what keeps the fire from creating its own winds which is accomplished by minimizing the odds of creating a firestorm which is accomplished by minimizing the odds for and extent of crowning.

      Regarding your revised statements: “Fuel treatments in the backcountry, or across the landscape, don’t work – especially under extreme weather conditions such as high winds and drought – and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to have the U.S. Forest Service do ‘fuel-treatments’ (aka logging) across federal public lands.”
      –> Which is it? If they don’t work then you don’t need to say “especially under extreme weather conditions”. Which is it? Is it they don’t work -OR- is it they do work but not always?
      Let’s look at the two alternatives:
      a) They don’t work. (PERIOD – end of sentence)
      –> They do work just not always and Mike’s links below and plenty more as I supplied earlier in my 5/28/17 comment above back that up. So statement “a” is patently false and I’ll assume that that is not what you meant to say.
      b) They do work but not always. So let’s focus on where fuel treatments should and should not be considered as has been part of the forester’s tool box for decades.
      –> 1) Controlled burns and opportunistically letting wildfire run as a substitute for controlled burns should only be considered when: the weather conditions, weather forecast, terrain, fuel moisture, stand densities and fuel structure are not conducive to crowning fires which would create fire storm weather as previously discussed http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/05/04/inside-the-firestorm/ and only when sufficient fire control resources are strategically placed and manned to deal with any unexpected change in conditions or directional deviation from the area intended to be burned.
      –> 2) Thinning (i.e. logging) should only be considered as a fuel treatment in order to reduce stand density to a level appropriate to maintain or improve the stand vigor/health for the tree species. So fuel treatment by thinning is pretty much the same as for maintaining stand health. The need for excessive thinning below reasonable densities might arise in areas where heavy human usage increases the risk of ignition.
      –> 3) With limited dollars and physical resources, fuel treatments should be prioritized so as to get the most bang for the buck. Since humans cause 84% of the ignitions and nearly 50% of the acreage burned as noted previously, http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/03/04/humans-sparked-84-percent-of-us-wildfires-increased-fire-season-over-two-decades/ I certainly agree with you that fuel treatments, in general, should not include out of the way places like backcountry without significant human traffic unacquainted with or unconcerned about fire. So, as the immediately preceding link and comments suggest, fuel treatments should be focused on the external WUI (fire going out or coming in) and the internal high human traffic areas within our federal forests.

      Do we have any agreement?

    • Thank you for those articles, Mike. I think it would also be a good thing to be able to ‘compartmentalize’ larger fires, using fuels treatments in strategic spots. Of course, only a fraction of the total acreage that needs attention can be accomplished. However, there is hope that the pace and scale of fuels work could increase, eventually.

      I expect that the Forest Service will outsource the work that temporaries currently do. Government might be smaller but, costs will still go up. If work is done by contractors, the Forest Service is still required to make formal inspections of their work. There aren’t many options if you need experienced people doing the on-the-ground work. Would the courts allow “Designation by Description”, for thinning?

  6. I think Matthew makes a good point… perhaps people are not saying “they don’t work”, they are saying different things, that are more specific.. so let’s keep an eye on what interest groups and scientists say (both in their papers and in interviews). over the summer and see what exactly they are saying.

    • Part of the problem is in definitions and public knowledge. Some people think that “thinning” is cutting submerchantable trees and ‘underbrush’. They seem to have no problem with such a non-commercial “thinning” program. However, if you propose mechanical harvest thinning for forest health and economic benefits, there is a segment of the public who will say “not one stick”, claiming corporate greed and planetary destruction will result. America simply isn’t progressive enough to accept site-specific thinning projects, yet. Even when such projects cut trees with an average diameter of 14-15 inches.

      Yes, I still oppose old growth harvesting under the guise of forest health and fire safety.

  7. Sharon’s questions are about reducing risk by changing fire behavior, but they don’t take into account the rest of the risk equation. The classic definition of risk is the probability of occurrence of an unwanted event multiplied by the consequence (loss) of the event. Risk is higher in WUI areas because of the much greater values that could be lost and the higher probability of human-caused ignitions. Given that funding is limited, if the government wants to fund treatments to reduce risk in areas far from these high risk zones, they’ll have a hard case to make that it should be a higher priority. Maybe there are enough places most people would agree that treatment is worthwhile so that we don’t have to argue about the marginal places we’ll never get to.

    • Jon, you have raised a very pragmatic question, how much fuel treatment actually goes on in “the backcountry” given current budgets and needs? Of course, some people define “backcountry” as greater than 1/4 mile from a community, so there’s a lot of possibility there for potential disagreement..

  8. I just addressed the “backcountry” shorthand here: http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/05/31/60-minutes-why-fighting-wildfires-often-fails-and-what-to-do-about-it/comment-page-1/#comment-420801.
    The point is really to better define where reducing fire risk should be a priority. In the southern Sierra national forests plan revision process, they developed an alternative (to the proposed action) that “focuses vegetation and fuel reduction treatments within the wildland-urban intermix defense zone.” Obviously, the FS thinks that is not always the best thing to do.

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