60 Minutes: “Why fighting wildfires often fails — and what to do about it.”

Thanks to Nick Smith for including this May 28 “60 Minutes” segment in his Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities newsletter: “Why fighting wildfires often fails — and what to do about it.” Text and video online. Features Q&A with Robert Bonnie, Jack Cohen. Overall, very well done. I plan to show it at a meeting of the local Community Emergency Response Team — I’ve been a member for years and, by coincidence, I’m scheduled to make a presentation on this topic in July.

Much of the program’s focus is on protecting homes in the WUI, but it does briefly address the larger topic:

Robert Bonnie: We’re not investing as much as we can and should in forest restoration, because we’re having to spend all our money fighting fire.

Steve Inskeep: Wait a minute, forest restoration is prevention of horrible wildfires?

Robert Bonnie: That’s right.

27 Comments

  1. Hi Steve,

    I posted the following link and snip from the 60 minutes piece yesterday in a comment on this blog. Here it is, with a different set of highlights featuring Dr. Jack Cohen.

    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.

    • Matthew, I think many here are saying defensible space is necessary, but not sufficient for protection of communities and the environment from negative consequences of wildfire. As Jack says, folks moving out of the west is not an option.

      • Hi Sharon,

        Regarding this part of your statement, “I think many here are saying defensible space is necessary, but not sufficient for protection of communities…”

        I believe that Jack Cohen might disagree, based on his lifetime of work, research and post-wildfire investigations all over the U.S.

        I also think that there is plenty of scientific disagreement regrading “negative consequences of wildfire” to the environment.

        • Matt, I think that we can all that wildfires come in all sizes. Therein lies the real issue–Small fires can be beneficial as they tend to be low to moderate severity, however we define small these days. On the other hand fires such as those talked about in the 60 Minutes video are anything but small, resulting in stand replacements in the 1,000’s of acres.
          Here is a very recent study that gets to that issue, with negative consequences of homogeneous landscapes–in this case from large stand replacement wildfire.
          https://phys.org/news/2017-05-owls-benefit-forest-mosaic.html

          • Hi Javier.

            You said, “On the other hand fires such as those talked about in the 60 Minutes video are anything but small, resulting in stand replacements in the 1,000’s of acres.”

            So, I re-watched (for about the 5th time) the 60 Minutes piece. It opened with a bunch of footage and information about the Erskine Fire, which burned in the Kern River Valley near Bakersfield.

            The official Inciweb account of that wildfire claims the fuels involved were “brush and short grass,” so I’m really sure that wildfire is a good case-study for [forest] “stand replacement.”

            Also, for whatever it’s worth, if you look at the official Erskine Soil Burn Severity Map from Inciweb you can clearly see that the vast, vast majority (99%) of the Erskine fire had a soil burn rating of either very low, low or moderate. Only 1% of the soils in that fire burned at high severity, according to the official BAER report.

            If details and facts matter, then we shouldn’t use wildfires like the Erskine fire to make a point about “stand replacement” wildfires, or how severe a wildfire supposedly was.

        • Matthew, that’s my whole point.. “negative” is a value- people have values- scientific information doesn’t. At their best, scientists can find out if people can get the values that they want, and what the trade-offs might be in getting them. Of course, fish are values, endangered species are values and lack of sedimentation is a values. It’s pretty much incontrovertible that some fires have negative impacts on fish, endangered species habitat, and sedimentation or are some scientists saying otherwise?

          • I’ve often heard fisheries scientists say things like this: “Depending upon the context, large wildfires may cause watershed disruption and threaten aquatic populations that exist in remnant or compromised habitats (Brown et al. 2001). In this light, mitigation of fire severity or its subsequent hydrologic effects could benefit population or even species persistence. Alternatively, even severe wildfire can be viewed as a natural process that can contribute nutrients, wood, and coarse substrates and thus help maintain or re-create productive habitats (Reeves et al. 1995, Bisson et al. 2003), whereas management of fuels can be a disruptive process that further degrades habitats (Rhodes and Baker 2008).”
            https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/60/6/460/242335/Wildfire-and-Management-of-Forests-and-Native

            Which way to view a particular situation often depends on the likelihood of a population recolonizing streams in a burned area (which is what they are adapted to do), which depends on health of and connectivity to adjacent unburned habitat.

            • Thanks for chiming in with some good points, Jon.

              See, also:

              Effects of fire on fish in the Bitterroot
              http://www.bitterrootstar.com/2014/03/06/effects-of-fire-on-fish-in-the-bitterroot/

              Changes in native and nonnative fish assemblages and habitat following wildfire in the Bitterroot River basin, Montana
              http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/handle/1/2245

              SNIP: “Stream temperature and sedimentation generally increased with burn severity whereas habitat complexity decreased with increasing burn severity and presence of debris flows. However, recovery of native trout populations was rapid with populations approaching or surpassing predisturbance levels within three years. In contrast, [non-native] brook trout recovery was less apparent especially in debris flow reaches as the proportion of brook trout to the total salmonid assemblage decreased each year post-fire.”

              Fish Populations on the Bitterroot National Forest 10 Years After the 2000 Wildfires:
              https://www.firescience.gov/projects/09-1-02-8/project/09-1-02-8_Eby_et_al_2012_WDAFS.pdf

                • Well, the photo and title were put on the cover of government presentation put together by the Kootenai National Forest, Bitterroot National Forest, USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Montana State University….so make of that what you will.

                  Again, the whole thing is available here: https://www.firescience.gov/projects/09-1-02-8/project/09-1-02-8_Eby_et_al_2012_WDAFS.pdf

                  Lots of good photos and charts/graphs included.

                  • (1) Are you using this info to argue that fires never hurt the environment? Logically. providing examples in which fire did not, does not prove that fire doesn’t hurt aspects of the environment in other times and places.
                    .
                    (2) If endangered fish have to go away for some years and then come back (assuming they survive outside the burned drainages) , and that gap of having them in the habitat is OK, why isn’t it OK for endangered wildlife to go away for awhile if the habitat is changed?

                    • Hi Sharon,

                      I shared the information regarding some specifics about the impacts of the large Bitterroot Valley wildfires of 2000 on native fisheries as a response to these comments from you and Jon. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. Thanks.

                      Matthew, that’s my whole point.. “negative” is a value- people have values- scientific information doesn’t. At their best, scientists can find out if people can get the values that they want, and what the trade-offs might be in getting them. Of course, fish are values, endangered species are values and lack of sedimentation is a values. It’s pretty much incontrovertible that some fires have negative impacts on fish, endangered species habitat, and sedimentation or are some scientists saying otherwise?

                      Reply to this comment
                      Jon Haber
                      June 1, 2017 at 9:40 am (Edit)
                      I’ve often heard fisheries scientists say things like this: “Depending upon the context, large wildfires may cause watershed disruption and threaten aquatic populations that exist in remnant or compromised habitats (Brown et al. 2001). In this light, mitigation of fire severity or its subsequent hydrologic effects could benefit population or even species persistence. Alternatively, even severe wildfire can be viewed as a natural process that can contribute nutrients, wood, and coarse substrates and thus help maintain or re-create productive habitats (Reeves et al. 1995, Bisson et al. 2003), whereas management of fuels can be a disruptive process that further degrades habitats (Rhodes and Baker 2008).”
                      https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/60/6/460/242335/Wildfire-and-Management-of-Forests-and-Native

                      Which way to view a particular situation often depends on the likelihood of a population recolonizing streams in a burned area (which is what they are adapted to do), which depends on health of and connectivity to adjacent unburned habitat.

                    • “why isn’t it OK for endangered wildlife to go away for awhile if the habitat is changed?”

                      If this is something that’s been discussed before I’m not remembering it – would you care to elaborate?

  2. The issue that is glossed over is Robert Bonnie’s statement: While climate change & drought exacerbate the magnitude of these catastrophic fires, it is the uncontrolled accumulation of fuel in the forests, near and far from the WUI’s, that makes these fires unstoppable. Fires that come to mind like Angora (South Lake Tahoe), Yarnell (Arizona) and Hayman, Waldo Canyon and High Park all in Colorado all began far from any WUI, built up energy with massive fuel loads and driven by severe weather. Ultimately they destroyed so many homes, buildings and tragically so many lives.

    • It seems to me it would only make sense to consider reducing fuels far from WUI if 1) providing defensible space and treating nearby lands would not protect the values at risk, 2) the same fires that would threaten these values during severe weather could be controlled as a result of treatments (and the right places could be identified), and 3) the backcountry treatment is ecologically sound for the relevant ecosystem. How often is this going to happen?

      • There are other purposes and needs addressed with fuels projects. Thinning isn’t only about fuels… or logs… or jobs. It is the combined pluses and minuses that must be compared and contrasted. Since there is no way of guaranteeing that a fire-wise structure will survive a rolling firestorm, Number 1 and Number 2 seem not so important. Additionally, I just don’t consider every piece of land outside the WUI to be “backcountry”. If it is served by a system road and is considered to be “capable and suitable”, it should not be considered to be “backcountry”, IMHO.

        • Larry, you make a good point about “backcountry.” For example, Denver’s watershed might be backcountry to some folks, but it is also natural infrastructure to the city — which, BTW, is working with the USFS to reduce fuel loads and improve forest health, in the name of protecting the vital ecosystem services, services that would be greatly impacted by a high intensity fire.

          • Some people want to consider the WUI to be merely one tree length in width, as well, insisting that the public lands just 200 feet away are “backcountry”. The preservationists have resorted to semantics to push their “Whatever Happens” mindset. The idea that the boundaries of the WUI are forever fixed is quite flawed. Blaming private land owners for wildfire costs is also disingenuous and wrong. Blaming rural people for living where they live continues to be a staple of the preservationists.

            • Sorry if the “backcountry” shorthand was confusing, but your and Steve’s comments help me make a planning point. Areas that have resources that need to be protected from fire must be identified as part of the forest planning process, and based on this, also areas “suitable” for active fuels reduction. WUI and municipal watersheds would both be candidates for the public discussion, but their current boundaries don’t predetermine anything.

              Nor should it be taken for granted that the federal government should always subsidize local fire protection either financially or ecologically. You move next to a hog farm, you put up with the smell, but here you’re lucky to have a neighbor with some incentives to negotiate.

              • Jon, when I left the FS, forest plans often didn’t cover fire prescriptions (say areas where fires would be left to burn) and I don’t remember that we did specific fire management plans because of the intersection of NEPA and fire might be er… explosively combustible. I wonder if that has changed?

                • I agree that forest plans can’t take away suppression/control options (in general, a lot of what actually happens will depend on conditions related to weather), but beyond that, a forest plan that doesn’t include a long-term strategy for management of fire isn’t worth the electrons its written with. That’s a change in circumstances over the last 30 years since plans were first written. Leaving out something this fundamental now might even be considered arbitrary under NFMA’s requirement for integrated forest plans.

                  • I highly doubt that the Forest Service can ‘shoehorn’ Let-Burn strategies under NEPA. I suspect that the USFS will try again to slide something in, under the radar, hidden among the pages and pages of ‘stuff’. Will the Forest Service fully analyze all the potential fire impacts to humans, offering effective mitigation? I doubt that the ‘new management’ will allow that.

              • When you’ve lived there longer than the hog farm has been in existence, yes, there is a problem with the smell. With this particular ‘hog farm’, there are ways to mitigate the smell.

                The preservationists insist that the WUI remain as small as possible, or even eliminated. Additionally, no piece of private land should ever be considered to be in the WUI, IMHO. Besides, what is wrong with thinning within one mile of communities? (no one wants to explain what is wrong with thinning projects) Within 5 miles of communities? We’ve seen recent examples of fires chewing up tens of thousands of acres in just one day. Those are perfect examples of why we should be managing forests, instead of letting whatever happens, happen, especially near communities.

                • How big of a fire protection buffer around what kinds of areas could be forest planning alternatives. They must be able to model probable differences in effects (ignition, intensity, acres). I assume they are doing that for project NEPA analysis to show the benefits of fuel reduction. Not my specialty – examples anyone?

                  • It’s all site specific, and that is where the wheels fall off. Preservationists want to limit or even ban site-specific Agency discretion, in favor of a one-size-fits-all non-commercial scheme.

                    I’m sure I am not the only one who doesn’t want a nuked local forest, just a stone’s throw from their towns. In a fire resistant forest, there might not be a need to have an extended management area around a community. Other towns, surrounded by lodgepole and firs probably need a different approach. I like the idea of different stages of fire-safe(r) areas. Within a mile, we might need intensive management. Outside of that (one to two miles, depending on terrain), another approach might be better.

                    I also think that lodgepole encroachment is a HUGE problem in historical P. pine forests. We should not be preserving highly-flammable ladder fuels.

  3. In case you missed this Sixty Minutes episode on wildland urban interface, here is the link.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wildfires-on-the-rise-due-to-drought-and-climate-change/
    I think this CBS News Video “In the path of fire” is valuable. Not only for those living the WUI, but also for anyone who buys insurance or is involved in zoning, public safety or education.
    I suggest that the various fire safe councils provide a link to the WUI episode with an introductory paragraph on the importance of watching and learning.
    Further, I suggest that a fire safe council contact CBS for permission to post the episode without commercials. Or if there is a commercial, have an educational video produced by both the Forest Service and a consortium of property insurers.
    Sharpen the message of land use planning and zoning permits. Comment on the deadbeat approach of expecting someone else to pay for the fire department. But use polite words lest people tune out the message. The message being, we have to do something. What we are doing now means more of the same. Or worse.
    Deadbeats include county supervisors who promote development in the WUI. Parasites on CalFire and the Forest Service. Expecting residents to form special districts to pay for fire fighters. Then take the position of no new taxes to pay for firefighters. Or enact a “fire tax” and stir up public resentment for “taxes”.

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