Fire ecologist explains why this summer’s wildfires are so dramatic, and why the West will have to learn to live with a more severe burning season

This interview with Dr. Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, is excellent. It was conducted by Joe Eaton, who teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Unfortunately, this piece didn’t appear in any Montana media outlets, but rather was printed in CityLab, which is run by The Atlantic.

Imagine how different the discussion and debate about wildfires, public lands management and logging would be if experts and facts like this were part of the discussion. Well, in defense of the environmental movement, we’ve been bringing up many of these same points and facts both this year, and in many wildfire seasons over the past few decades. – mk

The West Is on Fire. Get Used to It.

A fire ecologist explains why this summer’s wildfires are so dramatic, and why the West will have to learn to live with a more severe burning season.

By JOE EATON SEP 11, 2017

The West is burning, and there’s no relief in sight. More than 80 large wildfires are raging in an area covering more than 1.4 million acres, primarily in California, Montana, and Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Taken together, that’s a wildfire larger than the state of Delaware.

California has declared a state of emergency as wildfires burn outside Los Angeles and threaten giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park. In Oregon, the Eagle Creek fire is tearing through the scenic Columbia River Gorge. Seattle, Boise, and Denver are socked in under a haze of smoky air and ash that experts predict could linger until the first snowfall in the mountains.

But nowhere are the fires more devastating than in Montana, where more than 1 million acres of forest burned this summer, and more than 467,000 acres are currently burning in 26 large fires that line the mountainous western side of the state.

Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, is used to seeing smoky air from his office window in September, but nothing like the thick smoke filling Missoula Valley right now. He recently spoke to CityLab about the fires raging across the West, what we can do about them, and why this year’s big burn might be the new normal.

Breathing the air in Missoula today feels like chain-smoking Chesterfields. Schools aren’t letting the kids out at recess, and public health authorities are saying active adults and children should avoid outdoor exertion. It’s easy to get the impression that this is an extraordinary and unprecedented fire season. But you study forest fires over a timespan of thousands of years. How unusual or unique is this fire season?

It’s not—even in the context of the 21st century. In the Northern Rockies, we had a very large fire year in 2012, in 2007, in 2000, and to an extent in 2003. In this region, 1910 remains the record-setting fire season. If we surpass that, I would be surprised. Events like these are not common on a year-to-year scale. On the other hand, when you look at the role fire plays in ecosystems, you have to look at a longer timescale, and these rare events are what’s expected every once in a while.

Why is this fire season so dramatic?

The main reason there is so much burning right now is the strong seasonal drought across the region. The term we use is that these fires are “climate enabled.” The drought makes most of the vegetation, live or dead, receptive to burning. In Missoula, we had the driest July and August on record and the third-warmest July and August. With those types of conditions, we expect widespread burning. But people underestimate the role that seasonal climate plays in these events, and we start to grasp at lots of other things to explain it.

Aside from the bad air, are most urban residents in fire-affected parts of the West safe?

Aside from that really important impact, I give a cautious yes. There is a risk. And that risk is highest in the wildland-urban interface. If you are living there, you should know that you are living with a much higher risk for exposure to wildfire. And part of the job of educators and U.S. Forest Service outreach is to make that risk known. Eventually insurance companies will also get on board. Floods are obviously on insurance companies’ radar front and center. Wildfire is still not frequent enough that they design programs around it.

Should people in the fire-prone West be living in places like that—in the suburbs and exurbs out in the forested edges of urban areas?

Every place on our planet has some natural phenomenon that is not friendly to humans. If you live on the East Coast, you are going to experience hurricanes. If you live in the Midwest, you are going to experience tornadoes. If you live across forested regions in the West, you are going to experience wildfires. We need to develop in a way that is cognizant of these processes—that is not ignorant of the way the planet, and the environment you live in, works.

Why are these fires so hard to put out?

This goes back to why the fires are happening. The fuels are extremely dry. And most areas burn during extreme weather conditions—the days when it’s hot, humidity is low and there are high winds. These are the conditions in which fires quickly double in size. They are also the conditions where it’s most dangerous to put people in front of the fire. Also, a lot of these fires start in very remote areas with rugged terrain, and just putting people on the ground comes with some risk.

Montana alone has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to suppress wildfires this summer, and two firefighters have been killed. Is that having any impact, or is it like driving down the expressway throwing bags of money out the window?

When you say it’s not working, the key question is, What’s the goal? “It’s not working” assumes the goal is to have no fires. We will fail if that is the goal. Most of these ecosystems that are burning have evolved with fire. We expect them to burn. We need them to burn if we want them to continue to exist.

So it’s like trying to stop rain?

It’s like trying to stop an earthquake. Trying to stop a volcano. To me, the goal can’t be to have no fire. That’s gotten us into trouble when we pursued that goal. I think the metric should be how much area has burned that we wanted to burn compared to how much burned that we didn’t want to burn. Or closer to the nugget, how many resources were harmed—how many houses were lost, how many people were either directly or indirectly killed?

You don’t see raging forest fires as a failure of suppression efforts?

No. Knowing how climate enables and drives these large fires, I think that it would be impossible to put these fires out.

There is a school of thought that says we should not suppress wildfire because it allows smaller trees and underbrush to accumulate, which leads to larger, hotter fires later. So why not just let it burn?

I think as soon as you live in these environments you will quickly abandon that too-simplistic view. Maybe when I was a graduate student living in Seattle that seemed more like a possibility, but you can’t just let it burn. That would not be wise. It really comes down to what you can afford to burn and what do you want to protect. If the fire is in the wilderness, that’s great. If it’s burning toward a community, that’s not so good.

There’s good fire and bad fire?

There is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum would be the wilderness fire that is not going to impact anyone—good fire. The fire that burns down your house or kills people—bad fire.

Another school of thought says we should allow more logging to clear trees and help prevent wildfires. Does that hold water?

I don’t think that holds water. That is based on the assumption that fires are occurring because there is more fuel available to burn than in the past. That’s generally not what’s driving this. It’s the drought. It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread.

The simple answer—if you want to eliminate fire, then pave it. There will be no fire.

Is climate change partly to blame for this year’s fires? Are wildfires in the West set to get worse because of it?

That’s what future climate models project. We can’t say this individual fire was because of climate change. We can’t say this year was because of climate change. But these types of years are what we expect to see more frequently. I heard an analogy that I think is useful. If a baseball player is using steroids and hits a home run, can you attribute that home run to steroids? You can’t—but you know that at some point some component of that was brought to you by this artificial input to the system.

There was a study that came out last year, which looked at fire occurrence in the Western United States over the last 40 years using climate modeling. The conclusion was almost half of burning we have seen over the past several decades can be attributed to climate change due to anthropogenic sources. The fire season has gotten significantly longer across the West, on order of 30 days or more during the past few decades.

What are you and your family doing to live through the fire season?

Personally, I made the decision to not live in the wildland-urban interface. I live in the urban part of Missoula. We had one HEPA air filter. Last week we ordered two more. That’s our adaptation.

42 Comments

  1. So, all we have to do is ‘nothing’, and “Whatever Happens” is perfect for forests, animals and humans?!? Again, no mention of the high amount of human ignitions, and how to mitigate them. That is a HUGE hole in the “Whatever Happens” mindset. Pretending that human-caused fires should be accepted as ‘natural and beneficial’ just isn’t a rational response to a deadly situation. Blaming victims for living where they live is ridiculous.

  2. Larry, what part of the following sentence tells you that Prof. Higuera is advocating for doing “nothing” or “whatever happens”?

    And I quote, “It really comes down to what you can afford to burn and what do you want to protect. If the fire is in the wilderness, that’s great. If it’s burning toward a community, that’s not so good.”

    So tell me Larry, is it a reading comprehension issue? Or, is it confirmation bias?

    • The problem with this article is his generalizing of the entirety of Montana forests, and even America’s forests. He’s pretending that there is nothing we can do about wildfires but, there is a LOT we can do about them, and mitigating their effects. He makes no mention of a solution, either. I remind people that ecologists don’t like to address human realities, and their opinions always seem biased towards ignoring the impacts on… us.

      • What would you propose as a solution? In general, our tampering with large scale systems over the last couple of centuries has resulted in the realization that those systems are VASTLY more complex than we expected and a change in one area may make the rest of the system worse. I’m definitely not advocating for doing nothing — But an expert has given some statement on the NATURE of the system and how it’s changing. What would you propose in turn?

        • Site-specific treatments that include not only ecology but, address human impacts and effects, economics and restoration goals. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution but, some people want to impose such a policy. We need to exempt thinning, salvage and roadside hazard tree projects, from environmental review and litigation, as long as projects meet guidelines. Of course, people will disagree over those guidelines.

  3. Apologies aforehand for picking on Larry, but his post provides a text book example of why policy is so difficult to change.

    Not one iota of Larry’s post responds to the merits of what Prof. Higuera is trying to explain. The entire post is a straw man argument. Consequently, every point he tries to make is nothing more than a rhetorical device used to DISTRACT from the merits of the argument.

    Now, I’m pretty sure Larry doesn’t do this consciously. Like I said above, confirmation bias blinds us to facts. Emotion clouds rationality. And, as an old psych major I’m also pretty sure we all suffer to one degree or another from it. But I stress, we will never get anywhere until we are able to check our confirmation bias at the door of this blog and simply respond to the merits of the posts provided by our contributors.

    • SEVERE RHETORIC ALERT!!!!!!!

      “I don’t think that holds water. That is based on the assumption that fires are occurring because there is more fuel available to burn than in the past. That’s generally not what’s driving this. It’s the drought. It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread.

      The simple answer—if you want to eliminate fire, then pave it. There will be no fire.”

      This clearly shows his lack of education and his own “confirmation bias”. Heh Heh *SMIRK*

      • Sigh.
        Rhetoric: “language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.”

        What you quoted was Higuera’s sincerely opinion. Thus, not rhetoric. Your response; however, lacked in meaningful content because it didn’t respond to the merits. Thus, rhetoric.

        Please Larry, there is this thing out there called “the google” if you are unsure of the meaning of words.

          • Now you’re just being obtuse, Larry. Why not just respond to the merits?
            You obviously think Prof. Higuera is wrong. Why Larry? Why is he wrong and you are right.

            We’re not arguing over whether paving the forest is an ecological concept. That is a rhetorical device that is often flung by the likes of Helen Chenoweth. Remember her, of “Earth First! We’ll log the rest of the planets later” fame?

            I bet Higuera does. Which is why he is using irony to drive his original point home. You know this. Which is why I called you obtuse. You continue to deliberately (maybe not deliberately, you might actually be too obtuse to even realize how far outside of academic norms your argumentation techniques are) employ empty rhetorical devices.

            • FWIW: Dr. Philip Higuera seems plenty educated, Larry.

              PROFESSIONAL PREPARATION

              Ph.D., Forest Ecology, University of Washington, Seattle, 2006

              M.S., Forest Ecology, University of Washington, Seattle, 2002

              B.A., Biology, Environmental Studies, Geology, Middlebury College, Vermont, 1998, magna cum laude

              PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

              2015 – Associate Professor, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana

              2009-2015 Assistant Professor, Department of Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences, College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho (tenure & promotion awarded April 2015)

              2008-2009 Adjunct Instructor, Department of Earth Science, Montana State University

              2006-2009 National Park Ecological Research Fellow, Whitlock Paleoecology Lab, Montana State University

              2006-2009 Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Hu Quaternary Paleoecology Lab, University of Illinois

              2002-2006 Research Assistant, Brubaker Paleoecology Lab, University of Washington

              2002-2005 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, Brubaker Paleoecology Lab, University of Washington

              1999-2002 Research Assistant, Brubaker Paleoecology Lab, University of Washington

              1998-1999 Research Intern, Archbold Biological Station, Lake Placid, Florida

              • Larry, if you can’t appreciate the difference between what Dr. Higuera did, and what you did, there is no helping you.

                First, I didn’t “attack” you for criticizing his opinion. His “opinion” based upon years of study. I attacked you for “the way” you criticized his opinion (side note — do readers find it interesting that I’m “attacking” Larry, but Larry is only “criticizing” Dr. Higuera — framing folks). I have no problem with you criticizing the “merits” of his argument. But you did not do that. You built a straw man.

                Seriously Larry, if you can’t appreciate the difference then there is no helping you.

                • He makes the flat-out statement that logging won’t help, for a bogus reason. It’s a blanket statement that makes me question everything he says. His ‘opinion’ implies that loggers want to clearcut and pave. Smells like ‘elitism’, to me. It’s rhetoric, not irony. I do understand that change is scary for some people in the litigation industry these days. I will try to be more sensitive to that reality in the future. *smirk*

          • The main point was not that pavement was the answer to fires, but to give up on the illusion that that fuels are the main cause of fire. There’s virtually always enough fuel to carry fire regardless of whether forests are logged or not. For example, grasslands carry fire too.

            • No, the main point is that you can fight a fire when it stays on the ground. Yes, there ARE fires that can be fought, when they burn in fuels treatments. People get stuck with semantics. Fuels projects are not about making forests ‘fire-proof’. I think we all can go beyond the unfortunate wording of politicians, just as we can go beyond all those eco-folks who insist that Trump will strip mine and frack Sequoia National Monument, after clearcutting 3000 year old trees.

      • https://www.google.com/maps/@45.869436,-114.231882,139m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

        I just don’t see all that logging slash that he is talking about. Could he, like many other scientist types, be talking about logging on private lands?!?! I, personally, marked a lot of the timber in this part of Montana. Tell me that this thinning project was a mistake, in any way, shape, or form, in accomplishing multiple goals, without all those bad impacts that are assigned to “logging”.

    • IMHO, Higuera gave good answers to the questions. I might have asked different question. In any case, he’s right: “…you can’t just let it burn. That would not be wise. It really comes down to what you can afford to burn and what do you want to protect. If the fire is in the wilderness, that’s great. If it’s burning toward a community, that’s not so good.”

      In response to a question about logging, he says, “It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread.”

      Yes, but — and it’s a big but — logging and associated fuels treatments DO have a significant effect on fire behavior. In many cases, a fire in slash is going to be much less intense than a fire before the many tons of fuel are removed. I’d like to get Higuera’s insights into the before/after treatments here:

      https://csfs.colostate.edu/districts/woodland-park-district/woodland-park-forest-management-stewardship/

      The photo at the top of the page scrolls through three before/after fuels treatment scenes. In all of the treated areas, fire might burn, but it would spread slowly and burn with far less intensity than a fire in the “before” areas. If you show people photos like this, they get it — it’s a simple concept: less fuel = a less chance of a large, intense wildfire. Eric, Matthew, 2nd Law, do you disagree?

      • Nope. I’m a firm believer in multiple use. It’s a when and where question. Like Higuera, I’m inclined to let them burn when they don’t threaten lives. However, they will continue to threaten lives again and again unless and until Counties begin begin placing development restrictions on the WUI.

        It’s not rocket science. It simply takes an admission that a century of urban planning is misguided. Seriously, if you doubt me, I challenge you to go build a new million dollar home on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico. Money will trump common sense every time.

        If you wanna build in the WUI do it in a way that doesn’t take tax dollars out of my pocket to protect your investment.

        • Eric, that’s an interesting attitude but you could apply it to many things..

          Building in Florida/Louisiana/ Texas that requires federal funding to repair hurricane damage.
          Paying for health care to people who smoke or don’t eat right.
          Paying for benefits for people who have “too many children.”

          I could go on but that’s basically why we have a government, to take money and spend it on things most people (through their elected representatives)/key influential groups (because policies are debated by interest groups) agree on.

          I fully support zoning restrictions in fire prone areas including “no protect zones,” but I also realize that many areas that are being built are not far enough away from cities, towns, dams, and so on such that “not suppressing” is a strategy. Where there is a fire, there will be paid humans working, and on federal lands, federal tax dollars spent.

  4. I don’t think his expertise as a fire ecologist is particularly relevant to some of his claims. Let’s look at a couple of claims:
    “It’s like trying to stop an earthquake. Trying to stop a volcano.” I could argue it’s more like designing flood control measures and making areas resilient to flooding. It’s more about guiding the water than stopping the water. If he’s a fire ecologist and I’m a vegetation ecologist and Joe is a county supervisor, it doesn’t matter because we are equating things that everyone understands.

    Nevertheless, I bet everybody on the blog agrees with his next statement. “I think the metric should be how much area has burned that we wanted to burn compared to how much burned that we didn’t want to burn. Or closer to the nugget, how many resources were harmed—how many houses were lost, how many people were either directly or indirectly killed?” If we added watershed and species impacts, it sounds like what everyone says, and I think agrees with. It sounds rather like common sense- “do good things and avoid bad things.” Again, Joe the county supervisor’s opinion is just as relevant as ours as scientists.

    I liked how he was careful and specific about climate change studies. That tends to be rare, so kudos to him!

    I have to disagree with a couple of things, he said though.
    (1) First
    insurance.. my hiking buddy had to stay home while the insurance company checked whether she had mowed. They might not be where they need to be, but they are very aware.. no insurance company is unaware of the (perceived) need to raise premiums. And of course, as we see, when people are (or feel they are) priced out of flood insurance (paying the true costs) they don’t buy it, so the insurance companies can only control the actions of people who buy insurance. Maybe in Montana, insurance companies are different. I don’t think he as a fire ecologist necessarily knows more about insurance in the WUI than anyone else. (Note I firmly believe we need All of the Above to live with fire, suppression, fuels treatments, and community and homeowner efforts.)

    Like Larry and Steve, I had a couple of problems with this set of statements.
    ” That is based on the assumption that fires are occurring because there is more fuel available to burn than in the past. That’s generally not what’s driving this. It’s the drought. It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread.”

    What Higuera is saying is that people who (want fuel treatments involving tree removal – I guess that’s “allow more logging”) (which include fire scientists, by the way) have that assumption (more fuel available). I want fuel treatments, including prescribed fire, to have places with conditions that make suppression easier and protect communities, watersheds and key wildlife species. So he is a scientist ascribing views to others which are not correct. Also, people don’t want to leave slash for fuel treatments (in a lot of cases) so if they do, they forgot (?) , they don’t have the money, or they don’t have the burn permits. This is the age-old conundrum of “fuel treatments don’t work” because “people don’t design them right” or “people don’t finish them”. But they do tend to work if people do them right. Do we know the proportion of “unfinished or poorly designed” to “correctly done and working?”. But does the proportion matter, or simply should we figure out and remove the barriers to doing them right?

    If it were a levee for flood control, we’d say “stop doing them wrong and start doing them right.” We wouldn’t say “some levees break so there’s no point putting them in.”

    Fire scientists actually study which ones work and why, not to speak of the many fuel treatment effectiveness reports that you can easily find. That’s not Higuera’s area of expertise. At the same time, it’s only fair to say that the reporter did ask for his opinion. As a scientist, you don’t always have time to say “that’s not my discipline, but my personal opinion is…”.” You’d have to ask so and so in our department, or down the road at the Fire Lab…” – it’s not the scientist’s fault. I think we readers have to step up to say “what does his expertise have to do with his claims?”. It’s not rocket science to figure that out.

    • “What Higuera is saying is that people who (want fuel treatments involving tree removal – I guess that’s ‘allow more logging’) (which include fire scientists, by the way) have that assumption”
      Huh? Whatcha trying to say here Sharon?

      “If it were a levee for flood control, we’d say ‘stop doing them wrong and start doing them right.’ We wouldn’t say ‘some levees break so there’s no point putting them in.'”
      Yeah, not a great analogy. It would be a good analogy if what we were discussing in relation to flooding was aquatic system health. But again, we don’t hear a lot of discussion about that, do we?

      As to the final paragraph, I agree in general. I sent Mathew a link the other day where an MSU professor of Rangeland Ecology (Marlow?) made some wildly unsubstantiated claims about environmentalists “causing” the current fire conundrum that I wanted him to contribute. And that was exactly the question I asked Sharon “what does his expertise have to do with his claims”? Here, I think his expertise is certainly relevant to his claims. His literature seems to dovetail with his claims pretty well:

      *Young, A.M., P.E. Higuera, P.A. Duffy, and F.S. Hu. 2016. Climatic thresholds shape northern high-latitude fire regimes and imply vulnerability to future climate change. Ecography. In Press doi: 10.1111/ecog.02205

      Leys, B., P.E. Higuera, K.K. McLauchlan, and *P.V. Dunnette. 2016. Wildfires and geochemical change in a subalpine forest over the past six millennia. Environmental ResearchLetters. 11: 125003.

      *Kemp, K.B., P.E. Higuera, and P. Morgan. Fire legacies impact conifer regeneration across environmental gradients in the U.S. northern Rockies. Landscape Ecology. 31: 619-636.

      Hu, F.S., P.E. Higuera, P.A. Duffy, M.L. Chipman, A.V. Rocha, *A.M. Young, R. Kelly, and M.C. Dietze. 2015. Tundra fires in the Arctic: Natural variability and responses to climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 13: 369-377.

      Higuera, P. E., J. T. Abatzoglou, J. S. Littell, and P. Morgan. 2015. The changing strength and nature of fire-climate relationships in the northern Rocky Mountains, U.S.A., 1902-2008. PLoS ONE, 10:e0127563.

      Higuera, P.E., C.E. Briles, and C. Whitlock. 2014. Fire-regime complacency and sensitivity to centennial- through millennial-scale climate change in Rocky Mountain subalpine forests, Colorado, U.S.A. 2014. Journal of Ecology, 102: 1429-1441

      *Dunnette P.V., P.E. Higuera, K.K. McLauchlan, K.M. Derr, C.E. Briles, M.H. Keefe. 2014. Biogeochemical impacts of wildfires over four millennia in a Rocky Mountain subalpine watershed. New Phytologist, 203: 900-912.

      McLauchlan, K., P.E. Higuera, D.G. Gavin, S. S. Perakis, M.C. Mack, H. Alexander, J. Battles, F. Biondi, B. Buma, D. Colombaroli, S. Enders, D.R. Engstrom, F.S. Hu, J.R. Marlon, J.D. Marshal, M. McGlone, J.L. Morris, L.E. Nave, B.N. Shuman, E.A.H. Smithwick, D.H. Urrego, D.A. Wardel, C.J. Williams, and J.J. Williams. 2014. Reconstructing disturbances and their biogeochemical consequences over multiple timescales. Bioscience, 64: 105-116.

      Kelly, R. F., M.L. Chipman, P.E. Higuera, V. Stefanova, L.B. Brubaker, and F.S. Hu. 2013. Recent burning of boreal forests exceeds variability of the past 10,000 years. PNAS, 110: 13055-13060.

      Higuera, P.E., C. Whitlock, and J. Gage. 2011. Fire history and climate-vegetation-fire linkages in subalpine forests of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A., AD 1240-1975. The Holocene, 21:327-341.

      Higuera, P.E., Chipman, M.L., Barnes, J.L., Urban, M.A., Hu, F.S. 2011. Variability of tundra fire regimes in Arctic Alaska: millennial scale patterns and ecological implications. Ecological Applications, 21: 3211-3226.

      Higuera, P.E., L.B. Brubaker, P.M. Anderson, F.S. Hu, and T.A. Brown. 2009. Vegetation mediated the impacts of postglacial climate change on fire regimes in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska. Ecological Monographs, 79: 201-219.

      Higuera, P.E., L.B. Brubaker, P.M. Anderson, T.A. Brown, A.T. Kennedy, and F.S. Hu. 2008. Frequent Fires in Ancient Shrub Tundra: Implications of Paleorecords for Arctic Environmental Change. PLoS ONE, 3:e0001744.

      Higuera, P.E., D.G. Sprugel, and L.B. Brubaker. 2005. Reconstructing fire regimes with charcoal from small-hollow sediments: a calibration with tree-ring records of fire. The Holocene, 15:238-251.

      • Eric, thank for making my case for me! You did it much better than I did. Higuera’s work is mostly about reconstructing fire regimes and paleorecords- fire history.

        And what I said was “his discussion of climate was nuanced and kudos”
        What I disagreed with was what he said about insurance and fuel treatments. Nowhere on this list is anything about fuel treatment effectiveness.

        I agree with him that fires should be managed to do good and avoid bad consequences.. my point was that was not a science question.

        • I’ll add: It’s sounds suspiciously like you’re saying history teaches us nothing about the present Sharon. If so, would you agree that we could pretty much throw the field of statistical modeling out the window.

          So no, I’m not entirely convinced I made your case for you.

          • History teaches us something.. if .. er we could agree on what history says, and how it’s relevant.

            Statistical modeling is not really a field. It’s something all (most?) fields do. You can base models on some observations of, say, a population and model what you think might happen in the future or to members of other populations or any number of things.

            Some people think science went astray when models, which were originally used to improve our knowledge through testing and correction in the real world, started being used to predict things without that feedback loop. As I’ve said before, it’s like asking Nature a question and not waiting around for the answer.

  5. Fire requires three things: an ignition source, fuel, and oxygen. Remove any one of those three and there will be NO fire.

    Thus, it stands to reason that thinning, slash disposal, prescribed burning, etc. removes fuel and any fire subsequent to those treatments will have less fuel. It seems, therefore, less fuel means fire intensity should be lessened, easier to control, and there should be less catastrophic consequences (burned homes, loss of lives, and so forth). [Kind of like a fireplace — pour on the firewood and the fire burns hot. Only put on a stick or two once in a while and the fire isn’t as hot.]

    Weather certainly has an effect: i.e., winds and drought. But, again, if there is less fuel-loading in the forest, drought effects should also be lessened.

    Of course, this means the land managers are allowed into the forest to remove fuels – something that doesn’t seem to happen often these days.

    Foresters often say that, it is not a matter of if a forest will burn; it is a matter of when.

    It would be interesting to see how today’s fire patterns stack up against history. And, by history, I’m not talking about the past few decades. In his PhD work, Dr. Bob Zybach found that fires in the hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon’s Coast Range (a temperate rainforest) were not at all unusual. His work was based on written records that dated back to the earliest European explorers of the Pacific Northwest. While we are currently in a droughty condition, droughts, from an historical perspective, are not at all unusual.

    It would be interesting to hear what Dr. Pyne or others with decades of fire experience would have to say.

    • Pyne has thrown up the white flag…. or, at least, off-white. He doesn’t see a political solution, so there will be little chance to save anything other than what we want to pay for. He thinks we can save stuff through expensive and polarizing timber projects but, it will never match the pace and scale needed to become significant.

      As I have been saying, there are multiple barriers to ‘enough’ active management. I agree with Pyne’s assessment, and dissatisfaction with the powers that be. There are options that Congress isn’t willing to apply. The Majority feels a need to dominate and ‘win’, while punishing the past Administration.

    • I drove a USFS tanker on the Klamath NF during the summer of 1973 at a time when the agency was actively clearcutting much of the district I was stationed on. Fuels reduction big time – trucks full with 3 – 4 logs.
      But in spite of that heavy timber program I was on two large fires on the Klamath that year as well as numerous smaller fires: one was ~ 25,000 acres in the Somes Bar area; the other near 20K acres in the Happy Camp Ranger District. That doesn’t seem like the logging did much to reduce the risk of fires.
      It was a hot, dry summer which I heard was the norm there at that time. Low fuel moisture, high temps (I recall night shifts with my Pulaski when it cooled down to 105 degrees) – add an ignition source and there it goes!
      I don’t think we can log our way out of fire risk. It’s time to get wiser about fire policy, the ecosystem benefits of fire and the use of fire as a tool. Our full-on suppression strategy isn’t working.

      • No one here is saying that logging, alone, will prevent forest fires. Thin from below and then prescribed burn is the idea in the Sierra Nevada. Of course, there’s not enough funding, expertise or ‘boots on the ground’ to do much. Mill yards are reported to be stuffed with salvage logs in California but, there might be other options.

    • An implicit assumption of many logging proponents is that less fuels means less fire. This is not supported by the evidence.

      Less fuel does NOT mean less fire. Some fuel can actually help reduce fire, such as deciduous hardwoods that act as heat sinks (under some conditions), and dense canopy fuels that keep the forest cool and moist and help suppress the growth of surface and ladder fuels, and those canopy fuels are connected to large tree boles with thick bark that do not readily burn.

  6. I’d still like to hear 2ndLaw’s, Eris’s, and Matthew’s take on this, which I post a few days ago. No direct response as yet….

    Yes, but — and it’s a big but — logging and associated fuels treatments DO have a significant effect on fire behavior. In many cases, a fire in slash is going to be much less intense than a fire before the many tons of fuel are removed. I’d like to get Higuera’s insights into the before/after treatments here:

    https://csfs.colostate.edu/districts/woodland-park-district/woodland-park-forest-management-stewardship/

    The photo at the top of the page scrolls through three before/after fuels treatment scenes. In all of the treated areas, fire might burn, but it would spread slowly and burn with far less intensity than a fire in the “before” areas. If you show people photos like this, they get it — it’s a simple concept: less fuel = a less chance of a large, intense wildfire. Eric, Matthew, 2nd Law, do you disagree?

    • I agree with the statement “If you show ‘people’ photos like this, they get it … less fuel = a less chance of a large, intense wildfire.”

      However, I also agree with Rousseau’s statement that “In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.”
      Fortunately, we have a few more folks with one eye than Steve Daines — Professor Higuera for example.

      What I hear you actually communicating when you say “If you show ‘people’ photos like this, they get it” is a perfect example of an “Affect Heuristic” in action: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affect_heuristic

      This is exactly one significant facet of the larger problem. If people understood that this debate takes the form of a classic “wicked problem” as defined here: http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=wicked-problem they would likely be more circumspect with their opinions. Both sides of the debate.

      Now, to come for circle Steve, would like to focus on why your example focuses on far to small an evidentiary base to be representative?

      • A small evidentiary base? You mean because I referenced links to only three fuels projects? The three photos are examples — many more are available. I submit that, in general, a reduction in fuel (as measured by volume, weight, size, type, distribution, etc.) leads to a reduction in fire intensity (as measured by flame length, energy release, etc.). Does anyone dispute this?

  7. No dispute from me.
    But how does that inform the larger problem Steve? If you look at the map below the pictures (if I’m reading them right), the amount of treated land is maybe, what, one-percent of the acreage represented?
    That’s what I’m saying. How much good did these treatments do the landscape as a whole as represented on the map? How much fire did they slow?
    Given the climate conditions Higuera is talking about, I’m going to assume not a lot.
    Therefore, as he says, better to learn to live with more severe fire regimes. I would posit, that is certainly both the better economic and logistic choice. Better, more coordinated WUI/Urban planning in general.

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