Wildfire and Fuel Treatment Minus the “Blame Game”

It seems like one person’s “accountability” is another person’s “blame.” So let’s not use any inflammatory or pejorative words, and talk here civilly (no politicians in this room :)).

We in the interior west must live with fire. To do so we need an “All of the Above” strategy or a “Three Legged Stool”, 1. (community and personal actions) 2.(prescribed burning, mechanical treatments and WFU) and 3.(suppression). It seems to be PB, MT and WFU in which most of the disagreement lies. For a variety of reasons, once a wildfire is ignited, it’s easier to burn areas than if a project to burn them is planned ($ are there, not so much analysis and no litigation (yet)). And since planned fires can avoid environmentally sensitive area, be placed in areas that will help suppression, and put smoke in the air outside of “smoke season,” it seems logical to try to increase these. So what forces work against that?

In terms of forces that work against PB, MT and (to a lesser extent) WFU:

– Funding
– Air quality concerns and regulatory framework (does not reflect that PB will make for less fire season smoke)
– Fear of prescribed fires getting out of control/safety (e.g. state of Colorado stopped PB for a couple of
years)
– Litigation, “bulletproofing” documents and associated related work

It seems to me that litigation is not “the problem,” but it certainly contributes to slowing down and stopping projects that lead to fuel treatment, and is one of many contributing factors. Litigation is particularly interesting because, in contrast to public meetings and comments, and appeals or objections, there is no timeframe. So we can imagine some tweaks that would speed up the ultimate resolution without messing with the legal fundamentals.

If we are to move to an “all of the above” strategy, we need to be able to openly talk about what factors would need to change to “get more fire on the landscape,” as so many have said is a desirable goal. Environmental protection, avoiding prescribed burns that turn into wildfires, and so on, all these are good things with good people representing those interests.

In your opinion:
What other forces are out there working against “more fire on the landscape?”

How can we all work together better to get more fire on the landscape?

27 Comments

  1. Liability is also a major deterrent to PB. Escape on to National Forest results in litigation and potential settlement for suppression and damages. Examples in my neighborhood are the Storrie and Rich Fires – Union Pacific, Moonlight Fire- Sierra Pacific Industries..

    I was advised yesterday that private landowners adjacent to National Forest will seek settlement for damages when it is shown that the forest was not managed for fire resilience. The actual standard is likely described differently, what ever it is. I had never heard of this. It may be useful to explore. I did not ask whether this phenomenon is applicable to both wildfire and Rx fire.

    • Yes, absolutely. I’m sure people make mistakes with PB WFU and plain old suppression, and it’s hard to have the right kind of accountability without “excessive” liability (excessive being in the eye of the beholder). Like just stopping PB altogether like Colorado did. I wonder if any other countries/areas have successfully worked this out.

  2. lack of markets/commercial opportunities – which increases the costs of mechanical treatments because the removed material cannot be sold. This is somewhat related to funding, but can be an important consideration in actually “completing” the mechanical treatment.

    Large treatment areas expose a lot of disturbed ground for invasive plants to invade in some areas.

    Treatments are not planned strategically to address the highest priorities or the most strategic locations – this came out again in a recent OIG review. The current planning process used in much of the FS acts against this – the idea is to plan large areas and plan for the maximum amount of work in those areas vs. doing a larger scale strategic analysis to identify the highest priority/highest risk areas. the unstated assumption is that there is a linear relationship between acres treated and treatment effectiveness, but this is probably not true – Mark Finney’s work demonstrates this – is it linear to a point, but then tapers off. And, under a situation where funds are limiting, the current planning approach is not the most effective way to spend limited funds. It may be the most “efficient” way to plan in terms of NEPA effort, but it is not the most “effective” way to implement fuels treatments in a limited budget scenario.

    Lack of burn windows – somewhat related to the smoke and escape concerns.

        • When I worked in NEPA in DC, I sat in a meeting for one one of those GAO studies. I had the feeling that they wanted some kind of national prioritization, probably involving the models developed by some Beltway Bandits.. so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they liked the Fireshed Assessment Process! Which is ultimately local. The number of 27 GAO reports stuck in my head from the Bahro et al. paper here.

          Despite this emphasis, implementation of fire and fuels management direction by Federal land management agencies has come under criticism in 27 separate Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports since 1999 (summarized in GAO-05-147). Collectively, these GAO reports reference the inability of federal land management agencies to adequately assess landscape strategies for hazardous fuels treatment, set priorities, develop out year plans, and collaborate with partners.

          However, a recent GAO report (GAO-04-705) noted: “One [approach] that appears promising for national implementation is the Fireshed Assessment process, an integrated interdisciplinary approach to evaluating fuel treatment effectiveness at reducing fire spread across landscapes.”

    • No, because bullet-proofing is kind of an in-house FS criticism… it’s a way of saying analyzing everything you could possibly analyze, because a potential litigator is watching your project. I’m up for an alternative that mean the same thing. Everyone knows what you mean when you use this expression.

      We could also make a list of what forces work against personal and community work, and suppression, but this series is concerned with PB, MT, and WFU. Some forces are the same across these (like fire liability for PB and WFU but not MT) and some are different (litigation for PB and MT but not WFU). I see these three as in the same family.

      And, of course, each of these has a variety of scientific disciplines working on it from a variety of perspectives. In fact if I were a journalist interviewing a scientist, my first question would be “describe how your research findings are related to which element (s) of the Three Legged Stool of LIving with Fire”.

      I think that’s a terrific place to start the conversation and would help people understand scientific contributions better.

  3. Good questions Sharon. I think the perception, among much of the public, that fire is bad works against the use of prescribed fire and working with lightning fires in Wilderness and other areas where restoring fire to the landscape is appropriate. That perception has been built up over many years of Smokey the Bear and other messaging to the public. It works against us because folks in smoky cities or the WUI call their congressional reps to complain about the smoke and demand action. That can lead to rather foolish responses such as Senator Wyden’s Sept. 5, 2017 letter to Trump in which Wyden asserts that “…by providing more funding to reduce hazardous fuel loads in our nation’s forests we can get ahead of these disasters and reduce the length of fire seasons.”

    FYI – I’m waiting for a response from Wyden with the literature citations his staff used as the basis for linking fuel loads to the length of the fire season. As a forester I doubt that linkage exists but a senior senator has made that assertion to our president who has demonstrated he’s not much for facts or science-based policy.

    That’s one reason why agency fire information officers need to be really careful in their choice of language re: fires. Avoiding words such as raging, devastation, etc. that tend to sensationalize the description of a natural process (fire) is a good practice to adopt. The news media on its own often does plenty of sensationalizing so there’s no need for the agency’s to contribute to that frenzy.

    It has taken decades to get to the point we’re at in terms of the public’s perception of fire. If we want to shift attitudes to a more fire-receptive viewpoint it will take a concerted effort to get there. In the long run it will be very beneficial to have the public better informed about the ecosystem values of fire in our western forests and hopefully, be more open to prescribed fire and managed fires.

    • Thanks, OW. As to Wyden’s letter, I have to admit it gives me a bit of a chuckle to see what happens when a House person from a west wet district becomes the Senator of a wet and dry state (I remember the Congressman). I do wish there were a place we experienced folk could help staffers who are just learning about things and make mistakes without ticking them off such that they don’t hear. Everyone/every organization makes mistakes and it seems we need to learn to give and accept constructive criticism better.

  4. i think your 3 legged stool analogy emphasizes suppression over fire management. instead of suppression i would suggest a broader term – fire management. using the term suppression emphasizes reacting to fire in a mode that has gotten us to where we are today – forests with too much fuel and lack of ecological process. recognizing fire as an important and necessary (regulating) ecological process at must be emphasized. emphasizing suppression as a way to react to fire is old school and part of the management issue that got us here. there is much science to back up fire as an important and regulating ecological process in our systems. unfortunately, as we know political pressure can trump science and policy. perhaps public education could be the 3rd leg of the stool, and fire management the second.

    • The problem with “fire management” is that it’s so broad and fire managers have their own definitions.

      I think suppression has to have a visible place because people near forests have to feel safe. I don’t think we can “educate” people who don’t feel safe, because we need to hear them and respond to those concerns. But education is really important and I agree that it should be a major focus.

      But I live in a place where the country offices have a photo display of people who lost houses in the Waldo Canyon fire with favored possessions that they managed to save. With elaborate plans for evacuating livestock and placing them during fires, and so on. With Air Force folks and planes being dispatched to help with western fires. It goes back to the right fire, in the right place, at the right time.

  5. I think more public education around the trade-off of PB versus managed wildfires is part of the solution. Legislation could help to address issues of process and liability if there was a will to do so. As these debates continue, the West burns and Westerners and their economy suffer. Waterton National Park lost 70% of its forests and suffered 30% damage reported the government in Alberta. This Op-Ed in the Washington Post from the Missoula air quality specialist describes well the human cost of fire on the landscape for a larger audience.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/amid-montanas-wildfires-its-my-job-to-help-people-breathe/2017/09/15/8233bd74-995e-11e7-82e4-f1076f6d6152_story.html?utm_term=.881715f8b5cf

    • Thanks Rebecca, and thanks for the link! If folks could get behind the idea of “more PB”, let’s all think of education models. Because of my background in the Land Grant System, I think of new technology adoption (even though PB is a very very old technology). Maybe fund “PB incubators firesheds” one (or more) per state, with partners like the Nature Conservancy Fire Learning Network and the States ) , do something like the Stewardship and Fireshed Assessment process http://forestpolicypub.com/2017/08/15/why-we-disagree-about-fuel-treatment-vi-stewardship-and-fireshed-assessments/
      with lots of public education beyond the public education/involvement in the SFA process. Have the incubators linked to the state universities (and others)..
      And any associated research proposals would be related to answering questions identified by the incubators, whether research just needed to be synthesized, or new research was needed.
      Ahh.. sounds like a proposal for the defunct Fund for Rural America..

    • While the impacts of smoke like those described in that op ed are real and concerning, I am always amazed by the people who say that this amount of smoke is just a small percentage of the smoke we “should” have if we had a “natural” fire cycle in place.
      I had my smoke moment of truth in 2000 when I went to the Valley Complex fire in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana – while the fire assignments had changed that year to 14 days (instead of 21), fire resources were stretched so thin that many of us worked 21 day assignments anyway. Of the 21 days that I was there, 18 were determined to be “hazardous” to human health. We found it somewhat amusing (and alarming!) that the nearby Job Corps Center was evacuated due to hazardous air quality – and we were sitting there still breathing it. I returned home and had a lingering cough and was very tired and it didn’t clear up after a couple of weeks. I was diagnosed with smoke-induced asthma and given an inhaler. Luckily that was temporary, but it was lesson enough.

  6. Just a reality check, here. Region 5 has done just 15,000 acres of prescribed burns. Region 8 has done 650,000 acres. I would expect more production from our California National Forests, where we need it the most. Yes, it is hard to do but, that is what we pay them for.

    I’m also seeing statements that claim the Forest Service is not letting fires burn, in some areas. I do think that they should outright state which fires are burning for dubious ‘resource benefits’. I still think that WFU should be banned, or approved by Regional Foresters, during the peak three months of fire season. We need to know who to blame when WFU escapes happen.

    • I think they are usually pretty clear on Inciweb about which fires are being managed with a “suppression” objective and which are not. There are a lot of wilderness fires in Oregon this year that are not being managed under a suppression objective. With all of the fires this year, this allows the Forest Service to focus limited resources on the fires that are closer to the WUI. The difference in cost and staffing (as noted on the SIT report) are rather dramatic.

  7. Well at least you are looking for solutions to our wildfire problem and I do think it is a problem.
    Also it seems that environmental community has done a great job with the general public. Most people tend to think, fire is good for the forest, it’s natural, and that logging in bad, because it’s not natural.
    If you have a forest fire in June through September in the West you better put it out, no matter where they are. (I like to think our wilderness areas are being protected so future generations can enjoy them.) There have been several fires this summer where the FS let them burn only for them explode later and turn into major disasters.
    If we want to have public forests for future generations we better improve our forest management. I think that includes active timber harvesting. (I have grown to like the results of the FS and BLM thinning sales. Take a look if you have a chance.)

    • Bob

      Right on all counts

      Re: “If we want to have public forests for future generations we better improve our forest management. I think that includes active timber harvesting. (I have grown to like the results of the FS and BLM thinning sales. Take a look if you have a chance.)”
      –> Yep! But it’ll take many decades before the benefits (forests, forest dependent species and human health) begin to be so obvious as to be indisputable. Too bad that a bird being displaced by evolutionary forces is more important than healthy forests and people.

  8. Yes, and after another decade or two continuing with our current fire management systems we will be deeper in debt and our older public forests will be only a memory. I guess we will be able to see some of the dead snags and wonder, couldn’t there have been another way.

  9. Forest management/logging would not have made much difference on most of the larger, longer-running fires in Oregon this year – most of them were not very active until high winds/low humidities for several days in late August – these fires spotted out ahead of themselves (and some of them still are). Logging or not logging doesn’t make much of a difference in that situation. I wrote some thinning prescriptions in the mid-1990s in a fire prone area – they were logged in 1997, and the Biscuit Fire came through in 2002. The unlogged areas stopped/slowed the fire significantly, the logged areas were all killed by heat (not crown fire) – the wind driven fire magnified the heat/acted like a “bellows” in the thinned stands, but it’s movement was very limited in the unthinned stands. Some of the thinned stands had slash removed as small as 10′ long x 2″ diameter at the small end. Several miles away, areas that had been thinned and had a prescribed burn in 2001 survived the fire. This year those stands all just burned again in the Chetco Bar Fire. It will be interesting to see how the stands with the 2001 prescribed burn did this time and how the unthinned areas that survived the Biscuit Fire did in the Chetco Bar Fire. This is all in an area that receives over 100″ of rain a year. And the fire history shows that a stand-replacing event comes through about every 110 years for the last 700 years or so…there have now been 3 fires in some parts of the Chetco Bar Fire since 1988. I’m beginning to think that the best thing you can do in places that can have this type of fire behavior is to maintain a set of shaded fuel breaks and light prescribed fires in them every 5-7 years or when the next fire starts, regardless of how far away that fire is. In some cases, those burned swaths may have to be very wide if there tends to be a lot of long-range spotting.

  10. Well, I guess I am blaming the FS for the Biscuit and Chetco Bar fires. They both could of been put out.
    Vast areas of unlogged 250 year old plus forest burned in Biscuit. I guess the tanoak and brush that came after the Biscuit fire burns well too.

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