More Research: Prioritizing forest fuels treatments

More research that shows the value of fuels treatments, and especially treatments that are strategically placed. Text of press release is below. The paper cited is here ($).

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Fighting fires before they spark

UNM research could impact forest management around the world

By Aaron Hilf October 17, 2017

With warm, dry summers comes a deadly caveat for the western United States: wildfires. Scientists say the hot, dry climates found west of the Mississippi, along with decades of fire suppression efforts, are creating a devastating and destructive combination – leading to fires like the ones currently burning in California.

It’s a problem biologists at The University of New Mexico are looking to put a damper on. Now, new research from UNM is giving forest and fire management teams across the country the upper hand in reducing the severity of these events.

“These big fires will always happen,” said Dan Krofcheck, a post-doctoral fellow in UNM’s Department of Biology. “We’re looking at what forest managers can do to minimize the impact these wildfires have on the system.”

The issue has two main components, according to Krofcheck, both stemming from human impact to the environment. Global warming, due to human-caused carbon emissions, has worsened the already hot and dry climate in the most at-risk areas, like California. In addition, aggressive firefighting and fire suppression efforts have left a large amount of fuel, in the form of underbrush, throughout the forests. Together, these two factors lead to massive blazes with the capacity to destroy land, homes and lives.

“For a long time, there’s been this stigma that fire in the landscape is a bad thing. It makes sense, because fire is a destructive process,” says Krofcheck. “But, it’s also an integral part of how these ecosystems evolved and we kind of shut that down through heavy fire suppression activity. The result is that fuel that would have been consumed by frequent fire, builds up and accumulates. Subsequently, when you finally have fire move through an area, after it’s been suppressed for 30, 50, 100 years, you have these massive fires that no longer just consume the understory but they’re actually torching crowns and moving through the tree canopy.”

To combat this, forest managers employ two primary treatment practices. Mechanical thinning is the process of physically removing the thick underbrush with machinery or by hand – a method that is effective but also very expensive. Managers also use prescribed burns to clear areas – using fire, under very strict environmental conditions, to consume excess brush.

The UNM research, ‘Prioritizing forest fuels treatments based on the probability of high-severity fire restores adaptive capacity in Sierran forests,’ recently published in Global Change Biology, examines how to most efficiently use these two methods.

Krofcheck, along with his advisor, UNM Associate Professor Matthew Hurteau, and colleagues from North Carolina State University and the USDA Forest Service, ran forecast simulations using projected climate data in the Dinkey Creek Collaborative Landscape Forest Restoration Project area in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. In Scenario A, researchers mechanically thinned the entire area that is operationally and legally available – an unrealistically expensive endeavor in practice. Scenario B employed an optimized approach, thinning only the most at-risk portions of land, about two-thirds less than in Scenario A.

“We wanted to find a way to apply these expensive thinning treatments in such a way that we could put as few on the landscape as possible and achieve some comparable outcome, relative to a case where we thinned everything,” said Krofcheck.

After nearly a thousand simulations, the results show that both scenarios reduced the mean fire-severity by as much as 60 percent.

“Even though we thinned about two-thirds less of the forest, we saw the exact same treatment outcomes,” said Krofcheck.

“This research and way of thinking about optimally using your resources, in terms of where you thin, could go a long way in helping these organizations use their dollars most efficiently to achieve their desired outcomes, which is less severe fires,” Hurteau said.

Along with mechanical thinning, both scenarios also heavily depended on fire, either naturally occurring or through prescribed burning, being present in the ecosystem. Researchers say it’s another big takeaway: without fire, no amount of treatment will successfully do the job. It’s something they hope those who live in forested areas will begin to appreciate as a mechanism for stopping devastating wildfire before it breaks out.

8 Comments

  1. The study focuses on “frequent fire forests of the western United States” and seems to zero in on the Sierras.

    In Montana, “frequent fire forests” are known as “dry montane forest” types. These forests account for a mere 4% of the ENTIRE forested landscape in Montana and northern Idaho. Most all “dry montane forest” types in Montana have been heavily logged, in some cases a few times.

    Sure, maybe some fuel reduction efforts targeting brush and small trees (followed by prescribed fire) in the 4% of the ‘frequent fire forests” (ie “dry montane forest” types in Montana and Idaho) can have some impact on wildfires (If wildfires don’t come during periods drought, high heat and high winds).

    However, most wildfires in Montana this summer didn’t even occur in “dry montane forest” types or “frequent fire forests.”

    • For whatever it’s worth….this situation described below by Dan Krofcheck is pretty much the natural, normal and essential role fire plays in about 95% of the forested ecosystems in Montana and north Idaho.

      “Subsequently, when you finally have fire move through an area, after it’s been suppressed for 30, 50, 100 years, you have these massive fires that no longer just consume the understory but they’re actually torching crowns and moving through the tree canopy.”

      Also, as the soil burn severity maps from wildfires in Montana this year prove, most often wildfires burning in even the mixed conifer/mixed fire regime and lower and upper Sub-alpine forest ecosystems burn in a very mosaic pattern.

  2. Two things are missed. The large fires are going to occur, but the number of large fires can be greatly reduced by aggressively suppressing all wild fire starts. The money saved can then be put towards prescribed fire under controlled conditions. The second thing missed by Matthew, soil severity gives an idea of damage to the organic layer, but is very misleading in correlation to tree mortality, although it apparently is the new catch phrase by those attempting to justify the benefits of letting fires burn.
    I guess there is probably a third too, the idea that thinning is expensive is going to take a back seat to the outrageous expense of federal fire fighting. The idea that anybody would promote letting fires burn will most likely be viewed as PR suicide after 7000 + homes and 42+ lives being lost this summer. The environmentalist should fully understand the effects of feelings over facts, they probably won’t like that the shoe is on the other foot.

    • Howdy F353. I didn’t “miss” anything. I simply have shared official soil burn severity maps because they are now available. If and when vegetation burn severity maps become available I will happily share them as well. There is no ‘new catch phrase’ at work here dude. We are simply at the whims of when USFS/Inciweb, etc want to share info with the public. Also, the tragic fires around Santa Rosa and Napa Valley have next to 0.00% to do with forests or U.S. Forest Service management or anything to do with anyone’s “let it burn” agenda. So there’s that.

      • Right on Matt. The “tragic” fires of these past weeks are not an example of poor NF management. But the foolish critics of the USFS and Park Service will point with alarm at this mess and use these fires as poster children supporting their plans to use logging to fight fire. No way to reach any accommodation or agreement with these folks.

  3. From the article: “Researchers say it’s another big takeaway: without fire, no amount of treatment will successfully do the job.” When decisions on mechanical fuel treatment are made, how do they take this into account?

    From 353: “the number of large fires can be greatly reduced by aggressively suppressing all wild fire starts.” Is this true (citations?), and if so, why is the Forest Service not doing this?

    • As I recall, the “All wildfires out by 10:00 AM next day” was the F.S.official policy for most of the past 60 or so years. We now observe the results (climate change contributing).

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