15 Minute TED Talk: “Forest Service ecologist proposes ways to help curb rising ‘Era of Megafires’”

“Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, has traveled across the West to share the result of 30 years of research into wildfires and what might be done to prevent them.”
–> My thought: Err! Reduce them – preventing any from occurring is impossible. Other opportunities for disagreement but well worth watching none the less.

Good video presentation of how we got here and the need for changes to be “made in how national forests are managed and the how the public views certain preventative measures”

The 15 minute TEDx Talk video is about half way down in this link

28 Comments

  1. FYI: The following comments are from Dr. Dick Hutto, Professor Emeritus of biology and wildlife biology at UM, and a leading expert on impacts of severe wildlife on wildlife, especially birds.

    Dr. Hutto has given us permission to share his comments to Paul Hessberg, which were written in late April 2017.

    ———————-

    I saw Hessburg’s traveling megafire show last night in Missoula and I sent him comments that I’m appending in case you want discussion ideas if you get a chance to visit one of his presentations (now numbering more than 70!). In general, it is a good show with useful messages about becoming firewise, but the additional emphasis on thinning and burning and firefighting outside the WUI is off base for all but a small proportion of forest types in the West. That’s my take on it. Here are my comments to Paul:

    Paul:

    The style of your presentation, and the support material were excellent. I think it will help bring about some useful change in the way residents view fire and how they come to understand their own responsibility to do what it takes to live with natural fire. In all locations throughout the West, we need to do a better job learning to become fire wise, and that means (1) adopting insurance and tax-based incentives that facilitate change in how we prepare our homes and adjacent properties for inevitable fire, and (2) adopting zoning regulations that discourage building in the middle of the most fire-prone places in the first place. That message was spot on.

    The second message—things we can do in the age of megafires—was, I believe, much too narrowly focused on the minority of forest types that, most would agree, are out of whack relative to evolutionarily relevant conditions. I suggest inserting a greater emphasis on the nuanced differences in fire regimes among vegetation types, and how the historic fire regime affects what we as humans should focus on in response to the likelihood of more megafires. This is really important because it affects not only what we should do before, but also what we should do after, the next megafire lands nearby.

    I think scientists have come to agree that the world is more out of whack because of fire suppression, logging, and grazing in some places than others. Specifically, in most low-elevation, open-grown forests of the West, the density and continuousness of forest cover is probably excessive relative to what occurred in the evolutionary past. The same is NOT true for the vast majority of forest types in the West, especially around places like Missoula, Kalispell, Lincoln, Seeley Lake, and elsewhere throughout the Intermountain West and on down the Sierras. The mixed-conifer forests of the middle and higher elevations (which constitute about 85% of forested lands in the West, according to LANDFIRE and other classifications of vegetation types) were born of, and are maintained by, mixed- to high-severity fire regimes. This is important because the latter fires are driven largely by weather conditions, not fuels, so efforts to reduce fuels through thinning or prescribed understory burning are largely ineffective in these forest types.

    Thus, the recommendation should be that we become fire wise everywhere, but not get so carried away with fuel reduction (and even firefighting) outside the WUI, where forests are not limited by fuels and where such activity is largely a waste of taxpayer dollars. The overall impression from the talk is that we can prevent megafires, but that is simply untrue in all but that small minority of open-grown, dry-forest types (e.g., around Flagstaff). Around Missoula, Kalispell, Lincoln, and Seeley Lake, where you are speaking this week, there is nothing we can do outside of preparing for (learning to live more safely in the midst of) the big fires. Although I acknowledge that prescribed fire and thinning can affect fire behavior in rare instances, such as the one you highlight on the Wenatchee, fires in most forest types burn through every kind of harvest condition—from clearcuts through seed-tree cuts to shelterwood cuts and beyond, as numerous examples show. For example, the White Flat timber sale near Prairie on the Boise National Forest did absolutely nothing to stop the Elk Complex fire, and even in the experimental dry forest outside Flagstaff, thinning did nothing to stop the Wallow Fire from ripping through everything. You can see the same thing outside of town here where the 2003 Black Mountain fire ripped through heavily harvested private lands in addition to Lolo NF land, and you can see the same thing outside Seeley Lake, where the 2007 Jocko Lakes fire ripped through every bit of heavily logged Plum Creek land.

    My point is this: except in the immediate vicinity of communities, prescribed burning, logging, and even firefighting do little to stop fires that are weather driven and not fuel limited. Unfortunately, the public has been led to believe that these are effective fire prevention tools everywhere. As Trump would say,…not true!

    Even more disconcerting to me as an ecologist is that, if the public views severe fire as unnatural everywhere, that gives license to land managers to go in after and salvage log the standing dead. The only place salvage logging occurs is in severely burned forest, and in all but a tiny minority of cases, extensive patches of standing dead trees are perfectly natural consequence of forest fire and forest succession—we know that because we can see the unique response of plants, insects, and birds to those particular forest conditions. Indeed, the public has not been educated to the fact that severely burned forests (in MOST forest types) are not only natural, but necessary for the plants and animals that call that forest home—severely burned forest conditions are the ONLY places that many of them occur. Just look at the habitat distributions of black-backs, jewel beetles, morel mushrooms, firemoths, ceanothus, Bicknell’s geranium, etc. You did not even mention how inappropriate salvage logging is when it comes to maintaining ecological integrity. When you asked us in the audience to envision the forest of our dreams, I, of course, was envisioning a charcoal forest with standing dead trees, legions of insects, a wildflower show unlike anything elsewhere, black-backed woodpeckers, fire beetles, and others that call such forest conditions home! You have left this important message completely out of the story, yet it is the most important ecological message told by fire.

    Here are a few places in your presentation where I jotted notes because I felt that the message could be adjusted because of these concerns:

    1. You had a “call to action,” but the message appeared to be that we can prevent megafires. I think a two-part message should be that (1) we can be better prepared for the inevitable, and (2) we can thin and burn in SOME forest low-elevation, dry types to help mellow out fire behavior, but that such activity will do little to change fire behavior in most western forest types (chaparral and other shrublands too).

    2. The video clip highlighting the fact that forests can “recover” from fire misses the point Yes, forests recover, but the magic associated with severely burned forests occurs right after fire—conditions are already “restored” for numerous plant and animal species that find newly burned forest conditions to be precisely what they need!

    3. I wasn’t sure what the take-home message was about the fact that Native Americans burned in spring and fall. Perhaps it was that prescribed burning works well for humans? You should probably point out that such burning was very limited in terms of location (whole chapter on it in Baker’s book)—most was in the low-elevation interface areas, which, I agree, might be where prescribed burning could do some good today. Such “commodity driven” (as opposed to ecologically informed) burning does not, however, make it ecologically appropriate, even if it is somewhat effective in the dry-forest types.

    4. While suppression, logging, and grazing each contributed something to the recent change in low-elevation, dry-forest structure, logging, by far, had the greatest influence. I love the example figure in Thomas and Waring (2015) showing that the timing of the huge recruitment of trees in 1910 in eastern Oregon (and elsewhere throughout the West) corresponds most tightly with the idea that pulse recruitment occurred following excessive logging and grazing—effective suppression didn’t occur until well after the 1930s!

    5. A certain amount of densely stocked, overgrown forest has always been an integral part of western forests. By not making that point, I think you may have fueled the misconception that overgrown forest conditions anywhere are “unhealthy.” That fellow’s comment at the end of your presentation reflected his misunderstanding when he equated overgrown conditions in parks and wilderness areas (where such conditions are nowhere near out of whack) with such conditions in the low-elevation ponderosa pine forests. There is no reason to do anything other than use a managed wildfire approach in those places, as you stated. The same goes for the vast majority of forest types outside the low-elevation, dry-forest types.

    6. Climate change is not a “compounding issue”—it IS the issue! The reason we are seeing megafires in most places is precisely because fires are driven largely by weather conditions, so if folks don’t like what they see happening, they need to understand that it is a climate change issue, not a fuels issue. No amount of cutting, prescribed burning, or firefighting will stop climate change! This should be a much more central lesson associated with what we humans can do in the age of megafires—elect people who believe we need to turn down the furnace.

    7. Prescribed fires not equally effective across veg types. In fact, such burning does more harm than good in forests born of mixed- to high-severity fire…always out of season, always too low a severity, etc. for the organisms associated with those forest types.

    8. You noted that some of the (98%) fires that we successfully suppress can be let go. If it is outside the WUI in the vegetation types born of mixed- and high-severity fire, why fight ANY of them? Johnson et al. (2001) show unequivocally with their data from fire-suppressed and unmanaged lands in Ontario that there is NO DIFFERENCE in the full distribution of fire patch sizes with and without suppression. Embarrassing as it is, firefighting is effective at suppressing what would become only relatively small fires anyway! When weather conditions are right, 98% of the land burns and no amount of firefighting can stop it. Thus, it sure looks like we are wasting our wildland firefighting taxpayer dollars when we try to do anything more than provide support for structural firefighters in and near the WUI.

    9. When you ended with the question, “What kind of smoke or fire do you want?” you implied that we have a choice. While there may be some choice for folks who live in the lowest and driest forest types, it is simply untrue elsewhere (and elsewhere constitutes the vast majority of forest types throughout the West). It might be worth adding the idea that a solid ecological understanding (not an understanding of health or carbon storage or whatever other issues) could be used to help guide any choice we might have in terms of the kind ocf fire and smoke we desire because a naturally functioning system is most likely to sustain us indefinitely.

    Good show!

    Dick
    Professor Emeritus, Biology and Wildlife Biology
    Division of Biological Sciences
    University of Montana

  2. It would be interesting to hear a point by point discussion by Hessburg and Hutto. Or even Hutto and someone like me. Otherwise no one will understand why they disagree.

    I don’t think Hessburg is saying that treatments will “prevent fires” that’s a straw person argument. He says that we can manage fires by managing vegetation in a way that will change fire behavior. All summer I have been posting examples of success of treatments in changing fire behavior. It is the view of most scientists who work in fire behavior and practitioners. (Do we need an IPCC-like equivalent “scientific consensus” document?)

    “Although I acknowledge that prescribed fire and thinning can affect fire behavior in rare instances, such as the one you highlight on the Wenatchee, fires in most forest types burn through every kind of harvest condition—from clearcuts through seed-tree cuts to shelterwood cuts and beyond, as numerous examples show. ”

    I would also like to see a logic path (from Hutto or another person who feels the same way), that explains how we know that “how things used to be” will still be the best way to manage, or not manage, landscapes in light of climate change. That seems like a philosophical idea, and not so much a scientific hypothesis.

    • Fire behavior is characterized by rate-of-spread, flame length, and heat. Firefighters must understand these components of fire behavior to stay safe. For example, a fire’s rate of spread determines how close to position safety zones. Flame length and heat are also considerations in constructing fire lines (although most lines don’t make a meaningful difference in the fire’s footprint). Since the Forest Service’s major function is fighting fires, which requires keeping its employees safe, it’s no wonder that fire behavior is on the Forest Service’s mind. Since the Forest Service can’t change the weather or topography (major components of fire behavior), it seeks to control the only factor it can — fuel.

      As Hutto and others have pointed out, weather trumps fuel. In the thickest of old-growth forests, a lightning strike on a rainy day ain’t goin’ nowhere. But a dropped cigarette in cheatgrass (a very light fuel load) on a hot, windy day will spread like wildfire. The first scenario threatens nothing. The second can take out homes and communities.

      Most ignitions are of no practical concern as the preponderance of fires would go out on their own. Either the fuels are too damp, the temperatures too low, the winds too light, or the topography too flat to sustain the fire. These are the ignitions that inflate the Forest Service’s initial attack success to its lofty >95% rate. Putting out benign fires is the bread-and-butter of the Forest Service’s suppression actions.

      Then there are the two percent of ignitions that escape regardless of initial attack efforts. These ignitions occur where topographies are steep, when fuels are dry, temperatures are high, and winds are fast. There is no vegetation landscape engineering possible (short of paving EVERYTHING over) that will change this basic math — 2% of ignitions create 95% of burned acres. The dry and windy topographies (e.g., tops of draws and ridge lines) will burn the hottest, while the mesic areas (e.g., old-growth canopies near streams) may escape burning altogether. Even under the most severe fire conditions, forest fires burn in a mosaic of intensities.

        • Regardless of ignition source, how many and which fires should we put out?

          Corollary questions: 1) Who should decide; and, 2) Should the public have a say in fire policy decisions?

          Status quo answers: 1) Firefighters decide; and, 2) The Forest Service has shut the public out of decision making regarding forest fire policy.

    • “I don’t think Hessburg is saying that treatments will ‘prevent fires’ that’s a straw person argument.”

      Well, according to Dr. Dick Hutto (likely a pretty careful observer) “The overall impression from [Hessburg’s] talk is that we can prevent megafires.”

      Also, for whatever it’s worth, just yesterday Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent out a tweet (which was retweeted by the House Republicans) claim that “Preventing wildfires begins with properly managing our natural resources, particularly our forests.”

      Let’s not forget that during the middle of the wildfire season, Trump’s Interior Department sent out this press release, titled “Secretary Zinke Directs Interior Bureaus to Take Aggressive Action to Prevent Wildfires.”

      In that Dept of Interior Zinke press release about “preventing wildfires” GOP Rep Bruce Westerman (a forester” also said (the grammar error was in the original press release): “I commend Secretary Zinke for recognizing this emergency situation and taking steps to address prevent further loss of life and property due to these preventable, catastrophic wildfires.”

      So, I’m not so sure that’s a straw person argument when some people (including politicians voting on public policy and political appointees running entire Departments of the U.S. Government) are making that very claim.

  3. The desire to have pre-human landscapes in a human-dominated world isn’t logical or rational. I see too much generalizing in Hutto’s response. We should be addressing tree density and species composition issues, and ‘doing nothing’ isn’t going to get us where most of us want it to be.

  4. I saw two specific and significant statements in Dr. Hutto’s response that, if there were a scientific consensus, could narrow this discussion a lot.

    “The mixed-conifer forests of the middle and higher elevations (which constitute about 85% of forested lands in the West, according to LANDFIRE and other classifications of vegetation types) were born of, and are maintained by, mixed- to high-severity fire regimes. This is important because the latter fires are driven largely by weather conditions, not fuels, so efforts to reduce fuels through thinning or prescribed understory burning are largely ineffective in these forest types.”

    “Embarrassing as it is, firefighting is effective at suppressing what would become only relatively small fires anyway!” Or as Andy said, “Putting out benign fires is the bread-and-butter of the Forest Service’s suppression actions.” (I think Larry’s question of whether we should suppress benign fires because they are human caused could be addressed as a second step.)

    These statements suggest that there should be a science-based means of determining where both thinning and fire suppression are likely to make a difference. If this isn’t the case now, what are these decision being based on (including contrary science)?

    • There are probably more than one “science-based means” which are fuels and fire models. One example is the Stewardship and Fireshed Assessment Process that used FLAMMAP and FARSITE.. models that I think were developed in Missoula of all places! Here’s a link to a post on the SFA process.

      I honestly don’t know what Hutto means by “firefighting is effective at suppressing what would become only relatively small fires anyway”. I’m not a Montanan, but firefighting is very helpful with large fires of every size and shape in all kinds of veg types in Colorado.

        • By whose definition? Here’s the NWCG definition

          “A wildfire response strategy to “put the fire out”, as efficiently and effectively as possible, while providing for firefighter and public safety.”

      • And, here in California, we have sooo many dead trees and infrastructure. We simply cannot afford to let very many fires burn, free-range. Everything here is flammable, and we do a, frankly, pitiful amount of fuels work and prescribed burns. You cannot just blame the budget because, we sure seem to have plenty of millions of dollars to spend on wildfires. Hey, if a billion dollars a year isn’t enough, then maybe, just maybe, throwing more money at the problem is not going to work. Frequent human-set fires were the norm, before the white man came. Not infrequent high-intensity fires. We’ve allowed mostly pure stands of P. pines to have a dense flammable understory. We haven’t managed those fuels, historically, for decades.

        It’s going to take funding and reforms to do what is needed, in my opinion. Too many for Congress to address. The result? More huge, damaging firestorms (and their impacts upon humans), welcomed by some people who insist that “Our forests need larger and more intense wildfires”.

        • The most destructive fires in California history just burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of private land where neither NEPA nor ESA nor just about anything else ever stopped anyone from doing anything to “prevent” fires on those lands.

            • And what I’m saying is that the most destructive wildfires often don’t have anything to do with national forest land at all. They’re symptoms of the disease of trying to build cities in fire-adapted ecosystems without the slightest nod toward adapting the city to the ecosystem. All the fuels reduction on the planet (short of making the entire Calistoga-Santa Rosa corridor a denuded wasteland) would have done nothing to stop the house-to-house urban conflagration of the Tubbs Fire. The problem isn’t the forests, it’s the cities.

            • And what I’m saying is that the most destructive wildfires often don’t have anything to do with national forest land at all. They’re symptoms of the disease of trying to build cities in fire-adapted ecosystems without the slightest nod toward adapting the city to the ecosystem. All the fuels reduction on the planet (short of making the entire Calistoga-Santa Rosa corridor a denuded wasteland) would have done nothing to stop the house-to-house urban conflagration of the Tubbs Fire. The problem isn’t the forests, it’s the cities. But that’s not a message people want to hear, because it means they can’t have their pretty views, shake-shingle roofs, tree-shaded yards, etc. So as per Pyne, they’re blaming foresters for what is ultimately an urban planning problem.

      • The link refers to SFA as “promising.” What are they actually doing? Do project documents in the 85% of the Montana landscape provide scientific rationale for why a site was selected and what the benefits of thinning would be? (How often does it have to do with whether there are merchantable trees that could be sold to pay for the project?) (Is there any documentation of why a fire is suppressed?)

    • “Benign Fires”!!!!!!!

      Is that defined as benign for the next 10 minutes, hour, 4 hours, day, week or what? I would say that there is plenty to show us that any prognostications of a fire being benign for more than the next day are unprofessional and sometimes 1-4 hours is inappropriate. Lest we forget, winds do shift unexpectedly; fuel load, fuel moisture content and fuel structure estimates in front of a moving fire are not usually the result of statistically sound sampling and any such averages are meaningless. The standard deviation will kill you more often than not.

  5. PRIORITIZE Instead of resorting to gross generalities. On this site, we have discussed the access and physical factors that are important in prioritizing. Yet, in spite of this knowledge, some still seem to want to avoid doing anything where we can by focusing on where we can’t.

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