Owls and Megafires

This article from Audubon is well worth reading. It sheds light on questions we’re discussed at length here.

Recent ‘Megafires’ Imperil Even Fire-Loving Forest Birds

Many birds, such as owls and woodpeckers, thrive in forest habitats created after fire. But the hotter, bigger, more destructive megafires out West might be too much even for them.

An excerpt:

After the King Fire, Jones returned to his research site to see how California Spotted Owls responded to the devastation. The massive fire swept through more than 97,000 acres, which included 44 percent of the study area and 30 of the owl’s 45 known nesting sites within it. Jones tracked the owls, which had already been outfitted with GPS receivers and colored leg bands, and found that a year later the birds had abandoned the most severely burned areas where more than 75 percent of trees died. These severely burned areas represented 50 percent of the fire’s total burn area.

It’s not that California Spotted Owls avoid all severely burned areas after fire—just the largest patches. They rarely venture more than 325 feet deep into a severe burn, Jones found in follow-up research at the King Fire site. But do they recolonize smaller patches that burned severely? To find out, he also studied owls in three western national parks in the Sierra Nevada where forest managers intentionally set small fires, and let natural ones burn, to maintain healthy, historical wildfire regimes. He saw that the California Spotted Owl returned to smaller patches even if they burned intensely, while avoiding larger ones—maybe because wide expanses with fewer trees are home to less prey or offer less cover from predators, such as the Great Horned Owl. “To us, that suggests again there’s this adaptive response,” Jones says. “Owls are adapted to frequent, low-severity fires,” not intense megafires.

The article also discusses black-backed woodpeckers:

Even the Black-backed Woodpecker, long-considered a bird that thrives after intense fires, apparently has its limits. The woodpecker flocks to burned-out forests to feast on beetle larvae that infest dying and dead trees. However, Andrew Stillman, an avian ecologist at the University of Connecticut and Tingley’s student, made a surprising discovery when he attached radio transmitters to adult and juvenile birds over the course of seven years. 

As expected, adult woodpeckers primarily kept to severely burned areas. “But the juveniles were a different story,” Stillman says. “Right after leaving the nest, these young birds flew to areas with live trees remaining after fire.” He suspects they preferred these areas because the living trees provide protection from predators. This species, too, needs pyrodiversity.

“Our conventional thinking was that more severe fires might be good for certain species that thrive in burned forests,” Stillman says. “But our research shows that even fire-loving species need variation in burn severity to survive.”  

— Thanks to Nick Smith for including the link to this article in his Sept. 30 Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities email.

Let’s Discuss: The Feinstein-Daines Wildfire Bill

When I googled this bill, I found many voices for and against but very little analysis. Now it seems to be a rarity for any House of Congress to produce bipartisan bills (let alone both) (or they are not so much covered in the press), so I thought it was worth us taking a look at the specifics. My comments are in italics.

According to Senator Feinstein’s website:

Earlier this month, Senators Feinstein and Daines introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, a bipartisan bill to help protect communities from catastrophic wildfires by implementing critical wildfire mitigation projects, sustaining healthier forests that are more resilient to climate change and providing important energy and retrofitting assistance to businesses and residences to mitigate future risks from wildfire and power shutoffs. The House companion bill is being led by Reps. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.).

Here’s a link to a cpan link https://www.c-span.org/video/?475867-1/senate-hearing-wildfire-forest-management you can go to Feinstein’s remarks.
Here’s a section by section from Feinstein’s site, which includes more info on each section than I posted here.

Section 101 – Three new landscape-level, collaborative wildfire risk reduction projects:
 Requires the Forest Service to conduct three landscape-level, collaborative wildfire risk reduction projects in the West proposed by a Governor. Projects would be subject to a streamlined environmental review process and certain litigation protections.

Section 102 – Encourages the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to increase the use of wildfire detection equipment.
 Directs the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to expedite the placement of wildfire detection equipment such as sensors and cameras and expand the use of satellite data to assist wildfire response.

Section 103 – Wildfire risk reduction activities near existing roads, trails, and transmission lines
 Establishes a new 3,000-acre categorical exclusion to accelerate management near existing roads, trails, and transmission lines.
 Background: According to the Pacific Biodiversity Institute, nearly 90% of wildfires begin within a half-mile of a Forest Service road.

I wondered about that and found this 2007 report from PDI.

Section 104 – Accelerating Post-Fire restoration and reforestation
 Establishes a new statutory tool to accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation work on Forest Service land. Based largely on the Forest Service’s existing Emergency Situation Determination authority, this provision specifies that the agency must do environmental analysis only on the proposed post-fire project and the scenario of not doing any project, so long as the treatment area is not larger than 10,000 acres.

Section 105 – Codifying “New Information”
 Specifies that the Forest Service is not required to reinitiate plan-level consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the finding of “new information” related to a listed species unless the “new information” is publicly available, peer-reviewed, and consistent with longstanding federal guidelines for scientific information. Allows for the agency to conduct informal, formal, or no consultation as appropriate and allows projects to continue during plan-level consultation.
This is known as the “Cottonwood Fix” relating to a court case which others here know much more about.

Section 106 – Hazard Mitigation Using Disaster Assistance

 Allows FEMA hazard mitigation grant funding to be used to install fire-resistant wires and infrastructure as well as for the undergrounding of wires.

Section 201 – Biomass Energy Infrastructure Program
 Establishes a new Department of Energy grant program to facilitate the removal of biomass from National Forest areas that are at high risk of wildfire and to transport that biomass to conversion facilities.
 Biomass conversion facilities located within areas of economic need and seek to remove dead or dying trees are prioritized. Grants are limited to $750,000.

Section 301 – California Exemption to Prohibition on Export of Unprocessed Timber
 Allows the export of unprocessed in timber of dead and dying trees in California. The exemption only applies after domestic mills have refused the unprocessed timber.

I tried to find out more about this but the U of Calif, my own alma mater, (sadly) does not seem to have anyone that I could identify as a forest economist. Any help locating a knowledgeable person on timber markets and the possibility of exports would be appreciated.

Section 401 – Innovative Forest Workforce Development Program
 Creates a competitive grant program to provide funds to non-profits, educational institutions, and state agencies to assist in the development of activities relating to workforce development in the forestry sector. Funds can be used for education, training, skills development, and education.

Section 403 – Western Prescribed Fire Center
 Establishes a Prescribed Fire Center in the West to train individuals in prescribed fire methods and other methods relevant to the mitigation of wildfire risk.

I like the idea of a Prescribed Fire Center but I’d want it to 1) understand and coordinate existing state, federal and NGO efforts, 2) identify gaps and solutions in a biennial report to Congress, and 3) commission research. Probably other things as well but I don’t think training by itself will overcome all the obstacles to increasing PB.

Section 403 – Retrofits for Fire-Resilient Communities
 Amends the Weatherization Assistance program to make materials that are resistant to high heat and fire and dwellings that utilize fire-resistant materials and incorporate wildfire prevention and mitigation planning eligible for funds.
 Increases the level of available funding to $13,000 and allows for increases with inflation.

Section 404 – Critical Infrastructure and Microgrid Program
 Establishes a new Department of Energy grant program to improve the energy resilience, energy efficiency, and power needs of critical facilities.
 Prioritizes rural communities with access to on-site back-up power and installation of electrical switching gear

For whatever reason, this seems to be more of a California problem.

What do you think of these? And what do you think is missing?

Rural Forests Markets Act

Just received a press release from the American Forest Foundation in support of the Rural Forests Markets Act, which would:

  • Establishes the Rural Forest Market Investment Program that offers guaranteed loans up to $150 million for nonprofits and companies to help small and family foresters create and sell forest credits for storing carbon or providing other environmental benefits.
  • Provides a climate solution by encouraging forestland owners to adopt voluntary land management practices that draw carbon out of the air and stores it in forests.
  • Creates new revenue streams for small-scale, family foresters by making it possible to generate innovative credits they can sell in established environmental marketplaces.
  • Brings investment into rural communities by reducing the financial risk to private investors who can contribute the upfront financing that makes these projects possible.

The press release:

Dear Senator Stabenow and Senator Braun,

The undersigned organizations are writing to offer our sincere thanks for your leadership in introducing S.
4451, the Rural Forests Markets Act. Together, we represent organizations with diverse backgrounds in
forest and forest products, large and small private forest owners, conservation and wildlife groups,
landowners, academics, and carbon finance experts, all proud to produce and support natural climate
solutions from our forests and forest products.

Even though our interests are diverse, the Rural Forests Markets Act benefits us all. For example, this bill
will help unlock capital investment that will allow America’s family forest owners to participate in
markets for carbon and other values. This bill will not just benefit family forest owners, but will also
support a diverse set of private forest owners seeking to participate in market opportunities that have high
up front costs but an abundance of environmental and economic benefits especially in rural areas.
Most importantly, we urge you to add the Rural Forests Markets Act to any year end package moving
through Congress to help stimulate rural economies by opening carbon and other markets, bringing
billions from the private sector and generating additional landowner income from their land.

Once again, we appreciate your dedication in ensuring investment to rural forested communities is
leveraged and access to carbon and other environmental markets are available to amplify our conservation


American Bird Conservancy
American Forest Foundation
American Forests
American Wood Council
Arkansas Forestry Association
Arkansas Tree Farm Program
Finite Carbon
Hardwood Federation
Land Trust Alliance
Michigan State University Department of
National Alliance of Forest Owners
National Association of State Foresters
National Wildlife Federation
Oregon Tree Farm Program
Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine
Society of American Foresters
The Lyme Timber Company
The Nature Conservancy
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Western Landowners Alliance


Incident Command Team Brings Order to Chaos: Liz Forster/Gazette Story

Flint Cheney talks to the Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team during a 6 a.m. briefing July 6 in the camp outside Fairplay. The briefing gives the entire team an idea of what to expect for the day based on the divisions and the fire’s progress. Cheney also led the group in a moment of silence to honor the 14 firefighters killed 24 years prior in Grand Junction during the South Canyon Fire. Cheney was the dispatch during this accident and makes sure to hold a moment of silence whenever he is working on a crew on July 6. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner, The Gazette)

I thought Liz Forster (currently a law student at University of Montana) wrote a great story interviewing folks on a Type I Team in Colorado in 2018 about what they do and why they do it.

When the call came June 30 to take command of the Weston Pass and High Chateau fires, the team had two hours to mobilize. Team members came from as far as New York and Florida. Many local resources already were deployed to other fires burning in Colorado and throughout the West.

From July 1 through July 14, Cheney and co-chief Steve Petersburg’s days started about 5 a.m. and revolved around a hefty Incident Action Plan — “The Bible,” as team spokesman Bob Summerfield calls it.

The document begins broadly, with the incident objectives and staff roster. From there, Cheney and Petersburg tap into the Geographic Information System specialist, fire behavior analyst, meteorologist, air resource adviser and others in the Planning Section who build the bird’s-eye view of the fire.

The Operation Section then outlines tactics: where crews need to dig lines, what communities need structure protection, where fire retardant and water need to be dropped, what safety precautions should be taken.

“We convey the leader’s intent to the people on the ground, then act as a voice for those out in the field,” said Ken Gregor of Planning Operations.

Package in the Logistics Section — facilities, food, ground support, supplies — and Finance, and the document usually tops 30 pages.

With Deputy Incident Commander Dan Dallas’ signature at the bottom, the document is ready to print and distribute. On average, the section makes 250 to 300 copies of a 35-page document. During the height of the 416 fire north of Durango, which the Rocky Mountain team also led, the action plan was pushing 50 pages and more than 500 copies.

“We have to have it, even if people are up until 2 a.m. making copies,” Cheney said. “It’s like in the military — if you have a platoon out there that doesn’t know what they’re doing at the start of each day, they’re a wasted resource.”

Many on the team started as wildland firefighters, digging line, sawing down hazardous trees and suppressing the fire in the field.

The past experience provides them with an intimate understanding of the experience in the heat of the flames, and many jump at the chance to get out of the office and onto the fire perimeter.

What doesn’t change from the office to the field is the sense of cohesion, that multitude of cogs turning in this complex operation.

“When I worked on the line, the guy or gal behind you is essential to your well-being and existence,” said Dallas, the deputy incident commander. “That basic human relationship is no less important as you go from the end of the shovel up to the incident commander position.”

For many, that means delaying retirement and flipping the switch to fire. For Cheney and about half of the command team, it means temporarily handing off the responsibilities of their full-time jobs elsewhere in exchange for 14-plus-hour workdays at a fire.

“It’s a lot to manage, but I keep coming back because of the excitement of it, the change of pace,” Cheney said. “I get out from behind my desk, come out here and do something meaningful on the ground.”

Extra income is a factor. But across the board, the command staff gets hooked simply on working with each other.

“If I couldn’t be with my natural family, this is the family I’d choose to be with,” Petersburg said.

Dallas struggled to articulate the bond he feels with those he leads. Instead, he referenced the signed football made of plastic wrap given to him by a camp crew on the 416 fire and a 3-by-3-foot box of cards sent to him by colleagues across the country when he had two craniotomies in 2015.

Dallas said, “I can try to package together neatly why I do this, but there’s just something different about this world.”

Federal judge removes acting Bureau of Land Management director after finding he has served unlawfully for 424 days

Breaking news from Friday evening: William Perry Pendley, a self-described Sage Brush Rebel who questions the very existence of federal public lands, has unlawfully overseen the management of 250 million acres of federal public lands for over 400 days, according to Chief District Judge Brian Morris of the US District Court of Montana.

Federal judge removes acting Bureau of Land Management director after finding he has served unlawfully for 424 days

Washington (CNN)—A federal judge on Friday ordered acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley to step aside, blocking him from exercising any more authority after finding that he has served unlawfully for more than 400 days.

Chief District Judge Brian Morris of the US District Court of Montana ruled that Pendley has served unlawfully for 424 days, in response to a lawsuit brought by Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Morris additionally ruled Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt cannot pick another person to run the Bureau of Land Management as its acting head because that person must be appointed by the President and Senate-confirmed.

The judge gave both sides of the case 10 days to file briefs about which of Pendley’s orders must be vacated.

“Pendley has served and continues to serve unlawfully as the Acting BLM Director,” Morris wrote in his opinion. “His ascent to Acting BLM Director did not follow any of the permissible paths set forth by the U.S. Constitution or the (Federal Vacancies Reform Act). Pendley has not been nominated by the President and has not been confirmed by the Senate to serve as BLM Director.”

He added, “Secretary Bernhardt lacked the authority to appoint Pendley as an Acting BLM Director under the FVRA. Pendley unlawfully took the temporary position beyond the 210-day maximum allowed by the FVRA. Pendley unlawfully served as Acting BLM Director after the President submitted his permanent appointment to the Senate for confirmation — another violation of the FVRA. And Pendley unlawfully serves as Acting BLM Director today, under color of the Succession Memo.”

Read the full article from CNN here.

Trump Admin. Plan for the Tongass

NY Times today:

The United States Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, is scheduled on Friday to publish an environmental study concluding that lifting the roadless rule protections in the Tongass would not significantly harm the environment. That study will allow the agency to formally lift the rule in the Tongass within the next 30 days, clearing the way for the Trump administration to propose timber sales and road construction projects in the forest as soon as the end of this year.

USFS press release is here. Not much info there.

USFS documentation is here.


Practice of Science Friday: How To Make Fire Science More Useful in the Real World

There’s much talk of what people need to do to live with fire, but so far I haven’t seen many social scientists quoted in the press, even though I know they have developed a substantial body of literature on the subject. In my digging into this, I ran across this workshop report from a National Academy workshop. “Living with Fire: State of the Science around Fire-Adapted Communities.” National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to Long-term Approaches for Wildland Fire Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Kevin Hiers, a fire scientist at Tall Timbers, wrote this section and I agree with many of his ideas. I even think that many are applicable outside of fire science. I’ve bolded a few of his statements.

Fire scientists are a diverse group as well and come from disciplines as varied as meteorology, physics, forestry, ecology, and, increasingly, the social sciences. In an attempt to be relevant, fire scientists often are tool-focused and recommendation-focused so that they can tell managers how to better manage their land. The unintended consequence is that decision space is often constrained in this increasingly complex world. When mistakes are made by quantifying the obvious rather than focusing on what managers need to know, little science is translated into management actions.

Because Hiers has spent much of his career on this border between fire science and fire management, he emphasized a few characteristics that are important barriers to overcome. First, managers rely on experience as the currency of credibility. This experiential learning is different from structured learning. The scientific community, with its incentive to publish papers, has dialogs and arguments in the peer-reviewed literature; however, that conversation does not always translate well to on-the-ground experience. Second, managers have specific circumstances to deal with—the fire of the day that has a particular set of management objectives, topography of fuels, and atmospheric conditions—whereas scientists seek generality in their world view. Generalization changes scientists’ understanding of managers’ risks. Third, the complexity in fire management versus the orientation of fire science around specific disciplines increases the challenge of applying science to management. For example, when a prescribed fire is set in the WUI, the manager’s job is on the line and he or she has to integrate all of the different disciplines of fire science into that day’s burn. As fire scientists dive deeper into the depths of particular disciplines, the ability of managers to integrate the findings of research from these different areas of expertise and apply them to a specific burn becomes more and more difficult.

A different approach is needed. First, translational fire science, which is process-oriented not tool-focused, is needed. Hiers posited that solutions to the United States’ fire problem will come from long-term, shared experiences where scientists are on the fires with managers, providing the circumstances for each group to become fluent with the other. Second, fire science outcomes must begin to address uncertainty, he said, rather than what is already known, and focus on fires that can be controlled, like prescribed burns. Even for prescribed burning in the Southeast, tools are still needed to develop objectives and prescription parameters. Third, the disciplinary breadth of fire science needs to be expanded to social scientists. Many of the solutions discussed at the workshop were outside of the traditional realm of fire science expertise. Hiers commented how important it was to have social scientists present at the workshop and how their participation in fire science and management is absolutely critical. More incentives need to be provided for social scientists to participate in and contribute to solutions.

Many building blocks exist for moving toward this new approach, including prescribed fire councils, regional fire exchanges through the Joint Fire Science Program, and the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium. Hiers emphasized that when managers and scientists burn and manage fires together, they learn together. One of the premier National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center courses is an agency administrator course, which brings the line officers into a context where they see what managers face every day. Shared experiences like the one provided in the course are key, but such mentorship programs are lacking. Formal adoption of shared experience as a strategy has yet to occur, and agency leadership is needed to provide incentives for scientists to participate in an experiential way.

In my words:
Splinterizing disciplines leaving managers to synthesize in real time
Scientists rewarded for generalization, people encounter specific situations
Lack of shared experiences- real world experiential and discussion opportunities between scientists and managers
Management involves people ergo social science is critical

Oregon Public Broadcasting “Timber Wars” Podcast

OPB has released most of its 7-part “Timber Wars” podcast.

The writer/director, Aaron Scott, spent a year on this impressive project, funded, in part, by an NPR grant. As in Bill Dietrich’s “The Final Forest,” the best book on this era, Scott sympathetically lets protagonists from all sides tell the story in their own words. [As one of those protagonists, Episode 3 — The owl, I’ll let my words on that subject speak for themselves.]

With the benefit of 30-year hindsight, however, Scott’s storyline sweeps more broadly than Dietrich could in 1992. Who could have anticipated that the Timber Wars would catalyze anarchist protests at the Seattle WTO? Or be the fuse that ignited science-denying, anti-government, class-based populism?

Scott’s production captures well the social paroxysms of those times and the indelible wounds they have left in a generation of northwesterners.

Grist: Wildfires and CO2

Interesting article in Grist: “This Oregon forest was supposed to store carbon for 100 years. Now it’s on fire.

Claudia Herbert, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying risks to forest carbon offsets, noticed that the Lionshead Fire — which tore through 190,000 acres of forest in Central Oregon and forced a terrifying evacuation of the nearby town of Detroit — appeared to have almost completely engulfed the largest forest dedicated to sequestering carbon dioxide in the state.

The project, owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, spans 24,000 acres. Before the fires, the state of California had issued more than 2.6 million offset credits based on the carbon stored in its trees. That translates to 2.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — or the equivalent of driving 560,000 cars around for one year.

As many of you are aware, the Lionshead fire is one of many fires to burn in Oregon this year, for a total of ~1 million acres.

An example of the U.S. Forest Service fanning fear?

I couldn’t help but notice that 15 minutes ago the U.S. Forest Service’s official twitter handle posted this tweet:

Within less than five minutes, I was able to determine the simple facts that this dramatic image:

1) Is from 6 days ago (confirm for yourself here);
2) Is from an intentional Forest Service back-burn operation that firefighters started with drip torches 6 days ago (confirm here); and

3) The vast majority of this wildfire has burned grass, brush, sage, range and some agriculture land, not “forests.” (confirm here).

And check out the satellite image of the general wildfire area below.

Do any of these facts matter? Does the U.S. Forest Service have an obligation to share these types of facts?