Different Ways of Knowing about Fire and Fuel Treatments

Last week, some scientists and practitioners met to discuss the utility of fuels treatments in creating defensibly space around communities. Even on a fairly simple question (what stages of dead trees have what kinds of fire behavior?) there are a variety of approaches to think about the question.

One is practitioner observation. For example, one practitioner had spoken to suppression people in BC who said that fire can move through dead trees with needles like a “tall grass fire.” Another piece of evidence (called “the science”) was based on looking at the past, that when there were many dead trees, there was not more fire. But if we believe the climate is changing, what do studies of the past really tell us in terms of relevance to the future?

I ran across this set of photos by Derek Weidensee on observed fire behavior (granted, not entirely about dead trees). His piece is worth a read- he rounds up both some research and empirical evidence. He also has some latitudes and longitudes you can plug into Google Earth and see the changes through time for yourself. Here’s a quote I found interesting:

I’ve read dozens of USFS EIS’s and EA’s, and frankly the litigation-driven reliance on published “best available science” means the public doesn’t have a clue what the EIS authors are talking about. Nothing makes the public’s eyes glaze over faster than fuel models, fire groups, fire regime condition class, canopy bulk density, etc. etc. Local experience carries a lot of weight with the local public. And pictures are worth more to the public than the thousands of words in the fires and fuels section of an EIS. It’s unfortunate local experience doesn’t seem to carry much weight with a judge.

It made me wonder to what extent local collaboratives may come to different answers than national groups, not based on “caving to pressure” but based on empirical ways of knowing.

Last week there was a piece in New West by George Wuerthner.

Here are some quotes:

the Forest Service exploits the public’s misconceptions about wildfire and forest ecology to further its logging agenda

Research by the FS own scientists suggests that thinning any greater distance than a hundred or so feet from a home provides little additional reduction in fire risk. In other words, this timber sale will do little to safeguard Elliston from wildfire—indeed; most of the town is in no jeopardy what so ever from a direct fire front

Furthermore, if the County Commissioners were truly concerned about fire hazards, they would not permit house construction in the fire plain. Zoning is the best way to protect homes and safe lives rather than expect taxpayer to fix the problem they created by allowing home construction in inappropriate sites. Building in a fire plain is just as foolish as building in a river floodplain.

It may be desirable, in the view of some, to move everyone out of treed and (chaparraled) western landscapes. However, in my view this is not practically feasible.
And once again the “timber wars filter” is part of the story..

Instead of using the Elliston Face to counter misconceptions about wildfire and who is actually responsible for protecting property, the FS exploits the fears of misinformed citizens. One can only conclude the agency is still the handmaiden to the timber industry rather than a public servant working on behalf of all citizens of the country.


The Elliston sale is…is yet another example of how the Forest Service exploits the public’s misconceptions about wildfire and forest ecology to further its logging agenda.

Based on looking at press stories, fuel treatments in Southern California don’t seem to be all that controversial. I wonder if that is because in the Interior West the specter of the timber industry still lives in the imagination.

Derek said in his post

In the ongoing debate, the public and policy makers need more unbiased research and a one stop database to see for themselves what fuels treatments can do.

I think we need a central place to show the results of different ways of knowing, and have an ongoing conversation about what they each tell us about the reality of fuel treatments and fires.

6 thoughts on “Different Ways of Knowing about Fire and Fuel Treatments”

  1. It may be desirable, in the view of some, to move everyone out of treed and (chaparraled) western landscapes.


    What an intriguing statement! Could you expound on this? Why is it “desirable” to cleanse humanity off what can only be interpreted as vast landscapes? What are the virtues of disconnecting people from the land? Who are the “some” who desire such pan-ethnic cleansing?

    What in your view would be a “feasible” means of driving people off the land? To what extent is herding people like cattle, depriving them of their human rights, separating humanity from the landscape, a socio-political “solution” rather than an ecological one? Can you cite other instances in history where pan-ethnic landscape cleansing was practiced? What were the political systems responsible for such practices? What political viewpoints support those practices today? Are those “different ways of knowing” about human relations?

    I don’t mean these questions in a facetious way. They are fundamental questions that go to the heart of the “Environmental Movement”. As such they are important ones for you to consider and express your opinions about.

  2. Mike- I skipped a logic step there. What I quoted was ” Zoning is the best way to protect homes and safe lives rather than expect taxpayer to fix the problem they created by allowing home construction in inappropriate sites.”

    The logic step I skipped was my thinking “but even if not one more house was built in treed areas, we would still need some kind of protection for those that already exist.” So then I figured that if some believe the problem is homes and communities that are already built, as opposed to those that might be stopped in the future by zoning, then the solution is to simply depopulate the forested (and chaparraled) West.

    I should have used an emoticon ;).

  3. Some would very much LIKE to remove humans from the forests but, instead, they simply blame them for living where they live. If you read through the “Battle Royale” between George and I, you’ll see the extreme position he takes against forest management and public safety. He even proposes that it should be all the private land that gets turned into fuel breaks and thinned forests, instead of “destruction” of Forest Service lands around Elliston, Montana.

    Personally, I don’t think too many forest residents are buying his “snake oil”, believing that dead trees won’t burn. (See Bitterroot Middle Fork project, which I worked on, for better or for worse 😉 )

  4. Nope. The 2004 Middle Fork project, on the Sula RD, was that infamous one where the project was prepared to follow the “preferred alternative”, before it was signed (not the first time I’ve participated in such monkey business!). Not that it was such a bad thing but, I’d rather that the USFS “walks the talk”, jumping through the proper hoops.

    Speaking of the fire salvage, some stream buffers actually overlapped across the ridges seperating drainages. Such a thing should never happen and a ridgetop should be able to be utilized to pull logs up to a skid trail. Stream buffers should fit the stream, instead of making streams fit the buffers.

  5. Dead trees burn burn extremely well. I have seen enough re-burns, and fire burning through bug kill trees to realize this. Dead trees burn hotter, and are often totally consumed and are more likely to bake the soil. I have seen re- burn areas effectively converted to brush due to taking out the seedlings and removal of seed sources. Letting nature take its own course might not be too pretty in some instances. Nature can destroy forests.


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