Difference engine: Fire on the mountain

Thanks to Hipnology for this piece in the Economist

Here’s a quote:

As Ms. Poulos and Mr Workman note, a century’s accumulation of dry fuel on public lands makes it too expensive and risky—for people, property, habitats and carbon emissions—to unleash prescribed fires on a scale needed to manage America’s national forests more efficiently. (Including private land, national parks and other government property, forests cover nearly 750m acres in America—a third of the country’s land surface.) On the other hand, letting the lumber companies loose to go logging in the national forests on such a scale would engender a massive public outcry. So, what is to be done to release the water that over-stocked forests squander?

One practical solution, known as “forest to faucet”, is being undertaken in Colorado by Denver Water, a utility serving 1.3m Denver residents. After severe wildfires stripped the local landscape and left the soil exposed, subsequent storms drove so much sediment down the hillsides that the utility is now having to spend $30m to dredge the streams and reservoirs that supply its water.

The lesson the utility has learned is that, even though it is not its responsibility, it is far better to pay to have the upstream forests thinned and cleared—so future wildfires in the watershed are nowhere near as fierce, river flows improve, storms do less damage and droughts become less frequent. Under a five-year agreement, the Forest Service will share the cost with the utility to ensure the watershed is properly managed. Denver Water’s enlightened customers will each stump up $27 over the period.

This public-private approach is the kind the Wesleyan researchers favour. They note that water rights in western parts of America are valued at $450 to $650 per acre-foot and rising. It therefore pays thirsty downstream communities to spend $1,000 per acre (the average cost to the Forest Service) to remove the fire-prone trash trees in upstream forests that affect their water supply. In return for their investment, they get the 2.3 acre-feet of water (worth $1,000 to $1,500), which would have otherwise transpired into the sky, for every acre of forest that has been properly thinned.

What is stopping other communities in America’s arid west from following suit? Nothing, other than a mind-set among many who think that if a dozen trees are good, 100 are better. Meanwhile, to replenish the streams before they dry up, others have to accept that chopping down trash trees to prevent conflagrations, and thereby preserve the forests, is no bad thing. As the Wesleyan ecologists admit, “We lifelong tree-huggers must learn when and where to let go.”

10 thoughts on “Difference engine: Fire on the mountain”

  1. I just checked the National Inter-agency Fire Center data, as of today June 14, 2012 1,034,011 acres of national forest lands have burned. 640 acres = 1 square mile. 1615 SQUARE MILES BURNED SO FAR THIS YEAR. We are already very near the yearly average of acres burned in the last ten years. HANG ON!
    Rob DeHarpport

  2. This could be another year where wildfire policy enhances fire intensities, sizes and damage. All of the elements are there for a “perfect storm”, including reduced aerial resources, dropped coverage areas, tinder-dry seasoned fuels and let-burn strategies tying up scarce firefighting resources. How will we cope with fires burning for weeks and months? I’m working at 6000 feet elevation, and the carpet of sticks on the forest floor are dry as a bone. Additionally, there was a blowdown event and lots of snow breakage last winter. MANY roads are blocked or hindered by trees and debris. I did see some massive, fully-mature thunderheads in the high country, yesterday.

    Could this year be the year that ends the “wildfires are natural and beneficial” meme? The Indians faced that reality and put great effort into reducing fuels (along with all the other benefits, for their prosperity and survival). Why won’t we face that reality?

  3. Mathew, Sorry, I was wrong to state that these fires are all on National Forest lands. I will be more accurate, I hope you will be also. However, I believe that we will find that the vast majority of acreage burned is on federally managed lands. If you re-read what I stated, I said that we are already near the 10 year average of acres burned- this year 2012 to date (June 14, 2012) we have seen 1,034,011 acres burned– the 10 year average acreage burned is listed below at 1,598,489. We have just begun to enter the fire season. Here in the Northwest we still have quite a bit of snow in the higher elevations.
    Also, I just watched USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell on a morning news show call the fires we have experienced “super-fires” rather than mega-fires. My point was that the trend in the Western U.S. is very evident in these tables- we are experiencing more and more acreage of both public and private lands being incinerated annually and the May – June 2012 “super-fires” as Chief Tidwell called them are an indication that my point was accurate and continuing.
    Year-to-date statistics
    2012 (1/1/12 – 6/15/12) Fires: 24,360 Acres: 1,052,994
    2011 (1/1/11 – 6/15/11) Fires: 32,600 Acres: 4,227,908
    2010 (1/1/10 – 6/15/10) Fires: 27,227 Acres: 1,316,854
    2009 (1/1/09 – 6/15/09) Fires: 44,810 Acres: 1,759,579
    2008 (1/1/08 – 6/15/08) Fires: 31,155 Acres: 1,669,996
    2007 (1/1/07 – 6/15/07) Fires: 42,628 Acres: 1,475,775
    2006 (1/1/06 – 6/15/06) Fires: 50,982 Acres: 2,913,389
    2005 (1/1/05 – 6/15/05) Fires: 26,386 Acres: 473,550
    2004 (1/1/03 – 6/15/04) Fires: 34,729 Acres: 644,061
    2003 (1/1/03 – 6/15/03) Fires: 24,001 Acres: 450,781
    10-year average
    2003-2012 Fires: 33,888 Acres: 1,598,489

    Rob DeHarpport

  4. It is not just about sheer acreage. Wildfire intensities have also gone up, due to the ample fuels that continue to pile up, in unmanaged and under-managed forests. Of course, we’ll never try to managed all lands with the same “techniques” but, it is clear we need to do more. Compare acreages with other decades and you have a better picture of just how bad the last ten years really have been.

    Total Wildland Fires and Acres (1960-2009)
    Figures prior to 1983 may be revised as NICC verifies historical data.
    Year Fires Acres
    2011 74,126 8,711,367
    2010 71,971 3,422,724
    2009 78,792 5,921,786
    2008 78,979 5,292,468
    2007 85,705 9,328,045
    2006 96,385 9,873,745
    2005 66,753 8,689,389
    2004 65,461 8,097,880
    2003 63,629 3,960,842
    2002 73,457 7,184,712
    2001 84,079 3,570,911
    2000 92,250 7,393,493
    1999 92,487 5,626,093
    1998 81,043 1,329,704
    1997 66,196 2,856,959
    1996 96,363 6,065,998
    1995 82,234 1,840,546
    1994 79,107 4,073,579
    1993 58,810 1,797,574
    1992 87,394 2,069,929
    1991 75,754 2,953,578
    1990 66,481 4,621,621
    1989 48,949 1,827,310
    1988 72,750 5,009,290
    1987 71,300 2,447,296
    1986 85,907 2,719,162
    1985 82,591 2,896,147
    1984 20,493 1,148,409
    1983 18,229 1,323,666
    1982 174,755 2,382,036
    1981 249,370 4,814,206
    1980 234,892 5,260,825
    1979 163,196 2,986,826
    1978 218,842 3,910,913
    1977 173,998 3,152,644
    1976 241,699 5,109,926
    1975 134,872 1,791,327
    1974 145,868 2,879,095
    1973 117,957 1,915,273
    1972 124,554 2,641,166
    1971 108,398 4,278,472
    1970 121,736 3,278,565
    1969 113,351 6,689,081
    1968 125,371 4,231,996
    1967 125,025 4,658,586
    1966 122,500 4,574,389
    1965 113,684 2,652,112
    1964 116,358 4,197,309
    1963 164,183 7,120,768
    1962 115,345 4,078,894
    1961 98,517 3,036,219
    1960 103,387 4,478,188

    It would be quite interesting to have an inventory of how many of those acres were old growth. It should also be noted that slash requirements in prior decades were minimal to non-existent. What also should be noted is the dearth of field-going, fire-qualified employees in other departments. The marking crew I’m on won’t be fighting fires, partly due to the youngest being 42 years old (but he is incredibly fit!)

    • During the 1920s to early 1940s an average of 37,000,000 acres burned in the US every single year. In fact, the true “record setting” fire season was 1930, when 52,000,000 acres burned nationally. Of course, all of these historic acres burned totals were removed from the NIFC website during the Bush Administration.

  5. I like the silver lining identified in this article. If we want to effectively address the issue of forest resilience and health as a society, the Federal Government cannot do it alone. Nor should they. Doing is learning, and it is important for agencies like the Forest Service to work in conjunction with local municipalities or others where this opportunity exists so that we’re not constantly in conflict and reaction mode.

    On the Coconino National Forest, we had a 15,000 acre on the San Francisco Peaks called the Schultz Fire. It set off a firestorm of finger pointing and blame placement, all of which helped absolutely nothing. Now we’re rounding the corner. The City of Flagstaff is considering doing something similar to what Denver Water is doing here, but the focus would be on working with the Forest on strategically placed forest restoration work (in unburned areas). This will be discussed in more detail in a series of articles in the Arizona Republic. The series will run on Sunday, with installments on Monday, Wednesday and next Sunday. The theme is the future of forests and a review of forest conditions ten years after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

  6. You might also consider that access to many of these fires was very limited in the 1920s-1940s were also a limiting factor to controlling them back in those days. Today we have far better access and technology as compared to the days you are citing Mathew. I must ask: where does the data you use citing 37,000,000 acres burned per year come from?
    Rob DeHarpport

    • Indeed, such fires could not be safely fought. Usually, those fires burned until the snows came. The effects of expert Indian management were more in force, back then, and forests were more resilient to fire than they are today. More people meant more fires, in those days. Be careful wishing for the fires of yesteryear. The Colorado example will show just how undesirable such fires are, in this modern world. Wishing for a pre-Man forest is as ridiculous and wishing for logging on all the acres of all public lands.


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