Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatment: VI. Stewardship and Fireshed Assessments

From Reality Show: SPLATS Take a Trip from Theory to the Tahoe National Forest

Sometimes when I hear that “science says that fuel treatments don’t work” I wonder why the views of scientists who work on fuel treatments don’t seem to count as “science”. IMHO, there is altogether too much ready acceptance of (generally scientists) framing issues as “science” issues, and then claiming one discipline is key to the answers. But “how we should live on fire-prone landscapes” and “what should we do about the changing climate” are not science issues, although certainly the research conducted by a variety of scientific disciplines can shed light on different policy options open to public choice.

Thanks to Dr. Mark Finney for guiding me to this effort, and Bernie Bahro for his knowledge of the SFA process. We probably don’t need to go into the reasons it hasn’t been working, despite having both scientific research and local knowledge behind it. Once again, people will say “we need more fire on the landscape” or “we need to help suppression folks deal with problem fires”. So folks participate in planning exercises, and then the FS runs into the obstacles associated with implementation. The Forest Service is between a rock (we need more fire) and a hard place (doing actions like PB and WFU) (between a backfire and the main fire?). Interesting that GAO was tentatively pro-SFA…Here’s the link and below are excerpts.

However, a recent GAO report (GAO-04-705) noted: “One [approach] that appears promising for national implementation is the Fireshed Assessment process, an integrated interdisciplinary approach to evaluating fuel treatment effectiveness at reducing fire spread across landscapes.”

The Stewardship and Fireshed Assessment (SFA) process is a rapid assessment process that has been developed for the national forests in California. The SFA process frames and evaluates the performance of hazardous fuels treatments at a landscape-scale, where treatments are designed to change the outcome of a “problem” fire in a particular landscape. A “problem” fire is a hypothetical wildfire that could be expected to burn in an area that would have severe or uncharacteristic effects or result in unacceptable consequences. While the primary objective of strategic treatments is to reduce the wildfire risk to communities in the wildland urban interface, treatments must also be designed to integrate broader stewardship objectives, such as improving forest health, meeting habitat needs, and maintaining and improving watershed conditions. Given these multiple objectives, it is important that a landscape treatment strategy be reasonable and feasible and, critically, that it have public support. This is accomplished by evaluating treatment scenarios, which are combinations of treatment locations, treatment prescriptions, and implementation
timelines, in an open and transparent manner. Through repeatedly testing and improving assumptions, public understanding of ecological processes, the effects of management, and management constraints and opportunities can be enhanced.

I’ll just outline some of the obvious barriers: negotiating with interest groups to the point in which the project doesn’t actually work for fuels reduction, not having the $ to implement when the NEPA is finished and the ROD signed (or to have $ for some phases, but not for all), air quality restrictions for prescribed burning, and so on. The Stewardship and Fireshed Assessments may still be valuable for the opportunity for the public and specialists to discuss what happens and what has happened on a particular landscape or fireshed, and may also help to have information organized and synthesized for later WFU efforts. I’d be interested to hear from folks who have experience with the SFA process.

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