An article in the Missoulian yesterday discussed “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-based Investment Strategy,” a new Forest Service initiative that “rethinks the agency’s approach to wildfire, invasive species, drought and disease.” It seeks a more coordinated and broader-scale approach with the states. It seems to focus mostly on “systems that evolved with frequent fire.”
“Pre-settlement, 20 percent of California was on fire every year,” Phipps said. “That’s the scale of the problem. Lots of communities are doing wildfire protection planning, but they’ve been looking at, on average, 50 times less than the large landscapes we need to be concerned about.
“This is not about pruning trees,” Phipps continued. “Today, on average we’re treating about 1 to 2 percent of the area we need. We need to create conditions where 30 to 40 percent of that area can be treated with low-intensity ground fire before we get a significant reduction of risk.”
Rawlings also acknowledged that prescribed burning was a more inexpensive way of treating the forest than harvesting. And according to Forest Service research, more burning must happen for even productive timber land to stay healthy. Examinations of last year’s Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak fires near Missoula showed that even heavily logged timber stands had little effect on the big fires’ progress. But past burn scars and prescribed burn areas did slow or redirect the fires.
“We know in these fire-adapted systems, there’s no substitute for fire,” Phipps said. “Even in areas where there’s commercial value, if we want to reduce the fuel density of forests, we still have to bring fire back.”
That raises several challenges. The first is how to reshape public opinion about the need for fire. That means getting people used to having smoky air in the spring and fall, when prescribed burns can take place under safer conditions and release up to 10 times less toxic pollutants than mid-summer megafires.
“Prior planning opens up possibilities for us,” Phipps said. “In a year like this year, it’s not a good strategy to take risks and allow fire to roam on initial attack. But two or three years out of 10, we can allow fire to roam.”
“We need to mutually agree where the best places for investment are,” French said. “The way to get ahead of this is mutual, collaborative, cooperative work across the communities affected. We can’t do it alone.”
It looks like they missed an opportunity to promote the relevance of forest planning to making the strategic decisions about where we consider to be “fire-adapted systems” (or other areas) where active fuels management would be appropriate.