Forest Service: We need more fires

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.

18 thoughts on “Forest Service: We need more fires”

  1. Good story and interesting perspective. I am curious if anyone knows the country well in Mendocino County that burned this year and in recent years. My recollection is that is somewhat open country, a mix of oak-woodlands and coniferous forest. I do not know anything about the fire ecology there and would be interested if someone does have some insight. I’d like to know what a prescribed fire, maintenance regime might look like in that particular country.

  2. This seems like a strange dichotomy. I wonder if this is the writer or something unique about Montana forests or they are imagining stands that have different characteristics than the stands I know?

    Many places with trees are not ready to for PB without preliminary thinning. In places where trees don’t have value, you have to pay to do that. So you have PB costs plus preliminary thinning costs. How can that be cheaper than selling some of the trees? There are hundreds of studies where fuel treatments involving logging (selling trees) have worked. Perhaps those logged areas on the Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak fires were not designed as fuel treatments?

    “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.”

    • Lolo Peak was my backyard for most of my life Sharon. What do you want to know?

      Get a line around it and hit it with the drip torches on a slow slow slow walk from the top down the flanks on a calm late spring day. It’s done all the time. Sure, there is some merchantable timber loss from ladder fuels, but it’s usually negligible if the burn boss isn’t an idiot.

      I’m in full agreement with the article. It absolutely has to be done to get back to a sane fire/fuel balance. But, yada yada yada politics.

  3. I wrote about the “shared stewardship” initiative in my editorial for the September edition of The Forestry Source (in press). An excerpt:

    In the nine years from 2008 to 2017, federal wildfire suppression costs totaled nearly $17 billion, according to NIFC, including more than $2.9 billion in 2017. These amounts do not include expenditures by states, local governments, and private landowners. A 2017 report by Philip S. Cook and Dennis R. Becker, “State Funding for Wildfire Suppression in the Western US,” reported that “In real dollar terms, average annual cost for [nine Western] states over the 11-year study period was $1.16 billion.”

    The bottom line is that US and the states can expect to spend a nice, round $4 billion per year on fire suppression for the foreseeable future. Perhaps more.

    I suggest that half of that amount, $2 billion from the federal government and the states, would be meaningful in carrying out the outcome-based investment strategy outlined by the Forest Service. Without funding of that scale, the outcome will be incremental reductions in forest resilience and wildfire risk, and continued increases in suppression spending and economic losses.

  4. I’ll bet that the pre-settlement San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys didn’t burn too well, being marshy and flooded, parts of the year. I’ll also bet that huge chunks of desert around Barstow didn’t burn very often. The vast “Redwood Empire” didn’t burn that often, as well. That 20% figure doesn’t seem valid. Of course, much of those burns were set by the residents, and not ‘naturally’ ignited, so that should be a caveat, too.

    Hoping for ‘natural’ lightning fires that behave themselves is not a rational choice, given the harsh realities we are faced with. We need more thinning and that just isn’t on the immediate horizon, here in California, despite what Trump, Perdue or Zinke says. People will wish for more prescribed burning but, nothing significant is coming. Due to multiple barriers.

    • That makes me wonder “how could you possibly know that?” Even if you did some kind of study (over say 200 years, say pre European 1200-1400) would you look at tree rings? Or smoke in sediment? Would you have enough sampling sites to get a good idea of how it varies from Happy Camp to Yuma and from Alturas to San Diego plus, as you said the Central Valley and then multiply by the acreages that are thought to be similar in frequency characteristics. Plus from 900-1300 there were higher temperatures and drought in the western US. It’s pretty complex and I don’t know what the take home message would be if it were 20, 30 or 10 percent.

      • What we do know, for sure, is that there are zillions more people visiting and living in much of the Sierra Nevada, today. That certainly makes comparisons… a bit…. irrelevant? A nice comparison would be, say, around 1860, when Indian burning had dropped off.

        So many variables, and so many changes make comparisons ‘interesting’ but, current site-specific conditions should drive the management (or non-management). The Forest Service has a great array of ‘Ologists’. Let them work out plans for treatments, within the desired future condition, as proposed by professional foresters.

    • Too bad they aren’t that successful now. Now we spend billions burning up more forests. It is a myth that fires make the forest more resilient, at least in Southwestern Oregon. Maybe they don’t burn as hot if there is no forest left to burn. The old Biscuit fire scare seems to be doing a good job of burning again this summer. It was just a little hotter and windier I am sure the FS could get it to burn all the way to Agnes.
      Maybe they will yet.

  5. “Phipps was co-author of another paper in April pointing out the nation’s “business-as-usual attempts to exclude fire from systems that evolved with frequent fire will in some cases simply amplify feedbacks that increase long-term risks.” The resulting paradox, he said, was a firefighting force that put out 98 percent of its incidents with initial response, but still reeled from the 2 percent of ignitions that turn into catastrophic megafires.”

    I haven’t been convinced that revised forest plans are going to say anything much different than “business as usual.”

    • Putting more fire on the landscape needs to be bigger than one land management agency. The state, all relevant land and regulatory feds (including EPA for smoke), communities, health folks and so on. At the risk of sounding like Mark Rey, this is above the pay grade of a forest supervisor and actually above the pay grade of the Chief or Secretary of Interior. Maybe that’s what this effort is designed to (partially) do.. but it’s just putting a bigger load on one donkey.

      If it were up to me I would give grants to states to try different approaches. Congressional delegations in places like Oregon, Washington and Colorado could work across the aisle to make that happen. WGA could develop some kind of bipartisan commission to help dole out the money and look at the results. We have incredibly smart and creative people who could work on this..we have Congressfolk on both sides who are worried about. Don’t know why the gears are not engaging. If anyone would like to write a guest post on their ideas about this (and how to make it happen) please send in!

  6. So, steep, flammable brush is very difficult to log and difficult to carry out prescribed burning becasue of the risks. Seems more like a structural flammability and zoning issue to me. We certainly can;t turn down the heat or the turn off the winds.

    • Oh, it is. I yammer about that all the time on here. Unfortunately, the topic is beyond most contributor’s area of expertise. I’m considering making a legislative push in Idaho for a required wildland fire component in City and Counties comprehensive plans so that they are forced to incorporate the plans into their zoning. Here are Idaho’s current comp plan components that relate to fire:

      I.C. Sec. 67-6508

      (e) Land Use — An analysis of natural land types, existing land covers and uses, and the intrinsic suitability of lands for uses such as agriculture, forestry, mineral exploration and extraction, preservation, recreation, housing, commerce, industry, and public facilities. A map shall be prepared indicating suitable projected land uses for the jurisdiction.
      (f) Natural Resources — An analysis of the uses of rivers and other waters, forests, range, soils, harbors, fisheries, wildlife, minerals, thermal waters, beaches, watersheds, and shorelines.
      (g) Hazardous Areas — An analysis of known hazards as may result from susceptibility to surface ruptures from faulting, ground shaking, ground failure, landslides or mudslides; avalanche hazards resulting from development in the known or probable path of snowslides and avalanches, and floodplain hazards.
      (h) Public Services, Facilities, and Utilities — An analysis showing general plans for sewage, drainage, power plant sites, utility transmission corridors, water supply, fire stations and fire fighting equipment, health and welfare facilities, libraries, solid waste disposal sites, schools, public safety facilities and related services.
      (l) Housing — An analysis of housing conditions and needs; plans for improvement of housing standards; and plans for the provision of safe, sanitary, and adequate housing, including the provision for low-cost conventional housing, the siting of manufactured housing and mobile homes in subdivisions and parks and on individual lots which are sufficient to maintain a competitive market for each of those housing types and to address the needs of the community.
      (m) Community Design — An analysis of needs for governing landscaping, building design, tree planting, signs, and suggested patterns and standards for community design, development, and beautification.
      (n) Agriculture — An analysis of the agricultural base of the area including agricultural lands, farming activities, farming-related businesses and the role of agriculture and agricultural uses in the community.
      (o) Implementation — An analysis to determine actions, programs, budgets, ordinances, or other methods including scheduling of public expenditures to provide for the timely execution of the various components of the plan.

      Each of these need to address fire. None of them do. Can you for one second imagine the political myopia necessary to overlook fire completely in a Rocky Mountain State’s comp plan statute?
      Boggles the mind.

  7. Does the Republican Party on the national level – or even any state or local level – support basic, common-sense FireWise and Defensible Space measures to protect communities and firefighters from wildfires?

    Please post examples if you can find them.

    For whatever it’s worth, for almost 20 years now the same “environmental terrorists groups” and “environmental extremists” that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other prominent GOP politicians have claimed are responsible for wildfires, have not only supported basic Fire Wise principles, but we’ve helped educate the public about them.

  8. “if we want to reduce the fuel density of forests, we still have to bring fire back.”

    And, as stated in the post in so many words, the results won’t show up right away as Matthew is fond of pointing out. But, what is missed by most is that – until – you get to a critical mass (decades) of heavily treated stand acres and some final harvests (where appropriate) that will bring crown fires to the ground and decrease the incidence of crown fires, — a few thinnings allowed by enviros won’t be enough to bring crown fires to the ground and turn the situation around to where we can burn 5 to 20% of the acreage each year (as appropriate for the species and site and integrated landscape plan).

  9. John in your recent posting on prescribed fire being more efficient than timber harvest needs further examination of the premise stated. In November 5, 2013 Deputy Chief testified US Forest Service has over 1,400 post fire assessments found in 90% Of cases pre fire fuel treatments were successful in modifying extreme fire behavior so fire suppression action was effective. Testimony was before the US Senate, Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources. Promoting an either prescribed fire or vegetation modification either by commercial or non commercial means is a false choice. We need to use all tools to modify, achieve desired forest conditions. Many of us have worked small and large fire and know a variety of tools effective


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