The Wayne Gretzky approach to fuel reduction

The hockey star is known for saying you have to “skate to where the puck will be.”  That seems to be what the Forest Service is trying to do by putting thinning treatments where fire risk is high, but research again suggests that the hockey analogy doesn’t work in forests.  Maybe it’s because the “field of play” is so much larger and the entity delivering the puck isn’t on your team (and doesn’t play by any rules).  This article plays off of the recent executive order to treat 8.45 million acres of land and cut 4.4 million board feet of timber, “which is about 80 percent more than was cut on U.S. Forest Service lands in 2017.”

“The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program received a lot of financial investment and resources over the past 15 years,” Barnett told the Missoulian. “We treat quite a lot of landscapes each year. And less than 10 percent of that had even (been) burned by a subsequent fire. So that raises more broad general questions over the efficacy of fuel treatments to change regional fire patterns.”

“Even if federal land management agencies were able to increase their treatments and meet the President’s goal of treating 8.45 million acres, it would still equate to less than 2 percent of all federal lands,” Pohl said. “It is unlikely these locations will be among the hundreds of millions of acres that burn during the effective lifespan of a fuel reduction treatment, typically 10-20 years.”

And if the goal is protecting homes rather than changing regional fire patterns,

“Research shows that home loss is primarily determined by two factors: the vegetation in the immediate area around the home, and the way the home is designed and constructed,”

You could read this to say that if they treated 2% a year for 10-20 years, there would be a higher encounter rate than historically that might be a better justification, but it doesn’t sound like that is the way they are interpreting it.  The map does suggest that southern California and a couple of other places might be looked at differently, and considered a priority for funding.

The author went off script a bit to say that logging is a good strategy to “improve forest health,” but maybe that’s the semantic problem of “logging” vs “thinning.”  I’m also wondering if an order to produce board feet doesn’t tend to favor logging (of bigger trees) over thinning?

10 thoughts on “The Wayne Gretzky approach to fuel reduction”

  1. FYI: The Missoulian article incorrectly stated “4.4 million board feet of timber.” As we all likely know, it would be 4.4 Billion.

  2. Of course, there are multiple benefits to modern thinning projects, especially in places where there are too many trees per acre than the current annual precipitation can support. Adjusting species compositions to a more resilient mix is a good thing too. Working towards an all-aged state is better than letting firestorms destroy forests, starting the cycle of boom and bust all over again.

  3. There are two simple logical problems with this..
    (1) fuels treatments aren’t done randomly across federal lands. They are done in specific places based on protecting communities or changing fire behavior. This is like saying if doctors prescribed drugs randomly with respect to diseases that the drugs would be a waste of money. Well, duh. But they don’t do that.
    (2) some things are worth the $ to invest, even when they might not be needed. I think of earthquake building regulations here.
    Again, it’s not all about home loss, either. People don’t want fire running through their communities even if homes were somehow completely protected. We are not yet at the point in which we have the equivalent of fire shelters for homes, fences, barns, etc., so people and their animals are still going to need to evacuate. Until we have the “shelter in place” technology for humans and small and large animals, this doesn’t seem very realistic.

    • In my experience,, (1) is definitely not true. And that is widely recognized within the Forest Service, including two successive GAO audits. And, even if it were true, my experience is that the highest priority work is not always done first. Burn days and smoke management put limitations on fuels treatments in uncertain ways, and with targets to meet, fuels folks I have worked with are generally looking for ways to maximize target accomplishment, not to do the highest priority treatments. In some places where I have worked, they have refused to prioritize treatments, much to my chagrin and surprise.

      • Anonymous, I hear you saying that the metrics are wrong and people are following the metrics instead of priority setting.
        I was involved in one of the GAO reports in terms of reviewing it, and the exercise was quite silly IMHO. It sounded like a contractor who could run a giant prioritization computer program had gotten their ear. It was assumed (by them) that local judgment was bad judgment.
        I’d be the first person to say that decentralized organizations have a normal curve of behavior. I will also agree that prioritization can sometimes not be clear, and can be influenced by weather conditions and a variety of other factors. But that’s very different than saying “fuel treatments won’t work because they are randomly distributed around the landscape.”

  4. I wish this was more true: “fuels treatments aren’t done randomly across federal lands. They are done in specific places based on protecting communities or changing fire behavior.”

    In my experience, fuel reduction is done where there is a concentration of board feet available to be monetized, not where there are values at risk and effective means of intervention. The agency always comes up with a justification for action wrapped in reasonable sounding words, but the “strategic” nature of fuel reduction logging rarely holds up to close scrutiny.

    • Your experience is different from mine… perhaps because board feet is not a driver in many places. It’s possible that what we might call “the former logging country” Oregon, northern California, Montana, Idaho and Washington are not more “the Forest Service” than Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

  5. Fuels treatments are definitely prioritized – there is a huge amount of planning effort that goes into identifying areas to burn/thin and conduct environmental analyses in those areas. Suggesting that it is random or that they are just picking places with merchantable timber is ridiculous. Come on folks, FS employees are people too, and most of them live in the communities they are trying to protect with fuel treatments. They are trying to do the right thing.

    I haven’t read the article, but the figure seems to show fuel reduction projects in CA, AZ/NM, and ID/WY with encounter rates over 25%. That is really good! Peer-reviewed research has shown that fire severity is reduced when wildfires burn through treated forests, so the fact that we are improving outcomes on 25% of areas in these high-fire risk areas is a huge win.


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