LA Times: Forest thinning projects won’t stop the worst wildfires. So why is California spending millions on them?

As if right on cue, today the LA Times published a lengthy and in-depth story (full of some pretty cool graphics) titled “Forest thinning projects won’t stop the worst wildfires. So why is California spending millions on them?

The article features the perspectives of a number of folks and organizations who’ve either participated in this blog, or been highlighted on this blog many times, including Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, Dr. Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service research scientist, who’s the world’s leading expert on home protection/ignitions and Los Padres ForestWatch. Below are some snips:

Chopping down trees and shrubs is “an easy approach because people think ‘Oh, the thing we can change is vegetation’ … and people want the problem to be fixed,” research scientist Alexandra Syphard said. “But unfortunately, it’s more complex than that.”

Syphard — who conducted one of the few scientific assessments of the effectiveness of fuel breaks in California — worries that the state’s focus on fuel reduction gives “people a false sense of security.”

“Time and time again in my research,” she said, “I find that fuel is one of the least important factors when it comes to protecting the home.”

To stem the escalating loss of life and property, Syphard and other experts argue the state needs to curb development in high fire-hazard zones, help homeowners ember-proof their houses and do a better job of enforcing defensible space regulations….

The state’s 10 most destructive wildfires on record have all been wind driven. They have destroyed a total of 39,440 structures and claimed 170 lives. Seven of the 10 have occurred since 2015, including the Tubbs fire in Northern California’s wine country, and the Thomas and Woolsey fires in Southern California….

“Why don’t you address the fires that are killing all the people?” said Richard Halsey, director of the nonprofit California Chaparral Institute and a fuel break critic. “Would you tell me how any of [the thinning projects] would have saved Coffey Park?”

The state, he says, is focusing on the wrong thing.

Use the money to retrofit houses with fire-resistant features, such as ember-proof vents, and “you would save more structures than any fuel treatments,” Halsey says….

In a research paper published in 2011, Syphard and her co-authors analyzed 30 years of data on fuel breaks and wildfires in Southern California’s four national forests.

Many of the fires never hit a fuel break. When they did, the percentage that stopped ranged from 22% on the San Barnardino forest to 47% on the Cleveland forest. In every instance that a break halted a fire’s progress, Syphard found it was because firefighters were on it.

“The only reason a fire ever stops at a fuel break, regardless of the weather conditions, is that a firefighter is there, using the fuel break to fight the fire,” said Syphard, who is affiliated with the Conversation Biology Institute and is chief scientist at Sage Underwriters, a homeowners insurance company….

Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service research scientist who studied ignitions and wildfire spread, said he’s been asked to explain the “unusual pattern of destruction” in Paradise.

His response: “It’s not strange and unusual — it’s typical. Every investigation I’ve done comes up with that pattern.”

“We do fuel breaks because the premise is we’ve got a wildfire containment problem” when in fact, Cohen argues, we have a home ignition problem.

13 thoughts on “LA Times: Forest thinning projects won’t stop the worst wildfires. So why is California spending millions on them?”

  1. The answer to the question in the headline is that forest thinning can and does help prevent small fires from becoming larger and more intense. It may be true that “Category 5” wildfires can’t be stopped, except by weather or extraordinary suppression efforts, but that doesn’t mean we should not try to reduce their frequency and intensity.

  2. The LA Times article will no doubt fuel much discussion; I suspect with some factions hunkered down in familiar foxholes. I think the article speaks to the 1st of 2 major fire funding issues: “Pre-fire” money spent to reduce risk and minimize fire severity; the 2nd) “Going-fire” costs that are ballooning without any appreciable benefits. In my experience, humans have a hard time coping with the severity of natural events (fire, flood, volcano, earthquake, hurricane) that exceed our capacity to imagine the worst. And its getting worse. (e.g. Dorian/Bahamas where a Cat 5 stalled for 36 hours). I’m intrigued by a “new” old book just re-issued “40 Years a Forester” by Elers Koch, who heretically argued circa 1930’s that FS needed to do something completely different than it’s “all fires out by 10am” policy. He’d seen enough already to question the short-sightedness of that dogma.

  3. It would be interesting to see the numbers on some of these issues, like, for example, how much money has been spent on “commercial thinning” in the Los Padres, Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests. (I do know that some was spent on both the ANF and SBNF, about 10-15 years ago.) I doubt there was any at all on the Cleveland.

    Additionally, how much money was spent on fuelbreaks and fire safety projects on the Tubbs, Atlas, Butte and Lake County (and others) fire areas? (Very little, so there’s no way of knowing how else things would have turned out.)

    Saying that the Rim Fire, Ranch Fire and Sobranes Fire were “wind-driven” is absolutely wrong. Those fires were terrain-driven, with the ‘normal’ local weather effects. Once again, you CANNOT include the fire-generated winds into that claim. The REAL measure is; what were the winds like before ignition, or outside of the fire perimeter?

    Saying that thinning doesn’t stop wind-driven wildfires and, hence, unwise to implement is like saying that medical treatments don’t stop all cancers and should not be used, due to their ineffectiveness.

    Saying that fuelbreaks are useless, because fires rarely encounter them, is like saying that since police are rarely around when crimes are committed, why do we need more?

    Everything is site-specific, and you cannot lump all California wildfires into one basket. With so many human-caused wildfires, we need to reduce impacts and increase resilience.

  4. What a foolish statement, or perhaps a pointless piece of “research” – to say fuel breaks only work when there are firefighters on them. This has been widely acknowledged by the forest service in Southern California for many years. Not even big green machine is dumb enough to assert that a fuel break can or would stop a fire on its own. Most NEPA decisions should reflect this this in the purpose and need.
    Another ignored reality is that minimum impact suppression in So Cal shrublands is an absolute joke. Every ridge within miles of an active wildfire is consistently bladed to mineral soil by d-8 size dozers, often up to 300’ wide. Naturalists like Mr Halsey mistakenly cry foul about the loss of beautiful chapparal from a well designed fuelbreak. But a good fuel break, with grasses, and shrubs that lack continuous canopy, may escape dozer destruction – if they have a road.
    What I cannot defend is the ridiculous forest circus practices of a) putting fuel breaks where there is no road just to add “treated” acres, or b) allowing suppression dozers to destroy well treated and accessible fuel breaks because of politics. Both have gone on for years and continue to this day. Both sides of this issue display some ignorance.

  5. If we look at patterns over the years, whenever California legislators propose to do something related to vegetation management, there is an op-ed by Hanson. E.g,

    Right now it seems that Daines and Feinstein are working on a bill, ergo these statements show up perhaps as part of an orchestrated media campaign.

    Not that people shouldn’t consider these arguments, but the simplest responses are “show me the FS prioritizing a fuels treatment project far from communities when those closer remain not done” and “what is the purpose and need for those projects?” Perhaps a power line, or water infrastructure. Maybe we could have a more meaningful discussion on the specifics.

    Here’s a remarkable similar Colorado Roadless discussion from 10 or so years ago.
    CU Profs: You shouldn’t be doing fuel treatments in the backcountry.
    FS: name some projects
    CU Profs: All you need is 100 feet.
    Fire Suppression Folks: More is better, 100 is not enough.

    I really think this argument is people talking past each other., as Jon says. One thing that might help is for the FS to propose 5 years of projects and to map them (not do the NEPA) then get the a bunch of Cal scientists including Hanson and associates to engage in discourse about why or why these might or might not “work”. Have it online so that fuel specialists and other specialists involved in project design might have a chance to interact with the profs. Lots of mutual learning might ensue, and the public would be exposed to all points of view. Win/win.

    And with all due respect to Jack, it’s not all about protecting structures. Again, people and their elected officials frame issues, and at least here, they don’t want fire running through their communities, evacuating, losing their community trees and so on.

    • “Again, people and their elected officials frame issues, and at least here, they don’t want fire running through their communities, evacuating, losing their community trees and so on.” It’s the “and so on” part that starts to become an issue. As the degree of consensus on what is worth protecting declines the need for a decision informed by a public process increases. Defining the WUI is maybe an attempt to circumscribe that, but that process needs to be integrated with the forest planning process that balances the interests in national forest management.

      • The San Bernardino NF proudly proclaims that they never let fires burn. That implies that they think most of their Forest in the WUI.

        I think that spotted owl nesting areas are one thing worth protecting from fire, as Region 5 Wildlife Biologists do see that wildfires are currently the biggest threat to owls and goshawks. Historic and cultural sites are also at risk to wildfires.

      • The source of the study discussed here apparently has others ongoing that may help with prioritizing management actions. “In conjunction with the USGS, CBI is focusing on three areas where decision making may impact the vulnerability of communities to wildfire:

        (1) Wildland landscape management practices that affect the probability of potentially destructive fires reaching urban environments. Research team leader: Dr. Ross Bradstock

        (2) The extent and pattern of residential development and wildland-urban interface zones that play a key role in the probability of fires encroaching into urban environments. Research team leader: Dr. Alexandra Syphard

        (3) Patterns of home construction and urban landscaping that determine fire spread within the urban environment. Research team leader: Dr. C.J. Fotheringham.”

  6. Nearly every fire that has lead to catastrophic loss of life and property has been wind driven.

    Yet, instead of seeking new solutions, some folks either immediately criticize those who question the current paradigm (habit clearance) or counter that fact with, well, “but fuel breaks and forest thinning can work under normal conditions, during most fires.”

    applying this approach to preparing for earthquakes,

    “We are increasing efforts to enforce water heater tank strap rules and and will be expanding those rules to other large objects in homes. Such efforts will protect us from 95% of the earthquakes that impact our communities (or what one would feel as a result of a magnitude 2.5).”

    Meanwhile the death toll continues to increase. One wonders what it will take for the fire service to actually look at the increasing losses and ask, “Are there some things we aren’t doing beyond our usual approach that could help?”

    Unfortunately, our species never seems to learn.
    Millions of men die in WWI because the generals were stuck fighting the last war with swords and horses.
    Thousands die in the Vietnam War because the politicians didn’t want American to be humiliated.
    The Challenger Space Shuttle blows up because the bureaucracy failed to see the obvious, and continued what they had always done.
    The Deepwater Horizon blew in the Gulf because egos and greed took priority.
    The death toll in wildfires continues to increase while the USFS, Cal Fire, and…

    • Richard, I think the Fire Suppression folks are very careful to analyze what exactly goes wrong with each fire, especially those leading to deaths. I think you are saying that the federal agencies and Cal Fire are not thinking clearly about what works or not, and not learning.

      What do you think that they are missing?

      • Sharon, yes, agreed. There is an effort on some level to do this. But I think the fundamental problem in the wildland fire community is that the process is not a standardized and does not require a consistent level of documentation regarding what happens during a fire incident (i.e. where back fires occurred and how much burned because of them, what variables facilitated suppression, the effectiveness/placement of dozer lines, did institutional barriers complicate suppression efforts, what was the actual cause of any loss of civilian life/property and what could be done to prevent such loss in the future, etc.). Syphard’s level of analysis (what much of the LA Times article was based on) really should happen on every fire.

        Much of this information is typically locked in the minds of firefighters, all subject to individual biases and perspectives, despite occasional efforts to record what happened. This is why one frequently hears stories about how a certain fuel break worked here or how prescribed burn worked there, even though thousands of homes were lost. All the failures are forgotten due to the ever present need to protect the ego. This pattern is unfortunately seen in some research papers that try to show the effectiveness of clearance projects.

        I think a good model to follow would be what occurs following an airline crash. It does a fairly good job taking the ego out of the process. There is full review with the objective of correcting errors so the same thing won’t happen again, ever, often by making a better cockpit. People make mistakes. So we design an environment in which people work as fail safe as possible.

        The Lessons Learned Center tries, but it’s just not enough partially because it’s operating with the same mind set that helped create the problem in the first place.

  7. In an apparent attempt to own the libs….

    A man from the Kansas City area flew to the Bay Area, drove a rental car toward the Calaveras Reservoir east of Milpitas, and threw flaming pieces of paper along the grassy foothills, igniting more than a dozen fires in a 24-hour span this past weekend, authorities say.

    Those allegations fuel the 15 arson-related charges filed against 68-year-old Freddie Owen Graham of Lone Jack, Missouri. Graham was arraigned in a San Jose courtroom Wednesday and sent back to the Elmwood men’s jail in Milpitas, where he was being held on $500,000 bail.

    Full story:


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