We should question assumptions about wildfires

Like the many folks in the forest protection community have been saying for decades “we should question assumptions about wildfires.” That’s the title of a guest column by Dr. Jack Cohen and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier in the print edition of today’s Missoulian.

The title of the on-line version is different, and pasted below “Community destruction during extreme wildfires is a home ignition problem.” Many people in the forest protection community have also been saying that for decades.

Dr. Jack Cohen is the most knowledgable on the planet when it comes to protecting homes and communities from wildfires. Dr. Cohen’s bio in the Missoulian reads: “Jack Cohen, PhD, retired from U.S. Forest Service Research after 40 years as a research physical scientist where he conducted experimental and theoretical wildland fire research. In addition, he developed operational fire models for management applications and served operationally as a fire behavior analyst.”

Meanwhile, “Dave Strohmaier is Missoula County Commissioner. He previously worked for both the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service in fire management, and has published two books (here and here) on the subject of wildfire in the West.” Strohmaier is not only one of my Missoula County Commissioners, he’s also my former Missoula City Councilperson and my former state legislator. I’ve chatted with both Dave and Jack about wildfires and home protection over the years.

Question: Where would our country, the U.S. Forest Service, and communities be in terms of being better prepared for wildfire if we would’ve listened to—and implemented—the recommendations of Dr. Cohen, Strohmaier and numerous forest protection groups over the past two decades instead of letting some politicians and some in the timber industry use the wildfires as an excuse for more logging and roadbuilding with less oversight and less public participation?

Community destruction during extreme wildfires is a home ignition problem
By Dr. Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier

We must abandon our expectation that we can suppress 100% of wildfires and reject the false narrative that community protection requires wildfire control. Community wildfire disasters have only occurred during extreme wildfire burning intensities, when high wind speed, low relative humidity, and flammable vegetation result in rapid fire growth rates and showers of burning embers (firebrands) starting new fires. Under these conditions, wildfire suppression, the principal method used for protecting communities, quickly becomes overwhelmed.

But wildfires are inevitable and wildland fuel treatments don’t stop extreme wildfires. Does that mean wildland-urban (WU) fire disasters are inevitable as well? Absolutely not! Wildfire research has shown that homeowners can create ignition resistant homes to prevent community wildfire disasters. How can this be possible?

Recall the destruction of Paradise, Calif., during the extreme 2018 Camp Fire. Most of the totally destroyed homes in Paradise were surrounded by unconsumed tree canopies. Although many journalists and public officials believe this outcome was unusual, the pattern of unconsumed vegetation adjacent to and surrounding total home destruction is typical of WU fire disasters. Home destruction with adjacent unconsumed shrub and tree vegetation indicates the following:

• High intensity wildfire does not continuously spread through the residential area as a tsunami or flood of flame.

• Unconsumed shrub and tree canopies adjacent to homes do not produce high intensity flames that ignite the homes; ignitions can only be from burning embers and low intensity surface fires.

• The “big flames” of high intensity wildfires are not causing total home destruction.

Surprisingly, home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the miniscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine the ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential “fuels” — homes, other structures and vegetation — continue fire spread within the community.

Given the inevitability of extreme wildfires and home ignitions determined by conditions within the HIZ, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities by creating ignition resistant homes runs counter to established orthodoxy.

There are good reasons to reduce fuels or “treat” vegetation for ecological and commercial objectives. But fuel treatments are most effective on wildfire behavior within a fuel treatment. They do not stop extreme wildfires. So let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend that most of these projects truly reduce home ignition risk during extreme wildfires. The most effective “fuel treatment” addressing community wildfire risk reduces home ignition potential and occurs within HIZs and the community, which is to say, we can prevent WU fire disasters without necessarily controlling wildfires.

To make this shift, land managers, elected officials, and members of the public must question some of our most deeply ingrained assumptions regarding wildfire. For the sake of fiscal responsibility, scientific integrity and effective outcomes, it’s high time we abandon the tired and disingenuous policies of our century-old all-out war on wildfire and fuel treatments conducted under the guise of protecting communities. Instead, let’s focus on mitigating WU fire risk where ignitions are determined — within the home ignition zone.

11 thoughts on “We should question assumptions about wildfires”

  1. To answer your question, Matthew…

    “Question: Where would our country, the U.S. Forest Service, and communities be in terms of being better prepared for wildfire if we would’ve listened to—and implemented—the recommendations of Dr. Cohen, Strohmaier and numerous forest protection groups over the past two decades instead of letting some politicians and some in the timber industry use the wildfires as an excuse for more logging and roadbuilding with less oversight and less public participation?”

    You’d probably be where places like Colorado, New Mexico and other places without logging or roadbuilding are… doing fuel treatments with in ares with existing roads with trees that don’t sell and are burned in piles.

    “Given the inevitability of extreme wildfires and home ignitions determined by conditions within the HIZ, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities by creating ignition resistant homes runs counter to established orthodoxy.”

    Framing policy issues is done by communities and people, not scientists. People where I live don’t want fire running through their communities, even if their homes don’t ignite. Replacing power poles, other infrastructure, flooding and so on. Maybe people in Missoula are different.

    “But fuel treatments are most effective on wildfire behavior within a fuel treatment. They do not stop extreme wildfires. ” No they don’t (no one claimed they did-straw person) but they have helped suppression folks fight the fire.

    “We must abandon our expectation that we can suppress 100% of wildfires and reject the false narrative that community protection requires wildfire control.”

    I don’t know why we need to abandon the expectation.. the question is timing. It seems to me that there is no unwanted wildfire from last year that is still burning. And how is it a “false narrative” to define community protection the way you want to define it. People and communities get to do that. Other peoples’ desires are not “false.”

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    • Howdy Sharon:

      RE: Framing policy issues is done by communities and people, not scientists.

      FWIW: Dr. Jack Cohen is a person, and a longtime community member. Also, like I said he’s the most knowledgable person on Earth on this issue. Also, David Strohmaier is a person and a longtime community member who is currently a Missoula County Commissioner, a former Missoula City Council member and a former Montana state legislator. He’s also a longtime former wildland fire firefighter. Seems to me that experts like Cohen and Strohmaier are well-suited to framing policy issues regarding home and community protection from wildfire. Of course, you don’t agree with what they are saying, so you must resort to these bizarre twists. If you fully agreed with what Dr. Cohen and Commissioner Strohmaier were saying you’d be the first to highlight their opinions and framing.

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      • Matthew, perhaps I wasn’t clear. My point was that each of us equally gets to frame the issue our own way. I see the problem as “x”. Cohen may well be the most knowledgeable person about home ignition and (coincidentally?) frames the problem as being about home ignition.

        I frame the problem as being about “trying our best to protect humans, their animals, infrastructure, wildlife and watersheds from the most negative impacts of fire and smoke”. As in trying, as in what suppression folks do every day. In my framing Cohen’s work is relevant, but so is many other researchers’ work, as well as practitioner knowledge.

        IMHO it’s not a bizarre twist to claim that each of us is equally entitled to our own framing of problems. I think it’s important to discuss different framings because each one we choose to pursue leads us to different solutions and different research being relevant, and ultimately different winners and losers in the policy options.

        As a policy wonk, in my experience we don’t spend enough time having framing discussions jointly and tend to pick one and rush ahead, leaving many people and their concerns out.

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        • When I read this in the Missoulian, I thought of your likely response, Sharon, and sure enough …

          “I frame the problem as being about “trying our best to protect humans, their animals, infrastructure, wildlife and watersheds from the most negative impacts of fire and smoke … IMHO it’s not a bizarre twist to claim that each of us is equally entitled to our own framing of problems.”

          Sure, some are entitled to frame the country’s problems around immigrants, but that doesn’t mean this should be the basis of public policy. A framing that equates infrastructure to human lives is along those lines. I frame the problem as addressing humans first, homes second and the rest as lower priorities for the use of public assets (and we have a lot of higher priorities left to deal with first). But maybe the issue for public lands planning (since it is mostly not in the home ignition zone) is whether we prioritize someone’s private property value or viewshed over ecological integrity of national forests.

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  2. “Instead of letting some politicians and some in the timber industry use wildfires as an excuse for more logging and roadbulding with less oversight and public participation.”
    Why are you always trying to portray the timber industry as evil? I would bet 99 % of the timber industry wants nothing to do with wildfires. They are tired of seeing thousands of acres of our protected forests being destroyed by wildfires. They tired of seeing of hundreds of millions dollars being spent on wildfires for “resource benefit”. I think the blame for our current wildfire problem can be laid at the feet of the environmental community and their insistence that forests need fire.

    By the way, not only did the native Americans use fire as a management tool. But the early settlers and ranchers did too. Some still use it.

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    • “Instead of letting some politicians and some in the timber industry use wildfires as an excuse for more logging and roadbulding with less oversight and public participation.”

      Howdy Bob. I personally don’t find the statement above as “portraying the timber industry as evil.”

      I was actually careful to use the word “some” as a qualifier. Personally, I find my statement to be a factual and measured statement of what has actually happened. Anyone is welcome to review the past twenty years for this phenomenon in action. It’s an undisputed fact that some politicians and some in the timber industry use wildfires as an excuse for more logging and roadbulding with less oversight and public participation.

      I should also point out that unlike some politicians and some in the timber industry I didn’t use words like “terrorist,” “extremists,” “radical” or “fringe”….which some politicians and some timber industry folks have used to describe forest protection groups. Funny how you seem to have no problem with that. Have a great Sunday!

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  3. I highly recommend that Smokey Wire readers do a google search for Jack Cohen’s videos on home ignition. The importance of designing, building and maintaining structures that have fire proofing in mind is abundantly clear when you see the footage from Cohen’s home ignition “lab” and from actual burn areas to see which structures burned and which didn’t.
    I’ve been referring people to Cohen’s work for almost 10 years because it’s so important for people who have homes in the WUI.
    It’s absurd that zoning and building codes and the insurance industry still allow people to build in the WUI without taking steps to fire proof the structures.
    It’s even worse to risk the lives of firefighters to try to protect structures that are in fire prone areas especially in cases where the owners did not take responsible actions to reduce the risk of fire.
    I vividly recall a National Public Radio report from central Washingon (perhaps Lake Chelan area) from about 15 years ago when fire crews were going through the town to remove limbs, brush and other fuels that were near structures. That was complete nonsense for taxpayers to be paying for work that is the responsibility of the homeowners!
    Sorry to be a bit soap boxy there but having been a crew boss on fires I have the safety of my crew as my # 1 priority.

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  4. We should also stop assuming that a one-size-fits-all policy will work. Some stands of forests are flammable, and will always be flammable, despite what humans do. Some stands are historically fire resistant but, have been allowed to become overgrown with a highly-flammable understory.

    The Bitterroot varies mostly by aspect, requiring different strategies. It’s not all about fire safety, though. Many USFS vegetation projects have multiple benefits… (or, at least, they SHOULD have, IMHO)

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  5. OWM- I have seen Cohen’s videos and agree that protecting homes via construction and the 100 feet barrier is important. BUT many communities don’t want fire to run through them, even if homes are protected. Here’s one image. For everyone’s safety, they and their animals need to be evacuated. Evacuation is not always smooth and there are public safety risks. I don’t have a problem with 1) protect your homes AND 2) keep fire out of the community. I don’t see why others can’t also be both/and on this.

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  6. I wanted to agree with Larry. It is hard to have a comprehensive discussion about wildfires in the space of a blog post. For example, yes some homes are destroyed by embers, but some wildfires have burned through communities as a wall of fire.

    For example, I have a friend and former fire fighter who built her own home in the WUI to the highest fire protection standards. She had way more than 100 feet of clear space around the home, metal roof, screens on the vents, double-pane glass, etc. The house was totally destroyed by a wall of flame from a catastrophic forest fire.

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  7. I’ve worked in this arena for 40 years and “log it to save it” has been recycled ad nausea. I work with the timber industry and what it cares about is logs/fiber. I have friends in the Methow Valley that followed Dr. Cohen’s advice and saved their house & buildings – without a bit of help from wildland firefighters — by waiting out the flame front and fighting slow moving ground fire for two days. Wildland fire managers don’t put fire fighters in front of a wall of wind-driven wildfire, regardless if there’s a clearcut/grass/shrub or thinned forest to mount a direct attack. It’s the weather that is the critical factor –

    My complaint is regardless of how diligently I and colleagues collaboratively worked with the Forest Service on forest restoration projects during the past two decades – this “log it to save it” crap is back again and with it huge clearcuts, single tree even-spaced thins now all too frequent. Logging didn’t stop the Northstar nor Stickpin fires, burning through huge butch-job clearcuts by Forest Capital, thinned and underburned by Tribal, DNR and Forest Service managed stands — just like it did in untreated wildlands, driven by wind, heat and low humidity. The difference was after fires went out (by change in weather, of course) – in “untreated stands” there were still dead trees standing, providing shade, habitat for wildlife and a return of fire adapted plant & forest communities.

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