What’s the Problem Again? Wildfires, Framing, Climate and Historic Range of Variation

This was from a fire last year in which 100K people were ordered to evacuate.

I thought we could look back at our old posts about wildfires and see if there is anything new given this Fire year 2020. Of course, firefighters and people evacuating have all been impacted by Covid, but this is looking at the way we think about wildfire.

Here’s one from a year ago, an op-ed from the LA Times:

“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.

I’ve pointed out before that scientists don’t have any more authority to frame problems than anyone else. Here is a old post about framing the “living with fire” issue.

Just in the past few weeks, we can see other problems from fires besides home ignitions. You might be a truckdriver who couldn’t use I70 when it was closed due to wildfire. You might have had to evacuate a recreation site due to wildfire. As I’ve said before, evacuations can be difficult and unsafe.

But I also think that we have a bit of a philosophical conundrum here with these two current views.

View 1: Wildfires are natural and necessary for “the ecosystem”.
View 2: Wildfires are much worse (frequency, difficulty of fighting, acreage) due to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) (therefore unnatural).

It seems to me that the only way to incorporate these two perspectives is to use the concept of resilience (to disturbances, including AGW) (view 1), and be specific in what you are talking about- necessary for what part of the ecosystem? (View 2) To reproduce lodgepole pines? To provide habitat for black-backed woodpeckers? How much, where, and how intense do fires need to be to meet those “necessary” goals? Is it possible to achieve those specific ecosystem goals via PB (prescribed burning) or WFU (wildland fire use)?

If you subscribe to View 2, though, that climate is changing everything, then attempting to manage for the past (and leaving things alone as a solution) will not bring back the past (time’s arrow only works one way, but without AGW this argument hasn’t been successful with Historic Range of Variation aficionados) and we as a society are faced with deciding what it is we want, what we can change, and how much we are willing to pay to achieve those goals.

Meanwhile people who live in fire-prone areas (most of the western US) go about their business working on protecting their communities, improving notifications, and so on, as the more academic/media discussions about AGW seem irrelevant. Because most of us know there were fires before, and there will be fires again, even if everyone on the planet changed course immediately with regards to carbon, other GHG (greenhouse gases) land-use practices and other climate-changing activities. Then there’s the question of whether the climate would “change back” and how long that would take. Which we have, as with how much of what about wildfire is due to what aspect of climate change, really, no clue. How to proceed, acknowledging that we don’t and won’t know these things?

So what ideas should guide us forward? Here are some I’d put forward for us to discuss.

1. We’re all in this together. Everyone has a role to play. Let’s not get distracted by folks trying to divide us, e.g. “we can’t log our way out of wildfires” or Trump talking about raking.
2. Local people and governments have responsibility for maximizing firefighters’ chances of protecting infrastructure, through zoning, fuel management around homes, and access requirements.
3. Suppression people should play a key role in telling us what they need to succeed. Somehow I think we need to amplify their voices in the discussion.
4. PB should be increased, and should be guided by needs to protect (through strategic placement) human infrastructure and desired ecological conditions, e.g., endangered species habitat, and to foster resilience in a mix best derived at the local level (because they know what’s where).
5. Resilience should replace HRV and/or “ecological integrity” as a goal (even if it requires a (horrors!) new planning rule); and hopefully be easily integrated with the goals of other landowners.
6. If plant material needs to be reduced for fuels reduction, using it in some way is to be encouraged, rather than burning it onsite.

Sure, there are many moving parts. But as Michael Webber said about decarbonization, “Rather than finding someone to blame, let’s look for who can help.”

6 thoughts on “What’s the Problem Again? Wildfires, Framing, Climate and Historic Range of Variation”

  1. Please help us with acronym soup Sharon
    What is HRV? I skimmed the post but don’t see it spelled out

    I know what PB and WFU are but when I do communications I try to avoid acronyms; when I can’t I make sure my audience understands what the term means.

    Former USFS Fire Information Officer – Region 6

  2. Good on you.OW . Fire always seemed to be particularly laden with acronyms.

    HRV is Historic Range of Variation. Here’s a definition more broadly than the way it has been used in the FS. There have been discussions (20 years ago) that it’s context, not target, but gets pretty target-y sometimes. So that can be confusing for all of us!

    First you get a historic veg ecologist to go back in time to pre-European and figure out what was going on then you try to match it, more or less.

    I think we got off on this because people were faced with ever-growing numbers of endangered species, and folks thought, hey, if we just replicated the conditions they used to have, most of them would do OK and we’d only have to worry about (develop specific requirements for) the ones that don’t do well under those conditions. This was the course filter- fine filter idea.

    The problem has been (1) how do you decide what those conditions are? You basically have to use the past. But lots of things have changed. Including the activities of Native Americans since they have been around since the glaciers, pretty much. You could try to replicate what they did, but most folks don’t try to do that.

    (2) Managing vegetation is very expensive unless you sell the material (and sometimes even if you do, you have to prepare the sales, be litigated and so on). So even if you wanted to return to some preferred past with regard to vegetation, it’s not that easy in terms of veg management projects, let alone suppressing fires that might interfere with your plans.

    Now the 2012 Planning Rule says the goal is ecological integrity, and the natural range of variation is not exactly historic range of variation. Here’s how ecological integrity is defined in the Handbook. Rather than having people determine whether an ecological function is within NRV, it seems to me that it would be more useful and communicable to identify key ecological things we jointly want to keep and devise ways to (try to) keep them.

    “Ecological integrity. The quality or condition of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence (36 CFR 219.19).

    IMHO this is a problem because it 1. Makes it hard for the public to understand what we’re talking about. Heck, it’s even hard for planners and specialists. 2. It makes it hard for partners to understand what we’re talking about. 3. It makes analysis so complicated that I think people will be even less likely to want to plan. 4. I think the level of analysis makes it unlikely to be updated when it needs to be. Now all of this is not to say that the great people in the FS won’t be able to make it work in some way.

    As Jon has said, I lost this battle in the development of the Rule. But I still think “resilience” makes more sense by approaching it directly.

  3. “3. Suppression people should play a key role in telling us what they need to succeed.”
    First we had better be able to define “success.” And that should be defined in a long-term strategic (forest) plan, where values at risk, and conditions needed to provide acceptable risk levels, are identified. That should probably include criteria for where and when suppression is even desired.

    Now, about ecological integrity (which is legally a value at risk) – IMHO this is not a problem. What part of this do you disagree with?
    * We have to manage for a desired outcome (determined through forest planning).
    * NFMA requires that that outcome provide for plant and animal diversity (and ESA focuses that on individual species before and after listing).
    * Whether you call it sustainability, integrity or resilience, that outcome must achieve diversity and it should be specific and measurable, and based on the best available science.
    * The best available science tells us that historic conditions are relevant to that determination, as are expectations about the future, which is what the Forest Service policy in the Planning Rule and Handbook says.
    * Yes, someone has to figure that out for each forest.

    The current process actually is “to identify key ecological things we jointly want to keep and devise ways to (try to) keep them.” (1909.12 FSH 23.1)
    ” When developing integrated plan components the Interdisciplinary Team should consider … 11. Maintenance or restoration of key ecosystem characteristics identified in the assessment including those that are rare or at risk (FSH 1909.12, ch. 10, secs. 12.14c and 12.55) in the plan area.”

    And here’s the rest of the stuff to consider in determining NRV/integrity. This is written for the agency staff, whose job is to understand it, but it shouldn’t be that hard to explain it to the public.
    12. Range of ecological conditions established within the limits of natural landforms, vegetation, and disturbance processes that existed before extensive human alteration (FSH 1909.12, ch. 10, sec. 12.14a).
    13. Variation in physical and biological conditions exhibited by ecosystems because of system drivers, stressors, climatic fluctuations, and disturbance regimes, including those that are beyond the control of the Agency (FSH 1909.12, ch. 10, sec. 12.3).
    14. The concept that the environmental conditions that sustained species and other ecosystem components in the past are likely to sustain them (at least over the short term) in the future (Weins et al. 2012; and sec. 23.11a of this Handbook).

  4. For whatever it’s worth, the (uncredited) photo posted with this blog post is from the Saddle Ridge Brush Fire, which they suspect was caused by a downed power line on account of very strong Santa Ana winds. At one point during the fire, the area in the San Fernando Valley was experiencing humidities as low as 1%. This fire was more of an urban brush fire than a “forest fire.”

    Here are some addition photos of this fire from October 2019.

  5. I am not a big fan of HRV for a lot of the reasons that Sharon mentions. For one thing, it is artificially narrow and does not really encompass the full range of variation (It’s only 1 standard deviation from the mean of a bunch of model runs that are based on an imperfect understanding of the past, present, and future). It’s an interesting idea and I was fascinated by it when I first saw it used in the Columbia Basin assessment in the 1990s. But when it comes to implementing it, being the good managers that we are, we try to aim squarely for the mean, and that ignores a lot of other important things – for one thing, there is an assumption that if we are within the NRV/HRV that our ecosystem is resilient – uh – wrong. Our forest ecosystems have been heavily altered by our passive and active management – there’s more to worry about that just HRV for structure. It’s interesting that the largest fire in Oregon (at least the largest one before the 2002 Biscuit Fire) – the Tillamook Burn – is on state land and there was a lot of controversy when those stands were old/large enough to harvest. So the state implemented a “Structure-Based Management” approach (much like HRV) – but the Tillamook Burn was a 350,000 acre area that re-burned 3 times – it’s one of those areas that represents an extreme disturbance. Structure-Based Management is fragmenting it, and it’s creating a forest that is very fire-prone when conditions occur like last week in Oregon. So, HRV/NRV isn’t everything…and may not get us where we want to go…

    • Thanks for the counterpoint. I agree that it’s all probabilities, and planners won’t get “resilience” right in every case. I don’t think that makes it “wrong.” What is a better scientific basis for a desired condition to manage for that would sustain diversity? If the problem is aiming for the mean, that’s an implementation problem that can be corrected (though what I have seen usually recognizes the “range” part of the concept). I agree that planners should often be addressing more than structure, and they should recognize when they need to do that – especially related to desired fire frequency and severity.


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