Former Deputy Chief of U.S. Forest Service offers “2 cents worth” on current wildfires

The following comment was posted by Jim Furnish, former Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service on this blog over here. I believe Jim’s “2 cents worth” deserves to have its own post for discussion.

According to Jim’s bio at the Oregon State University Press: “Jim Furnish is a consulting forester in the Washington D.C. area following a 34-year career with the USDA Forest Service. He served as the agency’s Deputy Chief and Siuslaw National Forest Supervisor in Corvallis, Oregon. Furnish was a principle Forest Service leader in creating the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (2001), as well as in reforming management of the Siuslaw National Forest from timber production to restoration principles. He has served on the board of directors of several environmental and faith-based non-profit organizations.” More details on Jim’s book, “Toward A Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition (A Memoir)” can be found here.

My 2c worth, after almost 40 years with USFS 1965-2002, and a couple more decades observing since… As any on-the-ground firefighter or fire boss will tell you, when a fire gets ripping with high wind, heat, and low humidity and reaches project size, suppression efforts are band aids, at best. And we are seeing it RIGHT NOW. Control will come with – and ONLY with – a change in the weather. It’s an ugly scene and an ugly truth. But the “wet West” of 1945-1980, coinciding with a huge uptick in logging, population, and residential development, kind of lulled us into a false mindset (of which I was also guilty). Now that drier conditions have become entrenched, exacerbated by climate change, we reap the whirlwind. I approve of veg mgmt to try to reduce fire risk and severity, but have seen my share of fires burn right through treated areas. I strongly endorse focusing on WUI first and investing in fire-wise treatments of forest homes and lots. But when too-close homes start to burn and the domino effect kicks in, best to stand back and take your medicine. Sorry to be such a downer, but all the talk of logging impacts on fire behavior (and there ARE impacts) is akin to arguing about how the clothing I wear affects my weight on the scale vs. weighing naked.

33 thoughts on “Former Deputy Chief of U.S. Forest Service offers “2 cents worth” on current wildfires”

  1. I certainly agree with Jim. Our careers covered about the same time span. I see the biggest fire in Colorado burned mostly PJ, with Douglas-fir on the steep north slopes. Coat over $30 million for low valued PJ. My experience on rehab project on private land just north of this fire, and also as hot, had oakbrush and grasses coming up a few months after the burn. I can see spending $$ ofor firefighting to prevent dwellings from burning but question why we still spend millions where the benefit is minimal and when extreme fire conditions.

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      • I think I would have backfired from roads surrounding the area. Of course, no one knew how strong the winds would be. It just seems like $30 Mil or more which was 1/2 air operations, is a lot for low value land and forest products and little if any private land. ?When the fire was small a few air drops may have helped. I heard at least there was a thought of no or indirect suppression. Most likely all of these lands will burn sometime in the next 100 years.

        The Grizzly Cr. fire in Glenwood Canyon is totally different with I-70 through it but there have been and will continue to be natual fires in the canyon.

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        • Folks, FYI, My wife and I live near the Riverside Fire in NW Oregon. We have been ready to evacuate since Wednesday, but so far, but our area remains at a Level 1 “Be Ready” evacuation order. Other areas nearby are at higher levels, some towns and large rural areas have been evacuated. Many homes destroyed by the Riverside Fire and two other large ones in my county. Power has been off since last Monday, as a precaution during very strong winds, but we are told that power may be back in a day or two, maybe. Our generator has been running 12+ hours per day, so I can work, but there’s no Internet and very weak cell service (none in the house, 1 bar on the front deck), but I do get email. And my old landline phone still works. Today I’m working from a picnic table in Sandy (now that it is back to a Level 1 evacuation order), about 25 miles from the house, where I can get a decent cell connection and can use my phone as a hotspot. Not a bad place to work, except for the smoke. In short: things may start to get back to normal in a few days. — Steve

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  2. As a 32 year veteran of the Forest Service, and watching with 8 years thereafter, I’m interested in hearing more about “But when too-close homes start to burn and the domino effect kicks in, best to stand back and take your medicine.”
    Could you describe more about what that would look like? Who is taking what medicine, exactly?

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    • You only need to look at what happened in Santa Rosa, CA a couple years ago to see how close-proximity homes in a wind-driven fire event advocate to stand back and be thankful that you are still alive to rebuild.

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  3. I agree with Jim but need to add that attractive wildfire-resistant homes can be built with cost increases that are well within the reach of the people building them. Defensible space is still essential, and it must be maintained. But it doesn’t require having bare ground for even 50 ft around the structure.

    Also, building on what Jim wrote, the majority of houses destroyed in CA and OR in the last two years were not in what most people regard as WUI. They were in suburban settings far from any wildland forest. The houses were indeed built too close together, especially in CA. Further, with fires spotting miles ahead of the front, even downtown areas with lots of trees are vulnerable. Our whole concept of the WUI thus needs to change.

    I’ll try to find time post more about this, but at present I’m swamped.

    Phil Sollins
    OSU Forestry, retired
    Corvallis RFPD

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  4. OK — having read Sollins above (with which I agree 100%) I just looked at some recent post-fire images of Phoenix OR (almost 1000 structures burned in a small city adjacent to freeway in valley bottom, well-removed from nearby forest) that I think reveal quite graphically what I speak of with respect to “domino effect” (hmmm… can’t seem to cut and paste in here). Mostly trailer parks are torched with virtual 100% structure loss, even though few trees are there (as opposed to, say, Paradise CA). When 1 catches fire, close proximity dictates that most others follow in succession. This makes fire suppression virtually impossible, meaning that many will “take their medicine” — homeowners, neighbors, city, insurance companies, etc.

    Sollins makes good points about fire-wise constr and re-thinking WUI, yet this is still a valid issue for those choosing to live in or adjacent to forest. And for USFS, this is still a potent policy and forest mgmt issue for their public lands. Simply put, I say if you plan to spend money reducing fire risk do it in WUI, not far flung roadless areas, that will in time recover. History has shown, over and over again, that the vast majority of fire severity within fire boundaries is low and moderate.

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    • Jim, where are the FS fuel treatments in “far flung roadless areas?”. In many places I’ve worked, prioritization is based on community needs and community needs outweigh the budget available.

      Perhaps you are talking about “restoring fire to the landscape” PBs? Please name a few projects that you disagree with.

      And “bad things that we might want to reduce” and fire severity are not necessarily the same thing according to this paper by Jon Keeley. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70032718

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  5. Excellent discussion! I’m currently watching a live news conference showing aerial footage of the smoking ruins of Phoenix, Oregon. There is a stark contrast between the ash heaps of incinerated homes lying beneath the green canopies of trees overhead. The homes we’ve built are more flammable than surrounding forests!
    Jack Cohen has been clear and insistent that our concept of “Wildland/Urban Interface Zone” is too expansive and nebulous, and has been abused in the past to justify fuels projects miles away from the nearest community. He prefers something more narrow and tangible: the Home Ignition Zone, which is only 100 feet radius around structures with the focus on the flammability of the structure itself.
    The problem afflicting communities like Phoenix, Talent, Blue River, Detroit, and Mill City in Oregon was that these clustered communities had overlapping Home Ignition Zones, thus, when one house ignited it set off a chain reaction or domino effect of house-to-house ignitions. With the strong, dry winds that propelled those fires, it’s clear that embers were and heat were blowing sideways to each house, barely rising to even singe the canopies of overhead trees.
    Jim Furnish is right, and much as I hate to do this because I would rather be talking about fire ecology, we must focus our policy advocacy efforts on getting homes retrofitted to become more ignition-resistant. Once we get homes and communities prepared and protected from fire, then we will have more options to reduce fuels and restore forests with fire.
    Be safe and stay healthy everyone!

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    • Policy changes as you suggest must start locally. My life experience in predominantly rural communities tells me that local government officials are not that interested in telling their constituents what to do with their property, regardless if it is for those constituents’ benefit.

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      • Tony, I think the Breckenridge example is interesting for a couple of reasons:

        Breckenridge is not your standard “rural community” (more like a ski area subdivision) but people didn’t want a mandatory requirement.

        “If I thought we could win this thing, I’d take it to the mat. But I just don’t think we can,” Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron said of the ordinance that took a year of preparation before council approved the final version.

        https://www.summitdaily.com/news/breckenridge-takes-new-approach-to-defensible-space/

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        • Yep, no one wants to be told what to do with their property. I admit I am not entirely on board with having to change my behavior when it comes to what I do on my property. BUT, if I don’t do something to protect myself or my neighbor when it is clear that doing something greatly reduces risk of harm (property, life), what does that say about my contribution to the well-being of my community?

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          • I think that insurance companies definitely have a role to play here too – either you can’t get home insurance or your premiums will be relatively high if your home and property are not “fire-proofed”.

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        • I was on the Breck town Council at the time. With help of staff the council took about a year to come up with a (what I thought) was a reasonable town mandated defensible space program. There was such a huge resistance in the community. The claim being it was a massive government overreach. We worked with those who opposed it to no avail. A petition circulated that would have created a ballot initiative that nullified and reversed the proposed program. Then and now I was shocked and disappointed that, even otherwise reasonable, folks signed the petition to undo what we were hoping to accomplish. So though the council was unified in support of it we came to the conclusion that if we didn’t soften the program to a ‘voluntary’ defensible space initiative we wouldn’t get anything passed. It must’ve been only 10 years later that I sat in my front yard and watch a fire approach peak seven neighborhood, a near by enclave of Breckenridge had not the wind shifted things might have been quite different.

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          • Alas, I encountered that same public interaction all too often in my FS career. Well-meaning government officials (regardless of government level) attempting to help citizens understand how to address risk when those same people are unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge that risk. Then, when the effluent hits the fan, those same citizens claim, “How could this happen? Why didn’t anyone tell me/us how to protect ourselves?”

            Maybe when the question gets asked, “is this who we are?”, Jeffrey’s story can be one example we can point to. I acknowledge this is not very optimistic, but the fact I have seen this same topic debated at least three times (likely more) in my adult life has me thinking we are not quick learners. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of acres blacken, people lose material possessions, and tragically, their lives.

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    • Tim, again, I’m really interested in those fuels projects “miles away from the nearest community.” I’d like to take a look at the purpose and need for those and the reports of the fuels specialists.
      I think we disagree about the idea that it will be OK for fire to run through our communities if we just had our homes (and communities) protected. I am all for resilience measures (burying electric lines, housing requirements) but evacuations still have many hazards, and anything that can help suppression forces not go through communities is good IMHO.
      Also I think some people have various kinds of rural subdivisions in mind while other people have towns. The rules could be different for each.

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  6. I have repeatedly advocated on this blog that the primary focus on WUI has to include heavy traffic roadsides immediately adjacent to forests of any kind. Adjacent low traffic roads that provide quick getaways for arsonists must also be included in this WUI focus.

    This is critical to provide escape routes for evacuees as well as for reducing the rate of spread and therefore, extent of human caused large fires. Home sites alone wont get the job done since 85% of ignitions and just under 50% of forest acreage burned are the result of human carelessness or arson. Click on the green highlight to see this 2017 Reference and a fairly good discussion on the same topic as the comments above.

    We keep going in circles like a dog chasing it’s tail.

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  7. Thanks for the interesting discussion!
    Another consideration here is that insurance companies are close to pulling out of these high-risk areas all together (which would effectively shutter these communities). California placed a one-year moratorium on these company’s plans to abandon whole swaths of the market (as the 9/11/2020 episode of “The Daily” podcast from NYT pointed out).
    As soon as this devastation happens, homeowners are anxious to rebuild (as cheaply as possible) to recapture their investment and get on with their lives. Cities need the tax revenue and are incentivized to keep housing numbers up (or to grow the tax base) even in high-risk areas. What ends up happening is rebuilding with nothing to address the natural disaster dangers that may only be getting worse (also seen in flood areas on the other side of the country, like after hurricanes).
    It seems logical that we place stricter regulations on rebuilding. Insurance companies would pay for the replacement cost incorporating these new regulations in exchange for somewhat higher rates to recoup the higher replacement cost that would hopefully be more resilient to future disasters.
    Instead of making the most affordable options in some communities pushed up against the WUI, maybe we should be prioritizing affordable/higher density housing options closer to city centers near jobs, schools, parks and community services. We have strong UGB rules in Oregon but as previous comments have noted, the concept of the WUI needs to adapt as well with the size and frequency of fires growing. It’s not just a 50ft defensible space argument anymore.
    It does seem that the best solution will be found in a combination of these approaches.

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    • Loren, I agree with a combination of approaches..

      1. Affordable housing in urban areas seems to be a problem. I’m sure the reasons Denver and San Francisco have this problem are different, but it seems to be a problem that has existed for 20 years at least and hasn’t gotten better. Even city dwellers don’t seem to want higher density. Maybe Portland has solved that problem and also had strong UGB’s? It doesn’t seem to be happening in Denver and Colorado Springs anyway, new subdivisions are moving east. But there it is grass WUI and not tree WUI. We can’t stop people from moving here at least until it gets so expensive they go somewhere else.

      2. Some people don’t want to live in cities. Some things I’ve read suggest that people are moving out of cities due to Covid impacts a) less crowding b) great urban things are closed, and 3) they don’t need to commute due to work at home.

      3. So there are some folks that only move out because it’s affordable. Others of us don’t want to live in cities or suburbs. Maybe we should pay more for the privilege, but many rural residents are poor. So they should perhaps be forced to move leaving rural environments for the well-off? Not sure I like the justice implications of that.

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      • Totally agree.
        But “affordable” in rural areas should factor in natural disasters that exist. Right now, rural areas largely lack the building requirements, defensible space, construction methods/materials, etc. that would mitigate the worst effects of these disasters.
        Everyone shouldn’t have to live in the city, but we need stronger leadership in our rural communities to resist the temptation to “just rebuild” and instead take those opportunities for a re-do to actually improve our defensive strategies.
        No one wants to be the bad guy, but “just rebuilding” kicks the can down the road.

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    • Re: ” maybe we should be prioritizing affordable/higher density housing options closer to city centers near jobs, schools, parks and community services”

      Maybe not such a great idea – it seems that the fires are getting close to the Portland Suburbs and who wants to live in a city where crime is rampant?

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      • I know it’s en vogue to pile on Portland these days but, for the record, other northwestern cities like Tacoma, Spokane, Billings, and Anchorage have far higher rates of violent crime.

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          • A couple of related articles, from Mike Archer’s Wildfire News of the Day email (email marcher47@archercopywriting.com to subscribe):

            National Public Radio took a closer look at the stark facts surrounding the probability that forests severely burned by wildfires across the West may never regrow as forests.

            As Wildfires Grow More Intense, Iconic Western Forests May Not Come Back
            https://www.npr.org/2020/09/13/911935457/as-wildfires-grow-more-intense-iconic-western-forests-may-not-come-back

            In an Oregon Public Broadcasting podcast a climatologist and associate professor at the University of California, Merced discusses the impact climate change is having on wildfires in Oregon.

            What role is climate change playing in this year’s historic wildfire season?
            https://www.opb.org/article/2020/09/14/what-role-is-climate-change-playing-in-this-years-historic-wildfire-season/

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            • Thanks for sharing these links Steve.

              I did see that John Abatzoglou, the climatologist and associate professor at the University of California, Merced who has focused his research on how our warming climate drives wildfires, said this at the end of the interview:

              Abatzoglou: I go back to thinking about the ingredients you need for fire. Those ingredients are fuel or vegetation. We need to have that fuel be dry enough. We need ignition sources and we need fire weather. And so a couple of those are a little bit beyond our control and I won’t go into sort of solving climate change, even though that is an important issue. We can, however, remove a couple of those other ingredients. Namely, we can reduce fuels in certain areas that might be at risk, particularly near communities. That can be done through fuel reduction, treatments or prescribed burning. And then, of course, you can reduce human-caused ignitions. Those fires are bad fires. They’re not supposed to be happening on the landscape near where people live. So through technology and enforcement, we can improve getting rid of unintentional fires in the landscape caused by humans.

              I do believe that, for the most part, there is agreement about reducing fuels near communities (i.e. within a short distance) and this general agreement has been in place for at least the past two decades. For the past twenty years, as has been pointed out here dozens and dozens of times, many folks in the environmental community have strongly advocated for Home Ignition Zone principles advocated by Dr. Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service. The timber industry hasn’t seemed too interested in promoting these common sense solutions in the Home Ignition Zone. Also, politicians that seem to always blame wildfires on “environmental terrorists groups,” “radicals” and “environmental extremists” also haven’t been interested at all in raising public awareness about solutions within the Home Ignition Zone.

              I do also believe that most everyone supports reducing human-caused ignitions.

              So, perhaps with so much agreement about all the work that should happened within the Home Ignition Zone and in communities and within a short distance outside them, we should focus there and start getting better results to these problems.

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              • “we can reduce fuels in certain areas that might be at risk, particularly near communities.”

                Yes, but what is “near” when fires like the ones in my areas ran 40, 50, 60 miles in a few hours, pushed by strong east winds? So particularly near communities, but not only there.

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                • I thought “near” meant “defensible space,” the point of which is to save structures/lives, regardless of how far the fire had run to get to them. So yes, only there as a first priority. (Maybe we need a new term for when houses burn each other down instead of “forest fire.”)

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              • No, we cannot realistically reduce human-caused wildfires. Those are pretty much a constant in the western US. You cannot close entire National Forests for months at a time.

                We need to have ‘crafted’ forests that are resilient to climate change, drought, bark beetles and human-caused wildfires. Pretending that these huge wildfires are good for the environment is not smart.

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