Missoulian: Fire strategy stuck with old tactics, experts warn

Today, Rob Chaney with the Missoulian newspaper has an in-depth article featuring the expert opinions of Dr. Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist, and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier regarding the “new” U.S. Forest Service strategy, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.”

Readers of this blog will likely recognize Dr. Jack Cohen as the world’s leading expert on protecting homes and communities from wildfire. Maybe you’ve even watched his video—produced by the experts at the National Fire Protection Association—called “Your Home Can Survive a Wildlife.” The U.S. Forest Service’s website even includes this featured page about Dr. Cohen and his life’s work.

Fewer readers may know about the previous career of Missoula County Commission Dave Strohmaier, who worked for 18 years with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, including working for 15 years as a wildland firefighter. In fact, Strohmaier is also the author of Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire.

Below is the Missoulian article featuring the expert opinions of Dr. Jack Cohen and Missoulian County Commissioner David Strohmaier. I must point out that many of the views expressed here by Dr. Cohen and Commissioner Strohmaier have been repeatedly expressed by nearly every single environmental organization that works on public lands issues related to wildfires and logging.

Fire strategy stuck with old tactics, experts warn
By Rob Chaney, Missoulian (January 20, 2022)

Although it uses the words “paradigm shift” 13 times, the U.S. Forest Service’s new wildfire crisis strategy appears stuck on old tactics, according to area fire experts.

“I saw no new strategy but rather a potential increase in the same fire control strategy of ‘fuel treatment’ to enhance fire control,” retired Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen said after reviewing the documents released on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced plans to spend upward of $50 billion to fight catastrophic wildfire. The strategy focuses on “firesheds” — forest landscapes of about 250,000 acres that are likely to burn and have lots of homes and infrastructure at risk.

Those firesheds would get intensive work to return 35-45% of their acreage to fire-adapted conditions through hazardous fuels removal, logging and prescribed fires.

The plan identifies five firesheds in Montana, including four along the Idaho border in the Lolo, Bitterroot and Nez-Perce/Clearwater national forests, and one in the Flathead National Forest surrounding Kalispell.

The strategy calls for treating up to 20 million acres of national forest lands and up to 30 million acres of other federal, tribal, state and private lands over the next 10 years. Nationwide, the strategy will create 300,000 to 575,000 jobs, protect property values, and stimulate local economies.

That represents a tempo of work four times greater than current activity in the West, the report claims.

It should also bring down the Forest Service’s annual firefighting costs, which averaged $1.9 billion a year between 2016 and 2020.

The report notes that wildfires in 2020, 2017 and 2015 burned a total of more than 10 million acres. The National Interagency Fire Center has stopped labeling fires larger than 100,000 acres as exceptional events, because they have become so common.

Missoula is home to the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab as well as an extensive community of academic and professional forestry and fire experts. It started developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2005, and updated it in 2018.

“The use of tired, old, ill-defined language such as ‘hazardous fuels’ does little to describe what the fuels (i.e., wildland vegetation) is hazardous to,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who helped revise the latest version of the plan. “We seem to have learned nothing from recent fires that have resulted in community destruction, such as Denton, Montana. This was a grass fire, and there were no forests to thin or otherwise eliminate the risk of crown fire from.”

The West Wind fire on Nov. 30 destroyed 25 homes and six commercial buildings in Denton, including the town’s granary. The Marshall fire on Dec. 30 burned almost 1,100 houses with an estimated $513 million in total damage. It was primarily a grass fire pushed by 110 mph winds.

And despite 11 of the report’s 23 photo illustrations depicting burned houses or fire-threatened neighborhoods, Strohmaier couldn’t find the words “home ignition zone” anywhere in the document.

“Community destruction is (a home ignition zone), not a fire control problem,” Strohmaier said. Throwing more money at treatments that won’t get the expected outcomes “does no one any good and sets up false expectations as to what will truly reduce the risk of community destruction and improve ecological and community resilience.”

Cohen found no evidence that the writers considered best available science, which shows that wildland-urban disasters are mainly a factor of how houses catch fire, not forest management, he said.

He cited extensive research explaining how community wildfire destruction (incidents where more than 100 homes get destroyed) happens when fires overrun the fuel breaks and forest treatments intended to control them. But it’s not the “big flames of high intensity wildfires (that) cause total home destruction,” but rather “lofted burning embers (firebrands) on the home and low intensity surface fire spreading to contact the home” that did the damage, often hours after the main fire had subsided or moved elsewhere.

At the same time, Cohen noted that the fireshed approach appears headed in two contradictory directions. On one hand, it acknowledges the need for large-scale burning to improve forest health and ecology. But it doesn’t acknowledge the Forest Service’s “inherent management aversion to fires burning at landscape scales that cannot be under tight control.”

“The press release and full document are just more of the same management that enables continuation of the wildfire problem,” Cohen concluded.

The Wildfire Today blog reviewed the strategy with an eye for its funding. It noted that the Forest Service called for an additional $2 billion a year to get ahead of its hazardous fuels backlog.

“The growth of the climate crisis, which has contributed to the ‘wildfire crisis,’ appears to be exceeding the estimates of scientists,” Wildfire Today moderator Bill Gabbert wrote on Tuesday. “Changes are occurring even more quickly than previously expected. So low-balling the funding for protecting our homeland will mean we will fall even further behind in treating fuels and attempting to keep fires from wiping out more communities.”

14 thoughts on “Missoulian: Fire strategy stuck with old tactics, experts warn”

  1. What has Missoulian County Commissioner David Strohmaier done to reduce risk in town? Anything? Can you list any of the policies he has put forward in 15 years as a commissioner?

  2. PatrickF: Actually, David Strohmaier has only been a Missoula County Commissioner since 2016. I believe Dave and the other Missoula County Commissioners have participated in the “Wildfire Adapted Missoula” initiative.

    If you want to know that Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier done to reduce risk in town, could you please contact him directly and report back to us? Thanks.

    FWIW: A very quick google search yielded these examples of what Missoula County is doing/has done. Plus, there’s a whole website called Fire Adapted Missoula County that contains a wealth of resources.

  3. Matthew, you said
    “by nearly every single environmental organization that works on public lands issues related to wildfires and logging.”

    I don’t think that’s the case.. here’s EDF from their Climate Smart Forestry response to USDA.
    “Our national wildfire strategy should have two priorities: 1) Protect communities in the line of fire; and 2) Reestablish natural fire patterns to protect ecosystem values and sustainably manage fuel loads. Reestablishing natural fire regimes can only be realized when fuel loads, particularly in the West, are greatly reduced using both mechanical treatments and prescribed and managed fire. Implementation will require an updated wildfire triage approach to ensure that we address the most pressing threats to communities and human lives, first.”

    Or more local groups? Here’s a note from a group that includes Defenders, Sierra Forest Legacy and more local groups in California “An effective restoration strategy needs to utilize all tools in the toolbox: ecologically based forest thinning, prescribed fire, managed wildfire, cultural burning, working forest conservation easements, defensible space, home hardening, and emergency response.”

    Then there’s TNC.

    As to the science, there’s the 10 common questions paper, with a great deal more scientists signed on.. https://forestpolicypub.com/2021/08/13/ten-common-questions-about-adaptive-forest-management-i-background-and-context/ which was specifically directed by fire scientists from all over the West to answer those questions.

    But simplest of all, Jack Cohen doesn’t get to frame the issue as a home ignition problem (because he’s an expert in home ignition) than climate scientists get to frame it as a climate problem (because they’re experts in climate).

    In this country, communities facing wildfires or wui or suburban fires get to frame the issue as “we’d prefer to keep fire out of our communities and not impacting our watersheds or favored species negatively, but we know we can’t all the time. We’d like to have the best tools in the toolkit (PODS) for firefighter and people’s health and safety.”

    I’m totally with Sierra Forest Legacy and most communities saying “we need all of the above.”

    The ones who don’t… please send your funds down the road to the next highest priority fireshed area.

    • The three sources you cite were answering a different question than “how to keep fire out of our communities.” They are interested in that, but also in ecosystem restoration, (“climate forestry,” “restoration strategy,” “adaptive forest management”), and therefore would support a wider array of tools than what is needed for infrastructure protection.

  4. If you have a problem with how federal tax dollars are allocated toward fire/fuels management, then write your US congressperson. The FS is planning to implement a program that was funded and authorized by congress. The FS has jurisdiction over NF lands, so naturally it is going to implement a program on those lands. Perhaps local governments should be lobbying their congressional reps to allocated federal tax dollars differently. Railing against the FS for planning to implement a program legally authorized by congress is disingenuous.

    Also, I will allow that this should not be an either/or proposition. I feel that the majority of the public doesn’t want to see their national forests burnt to a crisp anymore than they want their homes burnt to a crisp. You got a problem with the 10 year plan, talk to your congressperson. Your views clearly do not represent the views of the American public; if they did funding would be allocated differently.

    • the problem with your view is 2-fold: 1) it IS truthful – that’s the way FS work gets funded 2) suggesting that this is EFFECTIVE or that “writing your Rep” actually results in getting Congress on the right track is quite naive.
      The issue desperately needs FS leadership, and Congress would be happy to see it in guiding wise and efficient use of monies to make a real difference. The tragic emergence of massive home losses (as noted by Strohmeier and Cohen) is the BIG problem now in need of a “new paradigm”.

  5. “I feel that the majority of the public doesn’t want to see their national forests burnt to a crisp anymore than they want their homes burnt to a crisp.” I think if they were asked to prioritize, they would put homes first, and that’s how the money should be prioritized.

    • I don’t want my tax dollars going towards cleaning out folks’ gutters. Get a ladder and do it yourself or pay the kid down the street to do it. The USFS has no authority over what folks in Missoula County do with their property. Commissioner Strohmaier does and hasn’t done anything about it. I guess he has been too busy trying to ban dog leashes that are too long to actually do anything other than write op-eds to address the wildfire issues in Missoula county.

      • Our tax dollars are paying for structures (or how about “beach replenishment?”) to protect private homes from climate-enhanced storm flooding – I don’t see a difference. I don’t like our tax dollars benefitting the few over the many either, but here Congress is choosing to spend money on private lands, so they should figure out the most effective use of that money.

  6. I do think that the courts might decide that “Fire Use” would make the Forest Service liable for escapes. To me, it a a conscious decision to let a fire burn, “for resource benefits”, and that should mean that the Agency analyzed and accepted the dangers…. and the liabilities. That might certainly curb the desire to let fires burn, in the middle of fire season.

  7. Here’s a view of a project I worked in on the Bitterroot National Forest:


    I think it was Trapper-Bunkhouse. I was on assignment there (with TEAMS Enterprise) to provide expertise and help for their local timber crew. We marked and cruised through this pine-dominated tractor ground, back in 2004. I heard that the local eco-groups did not choose to litigate this project. I did hear of a concern that it was ‘over-marked’, due to the sheer amount of trees marked with blue paint. A school group went out there to do a survey, and found that there were an adequate amount of ‘leave trees’. Judging from what it looks like today, to me, it looks like a Silviculturalist would say it was ‘under-marked’.

  8. A general post- harvest rule of thumb for me is you need to see blue sky all around P Pine when looking up, and as Dave Mertz mentioned most of Black Hills Jasper Fire area could be characterized that way – yet it got torched. That kind of basal area does not maximize timber production but reduces fire risk significantly. Don’t forget that crowns will “blossom” over a 15-yr period and start to close in again.


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