From Where Wildfires Start to the Forest Service 10-Year Strategy: Tracking the Logic Path of the Downing et. al Paper

Many thanks to Matthew for posting the Downing et al. paper from Nature. There are so many fascinating things about this paper, I thought it was worthy of looking at carefully. 1) what the paper says (results) 2) how those relate to the methods (logic paths) and 3) how the conclusions made their way from the paper to the OSU public affairs and other media reports.  It’s a terrific example, because you don’t have to understand the methodologies to understand the knowledge claims and logic.  I’m hoping this analysis will be helpful to students and the paper is open source so anyone can view. This is a longer post than usual.

The first step is always to look at results and discussion.

Conclusion
Our empirical assessment of CB fire activity can support the development of strategies designed to foster fire-adapted communities, successful wildfire response, and ecologically resilient landscapes.

Then try to translate this from academic talk.  First, they talk about “cross boundary” wildfire, in fact, the whole paper is about “cross boundary” wildfire, so that is fires that move from private to public land or vice versa.  Why is this important?  They discuss this in a few paragraphs.

The tension between ecological processes (e.g., fire) and social processes (e.g., WUI development) in mixed ownership landscapes is brought into stark relief when fire ignites on one land tenure and spreads to other ownerships, especially when it results in severe damages to communities on private lands and/or highly valued natural resources on publicly managed wildlands. These cross-boundary (CB) wildfires present particularly acute management challenges because the responsibilities for preventing ignitions, stopping fire spread, and reducing the vulnerability of at-risk, high-value assets are often dispersed among disparate public and private actors with different objectives, values, capacity, and risk tolerances23–25
. Some CB risk mitigation strategies exist, such as fire protection exchanges, which transfer suppression responsibility from one agency (e.g., state) to another (e.g., U.S. Forest Service), and CB fuel treatment agreements, which allow managers to influence components of wildfire risk beyond their jurisdictional boundaries 2,26 . Improving CB wildfire risk management has been identified as a top national priority 27 , but effective, landscape-scale solutions are not readily apparent.
A common narrative used to describe CB fire is as follows: a wildfire ignites on remote public lands (e.g., US Forest Service), spreads to a community, showers homes with embers, and results in structure loss and fatalities 23,25,28 . In this framing, public land management agencies bear the primary responsibility for managing and mitigating CB fire risk, with effort focused on prevention, hazardous fuel reduction, and suppression—largely reinforcing the dominant management paradigm of fire exclusion 29,30 . An alternative risk management framing of this challenge has emerged, starting with the axiom that CB fire transmission is inevitable in fire-prone mixed ownership landscapes and that private landowners and homeowners are the actors best positioned to reduce fire risk to homes and other high-value assets regardless of where the fire starts 31 . In the absence of a broad-scale empirical assessment of CB fire transmission, it is difficult to determine which of these narratives more accurately reflects the nature of the problem, and whether CB fire risk management is best framed in terms of reducing fire transmission from public lands or decreasing the exposure and vulnerability of high-value developed assets on private lands.

So there’s a framing question here.  Where I live, people don’t much care where a fire starts, just if it’s burning close to them.  So the importance of addressing wildfire with the CB framing is based on a “common narrative” with cites 23, 25, and 28.  28 is an interesting paper by Ager et al., definitely worth taking a look at, about Central Oregon, where they found:

Among the land tenures examined, the area burned by incoming fires averaged 57% of the total burned area. Community exposure from incoming fires ignited on surrounding land tenures accounted for 67% of the total area burned.

I would call that an observation, rather than a narrative, but perhaps I’m being pedantic.  For those who don’t track this stuff,  Ager’s groups’ transmission and scenario analysis forms the basis for the prioritization scheme in the Forest Service 10 year action plan.

As to “Improving CB wildfire risk management has been identified as a top national priority 27 , but effective, landscape-scale solutions are not readily apparent.”  I think this is important as in a brief review of their cite to the Fire Plan Implementation Strategy, I didn’t actually see a reference to “cross boundary”-  maybe others can find it.  The other thing I’d point out is that PODS look like they might be an effective landscape-scale solution and they seem apparent to me.  So outside of a scientific paper, that would be an interesting conversation to have.

I found the conclusions interesting as I have just spent several days working on the logic of “fires are increasingly difficult and unpredictable due to fuel accumulation, climate change and increasing amounts of human infrastructure, therefore we need to keep all the tools in the toolkit, including prescribed fire and the Thing Formerly Known as WFU.”  This was rather well-stated IMHO in Wildfire Resolution Letter on  TFKWFU:

As we have seen over the past few years, especially in California and Colorado, we are now experiencing conditions that are causing extreme fire behavior, which is in part due to past full  suppression policy. The best management approach we have to combat this phenomenon is reducing the amount of fuel available to burn. Similar to how important thinning and prescribed burning are around our communities, the ability to manage wildland fires at appropriate times is equally important for reducing fuels in the wildland environment. We will never be able to reduce fire risk to communities with thinning or prescribed fire alone—we need all hands on deck, and all the tools in the toolbox.

So it looks like the authors of the Downing et al. paper ended up in a different place from many other practitioners and the usual fire science suspects.  To me this is a Science Situation That Shouts “Watch Out.”

So that’s why we need to dig deeper.. let’s go to conclusions again in their paper.

Conclusion
Our empirical assessment of CB fire activity can support the development of strategies designed to foster fire-adapted communities, successful wildfire response, and ecologically resilient landscapes. Adapting to increasing CB wildfire in the western US will require viewing socio-ecological risk linkages between CB fire sources and recipients as management assets rather than liabilities. We believe that a shared understanding of CB fire dynamics, based on empirical data, can strengthen the social component of these linkages and promote effective governance. The current wildfire management system is highly fragmented 74 , and increased social and ecological alignment between actors at multiple scales is necessary for effective wildfire risk governance 14,30 .
Cross-boundary fire activity can contribute to multijurisdictional alignment when fire transmission incentivizes actors to collaboratively manage components of risk that manifest outside their respective ownerships 15 . A broader acknowledgement that CB is inevitable in some fire-prone landscapes will ideally shift the focus away from excluding fire in multijurisdictional settings towards improved cross-jurisdictional pre-fire planning and reducing the vulnerability of high-value assets in and around wildlands 30,31 . Federal agencies like the USFS can provide capacity, analytics, and funding, but given that private lands are where most high-value assets are located and where most CB fires originate, communities and private landowners may be best positioned to reduce losses from CB wildfire.

 

Now, first of all, it’s kind of hard to parse some of the academic-ese here “will require viewing socio-ecological risk linkages between CB fire sources and recipients as management assets rather than liabilities.”  I hope it’s clear to others, they lost me. 

“We believe that a shared understanding of CB fire dynamics, based on empirical data, can strengthen the social component of these linkages and promote effective governance.”  That’s nice that they believe that, but I’d be curious about the mechanics of how that works.  Communities have their own lived knowledge of fires and it’s hard to tell them “some scientists ran some simulations and came up with …. “.  And effective governance of HOAs, fire departments, counties, states and feds.. there are many problems at coordination at all scales, but not clear that modeling fire transmissions with their model will be more helpful than all the other fire transmission models that have existed for some time.

“shift the focus away from excluding fire in multijurisdictional settings towards improved cross-jurisdictional pre-fire planning and reducing the vulnerability of high-value assets in and around wildland”  Hmm. We have a system that includes both- a very complicated process and alignment of CWPPs, federal lands and and suppression that takes into account all of the above.  Perhaps the authors have developed a straw person? or are they saying “leave the federal lands alone and focus on communities?”  Which wouldn’t be “all hands all tools”? Or perhaps a change in focus? But then you’d have to articulate what the current focus is and what needs to change.

An alternative risk management framing of this challenge has emerged, starting with the axiom that CB fire transmission is inevitable in fire-prone mixed ownership landscapes and that private landowners and homeowners are the actors best positioned to reduce fire risk to homes and other high-value assets regardless of where the fire starts

I agree that private landowners and homeowners , utilities, ski areas, water providers are best positioned to reduce direct risks.  But there are also people (fire suppression folks) working assiduously to keep fires away from infrastructure- and it actually works most of the time (I don’t have a cite, but I can see information on InciWeb).  This is a both/and thing.  Not sure how the simulations in this paper support changes to the current system.  If I’d reviewed it, I would have asked them to draw a logical line between “the system as we see it” “what our data show” and “how we think this information should inform changes.”

And here’s a quote from the OSU piece:

“The Forest Service’s new strategy for the wildfire crisis leads with a focus on thinning public lands to prevent wildfire intrusion into communities, which is not fully supported by our work, or the work of many other scientists, as the best way to mitigate community risk,” Dunn said.

I think this doesn’t take into consideration that that the strategy is the FS chunk of the overall work, of which there are many other bucks going to states and ultimately into communities.  They did not say it’s the best way, only what they can contribute.  Plus thinning and PB have other desirable attributes in making forests more climate-resilient, so not so much destruction occurs within them in the case of a wildfire.  Suppression folks work with a great variety of values at risk that include but are not restricted to communities.

What I would have said based on the data?  More fires go into the NFs than come from the NFs based on the data.  So working on reducing ignitions and spread before fires get to the FS boundary would be a good idea.  But everyone gets to conclude what you want from the data.. what do you conclude?

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “From Where Wildfires Start to the Forest Service 10-Year Strategy: Tracking the Logic Path of the Downing et. al Paper”

  1. From the published supplemental data: 100% of the structures lost in Arizona (723) originated on federal lands, 100% of the structures lost in WY (55) originated on federal lands, 90% of the structures lost in New Mexico (663) originated on federal lands, 54% of structures lost in Montana (159) originated on federal lands, 27% of structures lost in Colorado (1706) originated on federal lands, 12% of structures lost in California (35,613) originated on federal lands and 0% of the structures lost in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Washington (116, 109, 146, 515) originated on federal lands.

    If you exclude California from the analysis: 45% of all structures lost originated on federal lands

    Reply
    • Also, if you exclude California from the analysis, 35,613 less structures were lost.

      Does anyone know if the 1,084 structures lost during the December 30, 2021 non-national forest/federal land Marshall Fire made it into the report? If not, adding those numbers would significantly change the percentage in Colorado.

      Reply
      • The Marshall fire started on private and went to private, no federal lands involved. So it wouldn’t be a BC and perhaps not included in the study.

        Reply
        • They had two separate analyses in the paper: 1.) the transmission analysis and 2.) the structure loss. The structure loss only covered 2000-2018 and only for fires with greater than 50 structures lost (side note..; the numbers reported in the paper do not match the base data presented in the supplemental data..). Why 50 structures? It seems to very much skew the data to California from everywhere else in the West. Just as we shouldn’t apply forest ecology studies in dry pine forests of Arizona to justify ‘ecological’ management of moist mixed conifer forests in MT we shouldn’t apply a California structure loss paper to other lands where it isn’t applicable.

          About 25% of all structures reported as lost in the analysis were from 1 fire (Camp). I am a little disappointed that they didn’t talk about the influence of such an outlier in the pub but the editors at Nature seem to like papers with dubious methods that they can use to push their personal ethical beleifs and influence forest policy (e.g. Donato & post-fire salvage). The paper seems like it was designed to be taken out of context to be used in marketing campaigns by fringe anti-management groups.

          Again, I also find it is really surprising that the authors had to dig through 209 reports to get the data for the publication. It amazes me that that data isn’t readily available for every single fire in a uniform database on January 1 of each year. The cost of one or two LAT drops would fund the analysts needed to create and maintain such a data set. We can’t address a problem if we don’t fully understand it.

          Reply
          • Patrick, as I recall the Donato paper was in Science which has the same tendency as you mentioned for Nature.

            What would you like to see in an annual data set? I’m not familiar with this kind of data. We could put it on the list for “the People’s Database.”

          • The USFS currently maintains a point data set of where all fires started (https://www.fs.usda.gov/rds/archive/catalog/RDS-2013-0009.4), how big they were and when they were put out. I would like to see that expanded to include how much money was spent on suppression, what the final fire perimeter was, and what were the damages associated with it: primary residences, homes, other structures, etc. We spend billions each year on wildfire suppression and there aren’t any comprehensive data sets on the fires we are suppressing. Generating such a dataset wouldn’t be technically challenging but a major organizational hurdle to get local disparate fire departments to play. It would likely take some large stick such as the threat of cutting funding to get folks to engage. The USFS does a pretty poor job at maintaining similar datasets as a whole in my opinion. Outside of the mystic of FIA, I struggle to think of any other well thought out, national-level reporting/monitoring data sets. The cut and sold reports are a mess. You are correct, I was mistaken in thinking that pub was in Nature.

  2. FWIW, Here’s a PR from DoI’s Office of Wildland Fire….

    Interior Announces Plan to Implement Historic Wildland Fire Management Funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

    WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire today announced initial plans for investing nearly $1.5 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase the resilience of communities and lands facing the threat of wildland fires and to better support federal wildland firefighters. Over the next five years, this historic investment provides an average increase of 29 percent over 2021 funding for the Department’s wildland fire management.

    Congress provided these funds over a period of five years, beginning in 2022. The investment supports the Department’s wildland fire management to address forest and rangeland restoration, hazardous fuels management, fire-related research and science, wildfire early detection technology, post-wildfire restoration activities, and by investing in federal wildland firefighters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service also received funding to coordinate efforts across the interagency wildland fire management community.

    “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s wildland fire investments reflect more than just funding increases,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “This new law is the start of a more strategic approach to wildland fire management that includes greater consideration of wildland firefighters and a longer-term view of preparing for fires, reducing fire risk across boundaries, and working with partners to increase resiliency in lands and communities dealing with fire.”

    The Department’s initial plan for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes investments in the wildland fire management programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Guided by the law, the plan provides $407.6 million in the first year and $262.6 million each of the following four years, an increase over the 2021 funding level of more than 40 percent in the first year and more than 25 percent the following four years.

    Specific funding under the law is directed toward preparedness, fuels management, post-fire restoration, and fire science.

    Preparing for wildland fire involves hiring and training firefighters, purchasing and maintaining equipment, and improving fire detection methods. The law also improves pay in areas of the nation where it has been difficult to recruit and retain wildland firefighters, establishes an employment series that recognizes wildland firefighting as a federal career, and develops programs that support firefighter mental health and wellbeing.

    Fuels management funding protects communities and landscapes by removing vegetation before it can burn in a wildfire using methods from cutting and removing to prescribed fire. The law calls for fuel treatments to reduce the risk of fire on millions of acres near the wildland urban interface and drinking water sources.

    Additional funds provide for rehabilitating lands that have been impacted by wildfires and supporting the Joint Fire Science Program, a collaboration with the Forest Service to better understand the impacts of fire and the needs of communities preparing for fires.

    ###

    Reply
  3. I want to remind people that there is a mandate to hire more full-time permanent firefighters, but no mandate for increasing the pace and scale of thinning projects. That would require hiring more permanent staff, which may, or may not happen at the local level, for both the Forest Service and BLM. Apparently, Congress is blind to what is really needed for Federal Agencies. It seems like there is plenty of money to spend on more fire suppression, but is that the best use of billions of dollars?

    Reply
  4. To your last question about “More fires go into the NFs than come from the NFs based on the data. So working on reducing ignitions and spread before fires get to the FS boundary would be a good idea.” I might reach the opposite conclusion, because if we let fires burn into these NF areas now, they are less likely to burn out of these areas later. That could be another reason to prioritize the NF lands in the WUI for treatments that promote safer periodic fires.

    Reply

Leave a Comment