This is a guest post by Jim Furnish.
Commentary: Counteracting Wildfire Misinformation, by Jones et al 2022: Response
I recently read and reflected on Commentary, a piece from a well-intentioned group of authors, in which they attempt to bring clarity to efforts to identify solutions and responses to the
increasing impact on wildfires on homes, communities and wild lands. They appropriately titled their contribution as commentary, as I find it long on opinion and short on facts. Any time one
sets out to discern what constitutes “misinformation” they should have facts on their side, lest they be just one more voice suggesting they alone are credible, as is the case here.
First, let me lay out incontrovertible truths and observations. Climate change is upon us and increasing wildfire activity in both human communities and large swaths of forest, particularly the American West. Rising temperatures and prolonged drought have lengthened fire seasons and, along with strong wind events, have led to many large fires that are too often becoming destructive to human communities. Costs of fire suppression have risen dramatically, with little correlation to reduced acres burned. Nor have we experienced reduced risk to communities and development near and within forests, in spite of increasing investment. Fire science has made dramatic gains in recent decades, yet forest fires present an enigma: how can we bend the curve of escalating cost and losses, for both natural resources and urbanized areas?
The authors of Jones et al suggest that part of the problem is misinformation, and ask us for their faith that they alone are the arbiters of what is true and what is working. Let me begin by citing the large Jasper Fire, in SD’s Black Hills National Forest, circa 2000. Jasper Fire burned almost 90,000 acres of intensively managed Ponderosa pine forest, about 10 percent of the entire national forest. Human caused, it was ignited on a hot, dry, windy July day – quite typical of weather in peak burning periods nowadays. Suppression efforts were immediate and used every tool in the agency’s tool box… to no avail.
Notably, the burned terrain exemplifies what we consider the best way to fire proof a forest. This mature forest of small sawtimber had been previously thinned to create an open stand
intended to limit the likelihood of a crown fire. Yet, the fire crowned anyway and raced across the land at great speed, defying control efforts. Much of the area remains barren 20 years later,
while the Forest Service slowly replants the area.
I cite this example, because it represents precisely what agencies posit as the solution to our current crisis: 1) aggressively reduce fuel loading through forest thinning on a massive scale
of tens of millions of acres (at a cost of several $billion), while trying to 2) come up with sensible answers about how to utilize woody material that has little or no economic value; and 3)
rapidly expanding the use of prescribed fire to reduce fire severity. These solutions are predicated on the highly unlikely (less than 1%) probability that fire will occur exactly where
preemptive treatments occurred before their benefits expire. These treatments are not durable over time and space, and only work if weather conditions are favorable, and fire fighters are
present to extinguish the blaze.
How does this relate to misinformation? To be blunt, the ineffectiveness of current practices has led many scientists to suggest, based on peer reviewed science and field research as
opposed to modeling, that agency “fire dogma” needs to be revisited. The call for a true paradigm shift is occurring both within and outside the agency. Several themes and truths have
emerged, for example:
1) Fires burn in ways that do not “destroy”, but rather reset and restore forests that evolved with fire in ways that enhance biodiversity.
2) Forest carbon does not “go up in smoke” – careful study shows that more than 90 percent remains in dead and live trees, as well as soil, because only the fine material burned.
3) The biggest trees in the forest are the most likely to survive fire, and thinning efforts that remove mature and older trees are counter-productive. We are seeing more cumulative fire
mortality in thinned forests, than in natural forests that burn.
4) Thinning and other vegetation removal increases carbon losses more than fire itself and, if scaled up, would release substantial amounts of carbon at a time when we must do all we
can to keep carbon in our forests.
5) If reducing home loss is our goal, experts are telling us that the condition of vegetation more than 60 feet from the home has nothing to do with the ignitability or likelihood a home will
burn. The best most durable investments to reduce home loss are focused on hardening homes in at-risk communities using proven fire wise technology.
6) Large, wind-driven fires defy suppression efforts and many costly techniques simply waste money and do more damage. Weather changes douse big fires, people do not.
Do the authors of the Commentary believe these scientific findings are misinformation necessitating “debunking and prebunking” based on their authors “collective experience in wildfire science.” Boiled down, their commentary suggests that they know best what constitutes valid information; that they are the self-appointed gatekeepers of fire science and truth.
My charitable judgment is that their belief that thinning forests to reduce fire severity may be effective sometimes at accomplishing that goal – if weather is favorable, when we don’t
have extreme wind and drought, and we have adequate firefighters on hand. Overall, however, this strategy is not working out well for human communities – as we have been at it for over
thirty years, and we are seeing increasing loses. While careful thinning can work in favorable conditions, the authors cannot and do not claim that their recommendations for careful thinning
are always faithfully implemented by the line officers in federal agencies. They cannot and do not say that careful forest management is occurring on private industrial lands that dominate
significant swaths of at-risk forestland in the Western United States, nor do they suggest that private industrial forests incur less fire losses. In fact, studies have shown that fires are often
worse on private forests. They spend no time identifying industry misinformation, which are often grossly oversimplified and pushed out to the public through well-funded campaigns.
The authors are dismissive of anything that questions their position, and uncomfortable with answering the hard questions about the costs and challenges of scale regarding landscape
vegetation management. No credible business plan exists for scaling up what they propose based on a full accounting of costs and operational challenges, and that is free from confirmation bias .
They also fail to acknowledge the scientific findings that efforts to control vegetation and fire severity in wet, western Cascade forests, for example, are unequivocally useless over space and
time because the forests quickly grow back.
I encourage authors to welcome contrary opinion and emerging science that does not conform to their collective experience. The nasty truth is that forest fires defy simple explanations and solutions. They ought to embrace paradox, not demand fealty. They ought to ask the tough questions, not claim that there are no questions to ask.
But one thing is quite clear – what’s been done and being done hasn’t worked well, and we are not close to pulling ourselves through the knothole of now. We need new thinking and new approaches that see fire management in context with climate change, forest carbon sequestration and storage, biodiversity, clean water and good air quality. New voices are as worthy of careful consideration as those authoring the subject commentary.
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Deputy Chief, USDA Forest Service (Ret.)
Author: Toward A Natural Forest (Oregon St Univ Press 2015)
Gila, New Mexico