New Wildfire Paradigm: Time for a Western Wildfire Forest Plan?

From UC Davis…. We have a Northwest Forest Plan to address northern spotted owls and old-growth. Maybe we need a Western Wildfire Forest Plan that amends forest plans to address wildfire….

Unprecedented Levels of High-Severity Fire Burn in Sierra Nevada Forests

The ‘Wrong Kind of Fire’ Is Burning Compared to Historical Patterns

For the study, published in the journal Ecosphere, scientists analyzed fire severity data from the U.S. Forest Service and Google Earth Engine, across seven major forest types. 

They found that in low- and middle-elevation forest types, the average annual area that burned at low-to-moderate severity has decreased from more than 90% before 1850 to 60-70% today. 

At the same time, the area burned annually at high severity has nearly quintupled, rising from less than 10% to 43% today. (High-severity burns are those where more than 95% of aboveground tree biomass is killed by fire.)

26 thoughts on “New Wildfire Paradigm: Time for a Western Wildfire Forest Plan?”

  1. Steve, could you put in the link, or did I miss it?

    Interesting thought … maybe they could just do a grandiose plan amendment instead? Or maybe that’s what the NW Forest Plan was?

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  2. The Sierra Nevada already has a plan in place. The issue is not about legal actions or scientific controversy. The problem is “pace and scale”. The southern Sierra Nevada is mostly a lost cause. There are some scattered pockets of forest that needs thinning, but most of the old pine forests are dead (and sometimes, gone). Plus, there is also the ‘Urban Human’ aspect. We can never remove their impacts (including wildfires) from our National Forests.

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  3. Maybe USFS needs to think about what a real ” fire break zone” -its size has to be to stop a blaze…Does it take burning 340,000 acres in New Mexico? No !

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    • I do think that installing clearcuts without replanting will be a tough sell. We’ve already seen that plantations do not stop wildfires. Hey, we’ve even seen that the huge Lake Almanor couldn’t stop the Dixie Fire. There is no way to “prevent wildfires”. All we can really do is mitigate their intensities and hope that firefighters can install firelines without being burned over.

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  4. To prevent catostropic fires ( which USFS has obviously squandered mucho $$ tending the situation for 50-60 years) man-kind determines and figures out how to ” PREVENT FOREST FIRES” , and burning up 340,000 acres of mother nature in the great State of New Mexico – The Land of Enchantment , is not how intelligent life forms accomplish deeds in 2023 and beyond..you cant just burn thru a forest of matchsticks , call it science, hope for the best , say sorry and demand a repeat of the same showing…may—be the alternative is ” Foest Breaks” that are vast enough to contain a roaring fire…doesnt have to be a clear cut- but a spacing a thinning of the forest crown..these so called scientific conrolled burns arent removing the crown of the forest- just the undergrowth- when the result ends as prescribed…raging firesare about crown fires spreading- in other words – lets here the professor the phd theory on how the plan would work ” IT DOES NOT”…YOU QUIT SETTING THE FOREST ON FIRE AND HOPE FOR NO LIGHTNING STRIKES ! All the while getting the necessary forest breaks crown thinning topography into placement..while that work is proceeding -can the calamitous fires that may ensue in the future be any worse than what USFS did at Los Alamos or Hermit Peak??? Yes much worse if your the person whos property or life is lost from and unstoppable fire! = the necessary forest fire breaks partitions , the people in the 1950’s were alot smarter they hadnt consumed all the toxins- and the motto of Smkey the Bear was correct..”ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES”…decide what acreage of a forest is acceptable to loose in a catostropic out of control lightning strike , camper error, ect and then map out a plan how to contain that size quadrant from spreading to the next quadrant…maybe its a mile of open space and limited canopy- whatever the distances = a real form of logic you can call science and set up a 4-6 year college degree to figure it all out…ITS LUDICROUS TO WALK WITH A DRIP POT ALONG A LINE AND GO OVER THE NEXT HILL OUT OF SIGHT OF WHAT YOU CANT SEE ANYMORE AND CERTAINLY HAVE PROVED TIME AND AGAIN YOU CANT CONTROL–WAS THE CONTROLLED BURN TITLE CHANGED TO PRESCRIBED BURN BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY WHAT YOU START YOU CANNOT CONTROL…does all that really require a PHD in FORESTRY? ” You can’t see the forest because of the trees” or ” you can’t see the trees because the forest is in your way”…”Where is John Muir and Gifford Pinchot when the year 2023 needs them? Actually the lessons abandoned by multitudes of USFS office workers and same with University scholars in offices of comforts lay in the historic words , life and time of Joseph Trimble Rothrock 1839-1922. , ” The Father of Forestry” and his first question on the matters of men was “Can You Work”? Thats’ can you physically work? Or as now it appears sitting in an office planning out how to save the forest by ” just lighting a match”! What follows is taken from the words and ideas of Mr. Rothrock and Claire J. Woods and “A History as Strong As the Trees It Protects” :excerpts from:

    When he finally got his school, Rothrock spent little time celebrating. He and his faculty went right to work, trying to minimize the current crises of vandalism, timber thievery, and most importantly fire destruction. Fire crews tended to be small and inefficient, and access to the fires via roads was virtually nonexistent. In the early 1900s, a “good” year was when only 30,000 acres burned; in a “bad” year, well over 170,000 acres could be destroyed. Rothrock knew that is was not only the trees at risk—forest fires left many buildings and lives destroyed in their path. Therefore, reforestation had to come second to fire prevention. There was no point planting thousands of seedlings when tens of thousands were burning.

    Because of this growing concern, the primary duty of the students of Rothrock’s school were to be acting wardens of the forest, learning to prevent fires and help the fire crews put them out when they occurred. They were students of a school, and did for a certain amount of time every week sit in classrooms with textbooks, but the majority of their work was real manual labor, done on the campus, in the nursery, and the reserves. Rothrock was adamant about this: his first and most important question to new students was “Can you work?” Rothrock’s original idea was to produce foresters, not wardens, but with the problem at hand being the rapid burning and destruction of the forests, his school initially trained wardens. However, as the school grew, Rothrock and his staff molded the curriculum to suit their desired product, foresters, and turn those that were not quite up to par for forester status into wardens. Wirt in particular was the curriculum creator. He wanted the students to acquire forestry skills and then to learn the reasons behind the use of those skills. Students needed to understand the purposes for forest management and the best methods to achieve those purposes. Wirt struggled to find the right balance of theoretical and practical knowledge to teach his students, and as the story goes, he assigned his student-assistants to weed-pulling in the nursery .

    Seems like historical evidence of catostropic fires in 1900’s. Was that climate change then that is degreed upon now in 2023? Notice there was no lazy bone theory then to just do lots of small prescribed burns….proof is in the pudding- but stirred under the surface and the PHD even after Hermit Peak/Calf Canyon profoundly and adamatly prescibes the lighting of the forest to save the lumber , the recreaction , the nature of it all! Thankyou God! For Nature and God!

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  5. In addition , historically speaking during the events of WWIi , the Japanese hatched a plan to attack America by burning down its forest – dropping incendiary parachuted devices into our forest. Within fiture national security , seems logical, for the government to come up with a future plan to prevent such forest devastion which coincidentally would have been the potential in place protections needed today= problem eliminated from 1950 to 2023 or 70+ years wasted yet the company USFS is now voluminous!…All can be said if it was times like Jack Kennedy ” time to fire someone and not the forest”…thus the American Predicament!

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  6. Every forest plan, including the Northwest Forest Plan, already have provisions for fuel management and fire management. But more importantly, what makes us think we can control fire? We don’t try to stop hurricanes or tornadoes; why fire? It’s just weather.

    The agencies and Congress have not shown the commitment or the humility to do it right. Too often using timber sales when non-commercial thinning and prescribed fire are needed.

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    • 2nd,
      If you are so well educated, you would know that hurricanes and tornadoes are not started/caused by humans. Nice straw man argument though.
      The overwhelming majority of wildfires are caused by humans. There is abundant peer reviewed literature and reports, stating as much. Not lightning, but arson, cars, power lines.

      And why is it the end of the world if during a thinning operation, a tree larger than the surrounding trees happens to turn in to a 2×4 that goes into a home?

      Is that worse than all the minerals extracted from somewhere, likely a state with few regulations or a country with none, to help build an oil-product produced EV that is powered by electricity most likely sourced entirely from fossil fuels and/or dams that caused significantly greater ecological harm in their lifetime?

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  7. Thanks, David Bakke, for posting the like to Cal SAF’s new position statement. Very timely and well written and referenced. It states that:

    “California’s native forests and woodlands are being altered by high severity fire at an alarmingly
    rapid rate and scale. … Urgent management actions must be taken to reduce the occurrence of highly destructive “megafires” (defined as high severity fires over 100,000 acres) which affect entire forested watersheds, level small communities, eliminate mature forest ecosystems, blanket large areas in dense smoke, and create vast vegetation type conversions.”

    In the early 1990s, urgent action was seen by many folks as needed to save old-growth, the northern spotted owl, and old-forest habitats and species in general. The result was the Northwest Forest Plan. I suggest that the current need for “urgent management actions” may require a similar effort to address megafires in the western US. See the recent paper from UC Davis researchers, which found that “the area burned annually at high severity [in the Sierras] has nearly quintupled, rising from less than 10% to 43% today. (High-severity burns are those where more than 95% of aboveground tree biomass is killed by fire.)” I think the situation is similar in Oregon and perhaps Arizona and New Mexico, and other states may be approaching that condition.

    Just as the NW Forest Plan dramatically changed the management of the ~24 million federal acres in the NSO region, the Western Wildfire Forest Plan (there may be a better name) would require the federal agencies to do as Cal SAF’s position statement and many foresters and others who are familiar with the best available science say is needed.

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    • I think it is an important difference that the NW Forest Plan was primarily about stopping management activities, and fire management is mostly about doing more of them. Funding is a much bigger component of the latter, and not something that forest planning has much influence on. If there are barriers in land management plans, there could be plan-level discussions about whether it is worth increasing the known risk to what those barriers are protecting (such as spotted owls) to achieve relatively uncertain benefits of more active management.

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      • The ‘pie-in-the-sky solutions’ that conservatives want seem pretty impossible to implement without rewriting or rescinding existing rules, laws and policies. Much of the perceived inaction (across the west) was due to funding, and not to litigation. Many of us have seen the need to have habitats available for ‘old growth preferring’ organisms. The Sierra Nevada plan was even more protective of CASPO than the NWFP was for the NSO. Remember, also, that the diameter limits were even lowered, for a few years, to 20 inches dbh. The plan is not the problem. The pace and scale has always been the problem, since 1993.

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      • Jon, you’re right about the NW Forest Plan — it was primarily about stopping management activities. But it did so by unilaterally amending forest plans, which are very powerful mechanisms. I suggest amending forest plans to TAKE action. The Confronting the Wildfire Crisis plan is very well thought out and has the potential to do a lot of good, but it doesn’t have the weight of forest plans behind it.

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      • Stopping things is generally easier than doing them, I’ve found. Are you saying the relative risks are uncertain? because there’s substantial literature studying that from various perspectives. The literature doesn’t agree but that doesn’t make some risks “known” and others “relatively uncertain”..IMHO.

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        • There’s a big difference in forest plans between prohibited activities and desired ones. One is enforceable (at the project level) and the other isn’t (at all). This is codified in the 2012 Planning Rule in §219.7(e) (definitions of types of plan components) and §219.15(d) (how to determine consistency of projects with the forest plan).

          I said “relatively uncertain” in the sense of the probability of the harm or benefit occurring. We know at about 100% probability that the owls aren’t going to be able to use trees that are cut down, and that will harm them. We don’t know much about whether fire would come to the area we logged at a time or in circumstances where our management would have made a difference.

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          • “We don’t know much about whether fire would come to the area we logged at a time or in circumstances where our management would have made a difference.”

            With fires like the Dixie, Caldor and Creek fires, we can be reasonably-assured that wildfires will continue to severely impact the Sierra Nevada.

            Remember, too, that there are Silvicultural benefits to thinning and fuels reduction projects. Those benefits (from Region 5 Sierra Nevada projects) are well-accepted by the scientific community.

          • But I think fuel treatments don’t actually cut down trees that owls use, thanks to the CASPO and other guidelines. Probably Larry knows more about this.

          • Larry – We don’t know if fires will impact the areas we choose to treat during the time that the treatment will remain effective. I guess if you want to broaden the discussion beyond owls vs fire, we could add in the other environmental impacts of logging as well as the “silvicultural” benefit of thinning as a factor in those areas where the forest plan direction is “to enhance growth, quality, vigor, and composition of the stand after establishment or regeneration and prior to final harvest” (Forest Service definition of silviculture/thinning: https://www.fs.usda.gov/forestmanagement/vegetation-management/silviculture/index.shtml

          • Pretty much ALL of the treatments accomplished on the Placerville RD were burned in the Caldor Fire. I’d say something similar for the Dixie Fire, too. I think a new synthesis of existing data could result in an updated probability for such projects, in such places. It is the ‘big picture’ we are interested in, and this idea of “we don’t know…” isn’t a real answer. In the case of re-burns, it is the same thing. After all, salvage projects are also fuels projects. The probability says that big fires will happen in the near future, despite fuels projects. It is more about resilience, as far as I am concerned.

          • What tangible real and measurable benefit has the “2012 Planning Rule” given the public?
            Besides a target for EJA and NGOs and lawyers, and a way for certain people to feel good about themselves, and a way for lawyers and “environmental studies” and “environmental planning” undergrad students to get a job… It is a paper regulation and rule, not rooted in the real world.

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