In light of the article posted earlier today reporting on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order for the Department of the Interior to be more aggressive about conducting fuel treatment activities to better protect facilities from burning in a wildfire, this video is very appropriate.
Nobody knows more than Dr. Jack Cohen about why and how structures burn. He also knows what homeowners can do to make their homes fire resistant.
Before recently retiring, Dr. Cohen was a Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.
The directive introduces a political element to wildland fire management
In a message to Directors and Managers in the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered “more aggressive practices” to “prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques”. The directive, dated September 12, 2017, attracted attention today when Mr. Zinke referred to it in a press release about the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019.
“In September, I directed all land managers to adopt aggressive practices to prevent the spread of
catastrophic wildfires,” said Mr. Zinke in the February 12 release. “The President’s budget request for the Wildland Fire Management program provides the resources needed for fuels management and efforts that will help protect firefighters, the public and local communities.”
The September 12 directive mentions implementing FireWise principles around government facilities:
The Department has lost historic structures in wildfires like Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet lodge. In an effort to help prevent future losses, the Secretary is also directing increased protection of Interior assets that are in wildfire prone areas, following the Firewise guidance, writing: “If we ask local communities to ‘be safer from the start’ and meet Firewise standards, we should be the leaders of and the model for ‘Firewise-friendly’ standards in our planning, development, and maintenance of visitor-service and administrative facilities.”
It is a wise move to encourage better fuel management and FireWise techniques around public structures in fire-prone areas. I have seen too many U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service facilities with nearby hazardous fuels that make them extremely vulnerable to a wildfire. An example is the photo above showing dense tree canopy very close to the visitor center at Jewel Cave National Memorial as the Jasper Fire approached in 2000. A few years after that a professional tree service was brought in to thin out the large pines within 100 feet of the headquarters building at Mount Rushmore as a large wildfire burned nearby. Firefighters took the same action at Devils Tower National Memorial when a fire was bearing down on the visitors center. Waiting until a fire is an imminent threat is not the best policy.
When the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire burned into Jewel Cave National Monument in 2000 the shake shingle roof on an isolated historic structure surrounded by ponderosa pines had just been replaced with a new roof. A reasonable person would have chosen materials that look like shakes, but are fire resistant. The new wooden shake shingles had to foamed by engine crews before they withdrew on three occasions when the fire lofted burning embers at the site and made runs at the structure.
While Mr. Zinke makes some good points about more aggressive fuel management on public lands, he attempts to reinforce his directive by introducing a political element. I don’t read every directive issued by the Secretary of the Interior, but politicizing wildland fire management is not productive.
In the third paragraph Mr. Zinke is quoted taking an unnecessary swipe at the land managers that preceded him, saying:
This Administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat.
It is an unusual but welcome tactic for the current administration to invoke science in a discussion.
The directive goes on to include quotes attributed to five senators and representatives, all Republicans, and all supposedly saying that Mr. Zinke is right. No Democrats were quoted.
One of the most egregious examples is from Rob Bishop, (R-Utah):
I’m heartened to finally have an Administration that’s focused on actively managing and addressing the on-the-ground conditions that are contributing to our historic wildfire crisis.
Mr. Bishop goes on to advocate more logging.
Politicizing wildland fire management and going out of your way to create barriers that make it more difficult to get anything done, is not the best course of action to preserve and protect our natural resources and public facilities. It brings to mind one of Mr. Zinke’s predecessors, James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983.
The agency is proposing to develop two Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements for BLM lands in the states of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah, and Washington. One will cover the construction of fuel breaks while the other is for fuels reduction and rangeland restoration.
Now that they have a schedule for public meetings which runs through February 15, the deadline for comments has been extended to February 28.
The blanket approval will mean that individual landscape-scale fuel breaks and fuel reduction proposals will only need minor additional environmental reviews to proceed.
Fuel breaks are intended to interrupt the continuity of vegetation making it easier to control or stop the spread of wildfires. They can be created manually by hand crews and mechanized equipment, or through the use of herbicides. There is no guarantee of success since wind-blown burning embers can be lofted hundreds or thousands of feet ahead of a flaming front, crossing the breaks.
According to experience from Colorado’s Fourmile Canyon Fire, sometimes the answer is “No”.
When Dave Lasky was leading the effort in the Four Mile Fire Protection District not far from Boulder, Colorado conducting pre-fire mitigation near structures, he and others assumed that doing SOMETHING, cutting trees and building slash piles, would be better than doing nothing. They realized it would not be the total solution in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), but when the Fourmile Canyon Fire started on September 2, 2010 the Fire Protection District found out how wrong they were.
After the ashes cooled, Dr. Jack Cohen, a U.S. Forest Service fire researcher who has investigated the effects on structures at numerous WUI fires, found what he has seen many times before (more details here). Most of the damaged homes, 83 percent in this case, ignited from airborne fire embers or surface fire spreading to contact the structure; not from high intensity crown fire or direct flame impingement.
The fuel reduction along travel corridors may have helped residents to evacuate, but the unburned slash piles, Mr. Lasky said, could have been a problem:
In several areas, our crew’s piles were associated with complete stand mortality. We created ladders into the canopy. At best, these unburned piles represented a sad waste of money, and at worst, it is possible that if we hadn’t treated them, these stands might not have carried fire.
“Doing something is not better than doing nothing.
When the mitigation crew approached residents in the past, they often said, “I didn’t move up here to see my neighbors. I don’t want to cut trees.” In an effort to build momentum, we often performed work that we knew was not reflective of the best science, cutting fewer trees than we should have. This practice was in regard to both defensible space as well as shaded fuel-break projects. The hope was that as communities adjusted to the cosmetic changes, we’d be able to reenter and accomplish more.
“I still hear many colleagues say “let’s just get something done.” I believe this is wrong. We need to do it right or not do it at all. Half measures are proven to fail and engaging in them has great reputational costs. In the current climate of high-profile, catastrophic fires, I am not interested in fear mongering. But I am interested in applying our limited resources to only those communities that are fully committed.
“It’s not just about cutting trees in the wildland-urban interface.
Fuels crews are run by firefighters. Perhaps they should be run by architects. In retrospect, we spent far too much money on fuels reduction and not enough on assisting residents with the installation of fire-resistant building materials and landscaping. Few of the homes lost were directly impacted by crown fire; rather, embers undoubtedly ignited the fine fuels around them, which eventually led to the loss of entire structures. In many instances, residents would have been better served by our crew putting a decorative stone perimeter around the structure. Many residents are capable of cleaning gutters, but less can move tons of gravel. We had chainsaws, and we knew how to use them. We should have picked up our shovels instead.”
Do you know of someone or an organization that has achieved success or set a good example for wildfire mitigation?
The October 30th deadline for nominations for a 2017 Wildfire Mitigation Award is approaching. If you know an individual or organization that is doing great work in wildfire preparedness and mitigation, please try to help them get the recognition they deserve by nominating them for an award.
Established in 2014 in response to an overwhelming number of great wildfire mitigation efforts across the nation, the Wildfire Mitigation Awards are the highest national honor one can receive for outstanding work and significant program impact in wildfire preparedness and mitigation.
The awards are jointly sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Forest Service. They are designed to recognize outstanding service in wildfire preparedness and safety across a broad spectrum of activities and among a variety of individuals and organizations. By honoring their achievements, the award sponsors also seek to increase public recognition and awareness of the value of wildfire mitigation efforts.