Utah develops plan to reduce the impacts of catastrophic wildfires

Utah fire strategyThe state of Utah has developed a plan to mitigate and prevent the adverse impacts of what they call “catastrophic wildfires”.  A 25-person steering committee wrote the document which identifies 14 statewide pilot projects
designed to offer the greatest positive impact on community
safety, water supply, utility and transportation
infrastructure, and damage to waterways and reservoir
storage. The projects include public education, improved address and road signage, the acquisition of more fire apparatus, and various types of fuel treatments. The estimated cost of the 14 projects is $129 million.

The plan is titled Catastrophic Wildfire Reduction Strategy. I’m sure that “catastrophic” describes wildfire, rather than the strategy.

Considering what has been going on in Utah during the last couple of years I was surprised to not see anything in the plan about taking over federal land to turn it over to the state or private companies.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Shayne.

Los Angeles Times op ed on reforming wildfire funding

Outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs.

Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington,  August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.

The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:

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“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.

[…]

If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.

This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.

[…]

The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.

This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.

Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.

Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”

Only you…

Fire in the Lake San Antonio area of Monterey County, California, August, 2009. Photo by Vern Fisher.

The following article was contributed by Frank Carroll.

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Only You…

For the United States Forest Service and the other major federal, state and local wildland fire agencies, the music is playing the band.  It worked OK for the Grateful Dead.  It’s a different story when it comes to developing and conducting wildland fire policy.

It may surprise no one to discover that wildland fires are bigger, more costly, more damaging, and more out of control than in any decade before the present, all the way back to 1910.  There was so much large fire on the ground in the 2015 fire season we ran out of superlatives to describe how big and bad they were.  In many cases the fires burned together forming “charismatic megafires” of untold destruction, sometimes because we had no choice.

Author Stephen Pyne, in an often brutally honest book about where we’ve been and where we’re headed with fire management in America, observes that fire is managing us; we’re not managing fire (Between Two Fires 2015).

What began in the late 1960s as a scarcely heard warning siren that wildfire should be left to its own devices on certain wild lands (prescribed natural fire or “let burn” fires pioneered by the National Park Service) became, by 2000, a five alarm screaming wail heard round the world.  Our best laid plans have come to naught.  We are caught in a blizzard of falling ash, awash in a river of flying embers, and blinded by the smoke.  It is clear that no human power will stop the rising tide of flames in wildlands and Red Zone suburbs where 10 percent of our homes are, no matter what the cost.

How we got here is a tale worth reading.  Where we’re headed is into the fog of war, but not without guideposts and markers.  Based on the very sound idea that fire should play a natural role in natural resource management, agencies and scientists spent the past 50 years trying to work out how to get it done.  And they had help.  The Nature Conservancy can field its own firefighters and burn its own ground.  Environmentalists looked for ways to burn without having to pay for the work of preparing and herding fires, and without the expertise to help.  Their grand experiment in the theology/ecology of hope over the last 50 years accelerated the fuels problem. The fuels situation is also exacerbated in places where logging results in activity fuels with resulting backlogs needing treatment and feeding wildfires.

Continue reading “Only you…”

How prior fuel treatments affected the San Juan Fire

San Juan Fire severity
Map of the San Juan Fire “Rapid Assessment of Vegetation Condition after Wildfire”. The fire started at the south end near “San Juan Flat and eventually burned into many treated areas, represented by cross-hatching, where the fire intensity and rate of spread decreased.

The U.S. Forest Service has put together information about how previous fuel treatments modified fire behavior on the San Juan Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona in June of 2014. Below is an excerpt from a report, and below that is a video in which subject matter experts describe the effects of the treatments.

Generally speaking, the fuel treatments encountered by the San Juan Fire were effective at modifying fire behavior. Furthermore, these fuel treatment areas proved to be instrumental in providing fire managers with opportunities to contain the fire in a safe and effective manner while simultaneously limiting the fire’s potential negative effects on natural resources, the surrounding communities and their infrastructure.

Fire behavior observed by firefighters at the scene—as well as estimates of fire severity taken after the fire confirm that the treated areas performed as designed by not supporting sustained crown fire even under extreme burning conditions.

As the San Juan Fire transitioned from untreated mixed conifer to treated ponderosa pine, fire behavior also transitioned from intermittent and sustained high-intensity crown fire in the untreated stands to a low-moderate intensity surface fire in the treated stands.

Thus, firefighters were able to utilize the road system within the treated stands to implement their burnouts. These burnout operations limited the forward progress at the head of the fire the day after the fire started.