Is fuel reduction the same as fire prevention?

On March 5 we posted a graphic produced by the U.S. Forest Service that indicated they were preventing wildfires “by igniting prescribed fires and by mechanical thinning to decrease the amount of combustible materials”.

We wrote, “Often we see politicians and media personnel conflate wildfire prevention with fuel management.”

One of our readers left a comment, saying, “Are you saying that prescribed fires and fuels management (e.g. mastication) do not constitute ‘wildfire prevention,’ in your view? If this is your view, can you please explain the rationale behind it?”

Our response turned out to be rather detailed, so we decided to also post it here:

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The definition of “prevent” is “to keep something from happening”. The USFS graphic above indicates that the USFS prevents wildfires “by igniting prescribed fires and by mechanical thinning to decrease the amount of combustible materials”.

Decreasing the amount of combustible materials on USFS land does not prevent fires. It may slow the rate of spread and the intensity of wildfires, which may reduce the resistance to control, enabling firefighters, if they arrive early enough and in sufficient numbers, to stop the spread of a wildfire when it burns into a previously treated area. Fuel treatments may reduce the chances of a small to medium-sized fire from becoming a large fire or a megafire, but they don’t prevent the ignition of fires.

Wildfire prevention programs can involve the following strategies:

–School programs
–Contacting the public at events
–Marketing (ads, billboards, signs)
–Contacting recreationists, hunters, and ATV riders in the field
–Regular patrols
–Detection of illegal campfires
–Exhibits and displays
–Poster contests
–Enforcing certain laws about fireworks and campfires
–Controlling, regulating, or inspecting equipment of contractors, railroads, ATVs, and motorcyles

When budgets are reduced in land management agencies, fire prevention is usually first on the chopping block. Now it’s to the point where many people don’t even know that it used to exist. Or that fire prevention used to be a full time job for many government employees. They may vaguely remember the term, but don’t know what it involved. So even USFS public information personnel when they are designing graphic art can conflate it with fuel reduction, thinking they are the same.

Another example is Senator Ron Wyden who said recently when discussing wildfires “…there is not enough prevention…” As an example of “prevention”, he was referring to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project which involves prescribed fire and the mechanical thinning of vegetation. There is no indication that he was actually thinking of the prevention of unwanted IGNITIONS of wildfires.

Many politicians, under pressure from lobbyists and contributors, argue passionately to increase timber cutting on public land, and sometimes say it “prevents fires”. But I’ve never heard a politician argue passionately about adequately funding programs that actually prevent unwanted ignitions of wildfires.

And it costs FAR LESS to prevent a fire than to put one out.

Here is a link to a 1998 National Wildfire Coordinating Group document titled “Wildfire Prevention Strategies”, for those who are curious about what fire prevention used to be.

Now to be fair, I’m not saying that fire prevention programs no longer exist. However, they are a far cry from when they were funded at a much more meaningful level.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

5 thoughts on “Is fuel reduction the same as fire prevention?”

  1. Bill

    I have followed this since the comments have been made about the “cries of media and politicians.”

    To be fair, the USFS with all its PR and funding for computer systems and research and knowledge should have known how to budget this from years back through that Smokey Bear program without having to hug the bear commercials that must be costing so much cash

    How did USDOI BLM do it when I saw Prevention folks driving around the desert, talking to folks in small communities back in the early 1990’s ….has the USDA FS forgooten about that mission? SURRRE it cost money….what about allthose SCSEP students and all that use if disadvantaged youth to go out and put out that mission……Job Corps could do the Prevention program ….maybe even get an Regional or District Forester to get out and guide a cadre of JC youth or there plenty o volunteersw out there….is this mission so hard??

    Politicians and media can be blamed all day long, just like the airtanker program, the real rubber needing to met is getting those “fied folks” away from their desks long enough to practice what expensive PR hugging Smokey can achieve.

    Smokey, HFRA of 2003 onward, FIREWISE, money from S&PF, FIREWISE reps putting out the word, individual states taking on the load whether or not levels of funding that THEY would desire……..allllll came from S&PF dough, individual states taking on line item funding………

    Sure is easy to criticize they very people who could deliver the message that the LMA’s seem to forgot in its Legislation, “strategies and objectives, leaders intents, and what other bragging points

    It think it very obvious that thje LMA’s have tried to be everything to everyone but I look at the airtanker history like I look at the airtanker history run by the very same people…..taking something on that they can not afford AND quite possibly can not defend when they get up to the Hill without their canned statements and lack of action in many a case

    This seems to be one of those cases….a mission in their wheelhouse. So now we worry about an airtanker program and a prevention program that may be running neck n neck for more competing funding issues

  2. Another point, you also do not say the fuels reduction programs and projects are without value, you only point out it is inaccurate to call it ‘prevention’.

  3. It’s easy to stub your toe on the word prevention or the word conflate. All the items you listed fall legitimately under the umbrella of “prevention,” but talking to ATV riders doesn’t strictly prevent fires, just as fuels reduction projects don’t, and poster contests don’t. Conflate means to fuse or combine two or more things, and it would be easy to wrangle over whether Rx fires and fuels reduction could be fused into a part of “prevention.” But I don’t see PR people or the media “conflating” fuels reduction with prevention — at all. Fuels projects are a legitimate item on the list of prevention activities.

    The fire agencies divide up budgets into prevention and suppression, and fuels reduction projects (whether it’s pile burning or brush projects or thinning or Rx fires) aren’t suppression — they’re prevention.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head about what prevention is with the phrase “… prevention of unwanted IGNITIONS of wildfires.”

    Prevention is to stop it from happening all together, and the only way to do this is to control ignition.

    I think we can break ignition sources into two categories: natural and influenced. The primary natural ignition source would be lightning but could also include sparks from falling rocks or other friction heating events.

    By influenced ignition sources I mean those which would not happen naturally without the influence of humans. There are almost countless forms of these if you are willing to do enough investigation for wildland fire events.

    My point is that prevention = ignition control, that’s it. We can’t do much to control natural ignitions so we can do prevention to control influenced (man-made) ignitions.

  5. If an ignition happens in a well treated forest but extinguishes itself without doing much, did anything really happen … whether someone clapped or not? If treatment makes a big difference in acres burned and losses incurred, isn’t that a form of prevention? May we say that preventing spread of an ignition is preventing additional ignitions?

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