Federal wildfire policy and the responsibilities of community planners and homeowners

If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

fire Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009. NPS photo.

This is an excerpt from an article at Headwaters Economics written by Kimiko Barrett titled “Federal wildfire policy and the legacy of suppression.” Most of the original piece lays out the history of wildfires and the related government policies. Below is the last part that covers the 2018 wildfire budgeting fix and the responsibilities of individual homeowners and the government. It is used here with permission.


…To end the cycle of deficit spending and wildfire borrowing, a massive appropriations bill was passed in 2018—which was also the worst wildfire season in decades and saw the death of over 80 civilians from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Captured as a provision in the omnibus bill, the “wildfire fix” treats wildfires similar to other natural disasters and establishes a reserve fund to use during extreme wildfire seasons. Starting in 2020, a wildfire disaster fund of $2.25 billion was created and will be gradually increased over the following 10 years. When the Forest Service’s suppression costs exceed annual appropriations, based on FY2015 levels, funds can be withdrawn from the reserve budget rather than borrowing from nonfire programs. The spending bill also increases funding for fuels reduction projects, grants environmental review exemptions for projects meeting categorical exclusion, extends land stewardship programs, and initiates the process of wildfire risk mapping.

The 2018 wildfire fix was widely applauded by nongovernmental organizations, industries, and policymakers for stabilizing agency budgets and ending wildfire borrowing. While the new legislation provides the Forest Service with the financial flexibility to accommodate soaring suppression costs, it reaffirms the government’s prioritization of fire control and the protection of people and homes at any price.

From Federal Policy to Local Action

Continued reliability on wildfire suppression shifts responsibility for home protection from the individual homeowner and local jurisdictions to the federal government. Yet local communities bear the economic, environmental, and social costs of wildfire disasters, and some of the most essential mitigation actions need to be taken at the scale of individual communities and homes.

At the neighborhood and community scale, land use planning provides a suite of mitigation measures. Land use planning tools, such as regulations, zoning, and building codes can influence how, where, and under what conditions homes can be built in high wildfire hazard areas. Through the proactive lens of planning and anticipating wildfires, people and communities can learn to live with wildfire on the landscape.

By performing basic home mitigation measures, such as trimming trees, managing vegetation, safely storing flammable materials away from the home, and reducing other vulnerabilities within the home ignition zone (HIZ), a home’s chances of surviving a wildfire greatly increase. Constructing a home using wildfire-resistant building materials can also contribute to a home’s survivability during a wildfire.

Conclusion

Large and extreme wildfires are inevitable and efforts to extinguish them are costly, dangerous, and unrealistic. The federal government’s ongoing commitment to wildfire suppression is rooted in early 20th century policies that haven’t kept pace with current science and knowledge on wildfire behavior. If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

This post is based on an article originally published in the Idaho Law Review, Volume 55(1).

Kimiko Barrett has a deep interest in rural landscapes and the people who live there. Born and raised in Bozeman, Montana, she appreciates the outdoors and the intimate connections people have with the land. After obtaining undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Japanese, Kimi completed a Master’s in Geography from Montana State University and a Ph.D. in Forestry from University of Montana. Her doctorate research focused on climate change impacts in high mountain ecosystems and took her to remote places in the western Himalayas.

Researchers say thinning forests or prescribed fire before drought reduced tree loss

Treated areas had 15 percent less mortality

Whaley prescribed fire
A firefighter monitors the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From the University of California – Davis

Thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns may help preserve trees in future droughts and bark beetle epidemics expected under climate change, suggests a study from the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, found that thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduced the number of trees that died during the bark beetle epidemic and drought that killed more than 129 million trees across the Sierra Nevada between 2012-2016.

“By thinning forests, we can reduce water stress and make forests more resilient to drought and climate change,” said the study’s lead author, Christina Restaino, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy when the study was conducted.

The study also indicated that current rates of treatment are not sufficient to reduce the impacts of hotter droughts and large-scale bark beetle outbreaks. Expanding the use of managed fire under moderate fire-weather conditions, along with strategic thinning and prescribed burn treatments, may increase resilience across the forest, the researchers said.

“There are currently too many straws in the cup,” said Restiano. “Denser forests use more water. We’re learning that fuel treatments used to reduce fire risk have multiple benefits. Forests that are more open and less dense are stronger in the face of insect outbreaks, too.”

TREATMENT HELPS

For the study, researchers collected plot data in 2017 at 10 pairs of treated and untreated sites stretching from Eldorado National Forest to Sierra National Forest in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. They compared the effects of pre-drought thinning and prescribed burn treatments at those sites for four major species: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir and incense cedar.

Treated areas generally had lower stand densities, bigger tree diameters and more pines, which were historically dominant.

Ponderosa pine experienced the greatest mortality of the species studied (40 percent) during the drought and beetle outbreak. But its mortality was significantly lower in treated stands. In untreated areas, the chance any one tree would die was about 45 percent. In treated stands, that chance went down to 30 percent.

Both ponderosa and sugar pine trees died more in places where their diameters were larger, suggesting insects may prefer larger trees, especially when the trees are stressed. The study demonstrates that removing smaller trees through thinning and prescribed burns can help reduce the stress in larger trees, which restoration efforts prioritize.

BE PROACTIVE

“It’s important to be proactive,” said coauthor Derek Young, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “This is not the kind of thing to start only when the drought starts. It has to be done beforehand.”

The study also notes that forest managers in the Sierra Nevada might consider cultivating a broader variety of species to buffer against insects and disease, as well as shifting from pines to more resilient hardwood species, like oaks and madrone — a transition underway in other semi-arid and Mediterranean climates.

Funding was provided for the study by the USDA Forest Service Forest Health Protection program, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and the US Geological Survey Southwest Climate Science Center.


Ecological Applications, which published the study paid for by the US Forest Service and the USGS, is charging taxpayers $49 if they want a copy.

DOI reports that they exceeded fuel treatment goals in FY 2019

Reduced wildfire risks on 1.4 million acres

Prescribed fire at Big Cypress National Preserve
Prescribed fire at Big Cypress National Preserve. NPS image.

This Department of the Interior announced it had doubled and nearly tripled targets set by President Donald Trump for vegetation treatments to reduce wildfire risk in Fiscal Year 2019, marking the largest fuel load reduction in a decade, according to information from the DOI. The announcement came as the four land management agencies with wildland fire programs in the Department — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — reported their end-of-year accomplishments.

In December 2018, the President issued Executive Order 13855, directing the DOI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote active management of America’s forests and rangelands to reduce wildfire risk with specific targets for actions.

The DOI was required to:

  • Treat 750,000 acres public lands to reduce fuel loads;
  • Treat 500,000 acres of public lands to protect water quality and mitigate severe flooding and erosion risks arising from forest fires; and
  • Reduce vegetation through forest health treatments by offering for sale 600 million board feet of timber from public lands.

Working toward those goals, the DOI announcement stated that they:

  • Reduced fuel loads on more than 1.4 million acres of DOI-administered lands, covering nearly two times more acres than required under the Executive Order;
  • Protected water quality on more than 1.4 million acres of DOI administered lands, nearly three times the acres required; and
  • Planned for harvest or offered for sale more than 750 million board feet of timber to reduce vegetation giving rise to wildfire conditions, exceeding the target by 25 percent.

Santa Fe National Forest fuels & restoration videos, parts 3 and 4

fuel management fire forest
Screenshot from Part 4 of the Santa Fe NF series of videos on fuel management.

Here are parts three and four of the series of 12 videos produced by the Santa Fe National Forest on the topic of fuel management and forest restoration.

Fuel Management is defined as:

An act or practice of controlling flammability and reducing resistance to control of wildland fuels [vegetation] through mechanical, chemical, biological, or manual means, or by fire, in support of land management objectives.

Forest Restoration:

Actions to re-instate ecological processes, which accelerate recovery of forest structure, ecological functioning and biodiversity levels towards those typical of climax forest, i.e. the end-stage of natural forest succession.


Part 3, How We Got Here


Part 4, The Scientific Evidence

Other videos in the series, published weekly, can be seen here. The final video will appear on October 20, 2019.

“Fire is inevitable”

tree density wildfires exclusion
A screengrab from a video below illustrating how the number of trees per acre can increase if fires are excluded from an area.

In the first two in a series of 12 videos produced by the Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico, Fuels Program Manager Dennis Carril discusses the inevitability of vegetation fires and how fuel, standing trees and deep layers of litter, can build up as a result of fire exclusion. Each video is less than three minutes long.

The videos are “unlisted” on YouTube, however they have been promoted on Twitter by @SantafeNF and @DOIWildlandFire.

A ball and chain is not always a bad thing

At least not when it is used to reduce a fire hazard

ball and chain vegetation management fire hazard

This image posted on Twitter by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, reminded me of when I was involved with a ball and chain operation one winter on the Sitton Peak project on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in the early 1970s.

The objective is to rip out or crush brush in order to reduce the wildfire hazard. It can be used to create a fuel break in lighter brush, or knock down heavier brush to make it easier and safer to conduct a prescribed fire.

When I was the contracting officer’s representative (COR) on the project a large dozer pulled about 100 to 200 feet of anchor chain that weighed 40 to 80 pounds per link. At the far end of the chain was a Navy surplus steel ball, a float, about five or six feet in diameter, that had been used with an anti-submarine net. The float was designed to support a net made of steel cable that was stretched across the mouth of a harbour or a strait for protection against submarines. A seven-mile long net was in place across the entrance to San Francisco Bay on December 7, 1941.

Anti-submarine net floats
Anti-submarine net and floats. US Navy photo
anti-submarine net
U.S. Navy

When the system was used on the Sitton Peak project we found that the ball needed to be heavier, so we filled it with water. That didn’t last long because the ball led a hard life, constantly being dragged across the ground and over rocks. The water leaked out through gouges in the steel. We later experimented with other materials inside the ball, including gravel, that were retained for a longer period of time.

Landscape architects liked the appearance of a chained fuel break better than those constructed by a dozer blade because it left some vegetation and a feathered edge — a more natural shape with fewer straight lines. As the dozer pulled the assembly, the chain encountered variable resistance and would temporarily get hung up on a rock or a heavy brush patch. If the dozer was driving along a ridge top, this would cause the ball to traverse up and down the slope, leaving a zig-zag or irregular edge.

When used on flat ground, the ball is positioned and then the dozer drives in circles around it.

With the brush crushed, close to the ground, and later dried out, it can then be treated with prescribed fire that burns less intensely than standing live brush in the summer.

A ball and chain is not exactly a light-hand-on-the-land system. There is serious soil and vegetation disturbance, so before considering the method, any sensitive plants, animals, and artifacts need to be carefully evaluated.

Back in 2009 I wrote about a misadventure that involved the dozer we used on the Sitton Peak project. It became seriously stuck in mud while “walking” back from the project on a dirt road. Four trucks that came to rescue the dozer also got stuck in the same area. It was one of those incidents where rescuers became victims. The article has photos I took of the FUBAR incident.