Hit it hard and fast: not always best

A report published this week by researchers in Montana indicates that century-old policies to suppress wildfires as quickly as possible is actually contributing to more severe and larger fires over time. The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, examines what the researchers call “suppression bias.”

They identify “suppression bias” as the consequences of knocking down low- and moderate-intensity fires: Other fires will burn hotter and scorch broader areas of forest and land, and people experience more of the most destructive fires, according to a story in the Daily Montanan. “Over a human lifespan, the modeled impacts of the suppression bias outweigh those from fuel accumulation or climate change alone. This suggests that suppression may exert a significant and underappreciated influence on patterns of fire globally,” lead author Mark Kreider, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana, said. “By attempting to suppress all fires, we are bringing a more severe future to the present.”

On the other hand, the researchers said less suppression of lower-intensity fires might make firefighting easier in the future. Kreider authored the paper along with four other UM researchers and professors and an ecologist with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula.

 The Big Knife Fire outside of Arlee, Montana, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan)
The Big Knife Fire outside of Arlee, Montana, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan)

They compare suppression bias when it comes to fire management to doctors overprescribing antibiotics. “In our attempt to eliminate all fires, we have only eliminated the less intense fires (that may best align with management objectives such as fuel reductions) and instead selected for primarily the most extreme events (suppression bias) and created higher fuel loads and more ‘suppression-resistant’ fires.”

The USFS estimates that 98 percent of wildfires are fully suppressed before they reach 100 acres in size – most of them within 72 hours. In Montana, fire managers try to contain fires as quickly as possible; Gov. Greg Gianforte said last year that crews kept 95 percent of fires in Montana to 10 acres or less in 2022.

Since the late 1800s and early 1900s, policies have largely focused on protecting timber and homes from burning.

Montana’s state fire policy, adopted in 2007, specifies that minimizing property and resource loss is the priority in fighting fire and is “generally accomplished through an aggressive and rapid initial attack effort.” The policy also says that forest management including thinning and prescribed fire improves forests and that inadequate practices to reduce interface risk  could jeopardize Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

But as more development, particularly in the West, encroaches on the wildland/urban interface, a century of fire suppression and climate change has ballooned federal suppression costs from hundreds of millions a year in the 1990s to an average of $2.8 billion a year from 2018-2022 (NIFC data). Total annual acreage burned has doubled, on average, from what burned in the mid-1980s, and traditional fire seasons have increased by a month in duration, according to federal fire managers.

But the new research suggests that reducing suppression for low-intensity fires and allowing them to burn when conditions are good could mean that fire managers won’t face so many extreme fires in the future.

 A water scooper drops water on the Colt Fire in late July. (Photo courtesy Colt Fire Incident Management / Inciweb)
A Bridger Aerospace CL-215T scooper drops water on the Colt Fire in late July. (Photo courtesy Colt Fire Incident Management / Inciweb)

Last year, federal agencies updated the Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy to include more prescribed burns and more fuels treatments to reduce risk of wildfires and to better account for climate change when modeling future forecasts.

Philip Higuera, a co-author of the paper and a professor of fire ecology at UM, said it may seem counterintuitive, but the research shows that accepting that more wildfires should burn (when it’s safe) should be the main takeaway. “That’s as important as fuels reduction and addressing global warming,” he said.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Dick for this one. 

Released: National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy

National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy

After years of effort the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has been released. The 93-page document helps managers make decisions about short and long-range planning and how their choices fit into the broader goals of the Cohesive Strategy, which revolve around:

  • Vegetation and fuels
  • Homes, communities, and values at risk
  • Human-caused Ignitions
  • Effective and efficient wildfire response

The document calls for increased emphasis in all four of the above categories. One of the surprises was how often managing “fires for resource objectives” (we don’t call them “let burn” fires any more) was suggested as one of the tools for reducing fuels. The phrase was mentioned 15 times, not including the table of contents. It usually included a caveat of a possible increased risk due to putting fire on the ground, and that it is not suitable in all areas. Prescribed fire was another tool that was often recommended.

The elephant in the room

While the topic of “effective and efficient wildfire response” was listed several times in headings, little in the way of specifics of how to improve the response was mentioned. Here is an example from page 51:

Management efforts to simultaneously emphasize structure protection in combination with efforts to reduce fire size through either increased response capacity or pre-fire fuels management seem warranted.

And on page 57 it looked at first like they were taking a strong stand to improve fire response, but then the writers minimized the value of it to a certain extent:

General guidance regarding response includes:

  • Enhance wildfire response preparedness in areas more likely to experience large, long-duration wildfires that are unwanted or threaten communities and homes.
  • Enhance wildfire response preparedness in areas experiencing high rates of structure loss per area burned.
  • At the community level, emphasize both structure protection and wildfire prevention to enhance the effectiveness of initial response.

It would be shortsighted to assume that a safe and effective response to fire is the only priority. Indeed, one could argue that the suppression challenges today are symptomatic of more fundamental underlying issues. The current trajectory of increasing risk cannot be headed off by simply adding more preparedness and suppression resources.

As we have often said on Wildfire Today, the prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

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