Are stand replacement fires “bad”?

Cranston Fire
Cranston Fire, July, 2018. InciWeb photo.

The video below, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, advocates active management of forests as one of the methods of preventing catastrophic wildfires. Most land managers and members of the public will agree with that very general statement, with exceptions for certain parks and wilderness areas.

The video defines active management as thinning to reduce fuels,  prescribed fires, and “managing natural fires when they start”. It begins with Doug Grafe, Fire Protection Chief of the Oregon Department of Forestry stating,”It’s the public perception that catastrophic stand replacement fires are bad. And they are.”

The interviewer enthusiastically said, “Yes they are”.

Chief Grafe continued, “And they’re not natural.”

At the end of the video the narrator says “fire is complex”.

Agreed. It is too complex to throughly explain in a 96-second film which is apparently intended to shape public opinion about how to manage forests.

Not all stand replacement fires, in which most or all overstory trees are killed, are catastrophic, unnatural, or bad. Fires in lodgepole pine, for example, are either creeping and slow moving or rapidly spreading, intense, stand replacing crown fires occurring at 50 to 300-year intervals.

In addition to prescribed fire, thinning, and fuel management, “active forest management” in recent years has been a dog whistle for increasing logging, used by lobbyists and others that make their living from the timber industry. The president used the term along with “health treatments” in a Presidential Order signed on the Friday before Christmas in which he directed a 37 percent increase in timber harvesting.

The moral of this story is, active forest management in most landscapes has many benefits, but beware of how it is defined.

Fire “is like giving the forest a bath”

Whaley Prescribed Fire Black Hills of South Dakota
The Whaley Prescribed Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In this video, Matt Jolly, an ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, talks about the natural and important role of fire in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. He explains that fire “is like giving the forest a bath”.

Prescribed burning in Western Australia

Their Rx season is usually from early spring to early summer.

prescribed burning in Western Australia
Smoke from a prescribed fire in the Warren Region of Western Australia. Screenshot from the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service video.

The prescribed burning season in the Warren Region of Western Australia usually winds down this time of the year during the early summer months. Their wildfire season typically extends from October to May.

The official designations of the seasons south of the equator in Australia are laid out like this:

  • Summer: December – February
  • Autumn: March – May
  • Winter: June – August
  • Spring: September – November
Map Warren Region Western Australia
Map: Warren Region of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.

In addition to telling us about the prescribed burning video (below), Dr. Lachlan McCaw, Senior Principal Research Scientist with Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, sent us an overview of of their prescribed burning program in the Warren Region:


The Region is situated in the southwest part of Western Australian and features extensive areas of native vegetation, including designated wilderness areas and the state’s tallest forests. The region is also home to iconic tourism destinations, a rich and diverse agricultural industry, and unique conservation values associated with the highest rainfall area of Western Australia.

Public lands within the region are managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions Parks and Wildlife Service and include 0.65 million hectares (1.60 million acres) of national parks and nature reserves, 0.25 million hectares (0.617 million acres) of state forest and timber reserves, and a lesser area of unallocated crown land and unmanaged reserves.

Southwest Western Australia has a Mediterranean type climate with warm dry summers and the fire season typically extends from October to May. Open forests and heathlands become dry enough to burn in early spring whereas tall dense forest types may retain moisture into the early months of the austral summer.

Prescribed fire is an important tool for land management in southwest Western Australia and in the Warren Region the annual burning program undertaken by the Parks and Wildlife Service may vary from 30,000 ha (74,000 a.) to 70,000 ha (172,000 a.). Prescribed burning is undertaken for a number of purposes including:

  • To mitigate the risk and severity of bushfires and assist in the protection of lives, property and infrastructure by reducing the build up of vegetation fuels;
  • To maintain biodiversity and habitat diversity;
  • To reestablish vegetation after timber harvesting and disturbance by mining operations;
  • To understand the behaviour of fire and its interactions with the environment.

Presidential order sets goals for fuel reduction

The Executive Order also addresses the use of drones and increases timber harvesting by 37 percent.

prescribed fire Custer State Park
Firefighters ignite the Norbeck prescribed fire in Custer State Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

With the devastating wildfires in California this summer and the visits by President Trump to the Camp and Woolsey Fires, firefighting and forest management were brought into the national conversation. Mr. Trump showed an interest in the fire siege, criticizing forest management, suggesting rakes as one of the solutions, and threatening on multiple occasions to cut unspecified funding allocated to California.

The magnified interest seen in Washington may have been the impetus for the *Executive Order (EO) signed by Mr. Trump on December 21. The document requires emphasis in a number of areas related to wildland fire, some of which have specific goals. The stated rationale for the EO is identified:

For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.

With the same vigor and commitment that characterizes our efforts to fight wildfires, we must actively manage our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk.

Both Mr. Trump and his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, who also showed up before cameras at fire scenes this summer, denied that climate change is one of the factors affecting the increase in wildfire activity in recent decades.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in an interview after visiting the Carr Fire at Redding, California.
climate assessment wildfires increase
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

The EO lists a number of areas with specific goals or directives.

FUEL REDUCTION. The four Department of the Interior land management agencies now have an objective in 2019 of treating a total of 750,000 acres to reduce fuel loads. The objective for the Forest Service is 3,500,000 acres. As of December 8, 2018, according to the National Situation Report, the year-to-date accomplishments for acres treated with prescribed fire were 525,659 and 1,307,389, respectively. Presumably, mechanically or herbicide-treated acres were not included in those 2018 figures. The goals appear to be substantially higher than what has been done this year. However, as direction from on high moves the goal posts, federal agencies can sometimes initiate creative methods to keep everyone happy. For example, recently the Forest Service has started “counting” wildland fire acres where light to moderate wildfires have caused vegetation to improve what used to be called “fire condition class”. These then become “treated acres”. In addition, some timber sales are now being counted. So, magic, presto, poof! The number of acres “treated” adds up more quickly than they used to. A person with extensive D.C. experience told us that they expect the land management agencies are not worried about meeting the fuel treatment goals laid out in the EO.

prescribed fire acres accomplished 2018
Prescribed fire data from the December 8, 2018 National Situation Report.

LOGGING. Calling it “health treatments”, the FS has a goal of selling 3.8 billion board feet of timber in 2019, while the DOI’s goal is 600 million. This total of 4.4 billion board feet is a significant 37 percent increase over the 3.2 billion board feet removed from those agencies’ lands in 2017, according to the Sacramento Bee. The EO also requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to identify salvage and log recovery options from lands “damaged” by fire, insects, and disease in 2017 and 2018. Many people say that logging is not the answer to the wildfire problem, and that areas visited by fire are not necessarily “damaged”. While some rehabilitation is often required, burned areas don’t always have to be fixed or logged.

NATIVE AND INVASIVE SPECIES. Both the FS and the DOI have goals of treating 750,000 acres.

UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS. The Secretaries are ordered to maximize the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in forest management and in support of firefighting. The DOI has been extremely aggressive in the last two years in establishing a surprisingly robust UAS program. There is a report that a person formerly with the DOI’s Alaska Fire Service is now heading the Forest Service UAS program.

The goals in the EO are an unfunded mandate. It says, “[The agencies] shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019, as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications, and consistent with applicable law and available appropriations.”


*Here is a backup copy of the Executive Order in case the one at WhiteHouse.gov disappears.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Eric. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

A correction was made December 26 about the new leadership of the Forest Service UAS program.

Forest Service intends to restore areas in Wyoming with logging, prescribed fire, and building roads

The project would take place in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming

Beaver Creek Fire intensity
Varying burn intensities on the Beaver Creek Fire in the Medicine Bow-Routt NF in Colorado about 1 mile south of the Wyoming state line. The area had large areas of beetle-killed trees. July, 2016. InciWeb.

The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to treat 360,000 acres in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming by logging, thinning, prescribed burning, and building 600 miles of roads. The justification for what they are calling the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, or LaVA, is to treat areas in the forest with the intention of “restoring forest health”. This area just north of the Colorado/ Wyoming border has been heavily impacted by Mountain Pine Beetles, so it fits the agency’s definition of an unhealthy forest and is considered by the U.S. Forest Service as an undesirable condition.

Landscape Vegetation Analysis project
The areas in the Medicine Bow National Forest north of the Colorado line would be part of the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project.

The Forest Service intends to build 600 miles of roads, clear cut 95,000 acres, selectively cut or commercially thin 165,000 acres, and use prescribed fire, mastication, and hand thinning on 100,000 acres.

Climate change that brought drought and warmer weather has provided a better habitat for the beetles. During normal times their spread is inhibited in the higher elevations by cold winters. Several days with low temperatures of around 35 degrees below zero can knock them back, but if that does not occur the rice-sized insects can come back with a vengeance the next summer.

Beetle-killed trees can be hazardous to firefighters due to the possibility of falling trees and burning snags. And, 5 to 15 years after the outbreak heavy ground fuels make fireline construction difficult. The dead trees can also be problematic near roads, trails, and structures. But a couple of years after the beetle attack and the red needles have been shed, the tree skeletons are less prone to crown fires than green trees. In 2015 University of Colorado Boulder researcher Sarah Hart determined Western U.S. forests killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic are no more at risk to burn than healthy Western forests. Other scientists have found similar results.

Below is an excerpt from the Washington Post:

Not everyone considers the plan a good idea. Some biologists say science doesn’t back up the efficacy of the treatments proposed, particularly logging and the prescribed burns that the Forest Service calls necessary for lodgepole pine to reproduce and more diverse species to take root.

“They say they are going to reduce fuel loads to limit wildfires, and the literature doesn’t support that,” said Daniel B. Tinker, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, who has studied the region for 23 years. “We’ve had fires this summer that burned through areas that were clear-cut 15 years ago. Those stands weren’t supposed to burn for 100 years.”

Conservation groups also say the Forest Service truncated scientific review in a rush to meet congressional demands for increased timber production on public lands. For now, the proposal does not specify which parcels would be targeted and where those hundreds of miles of road would be built.

In the Washington Post, article Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, was quoted as saying “Certainly, prescribed burning doesn’t pay its way — it’s expensive at around $100,000 per acre.”

If there is a prescribed fire somewhere that actually cost $100,000 an acre, which is very hard to believe, it is definitely an outlier. The costs vary greatly across the country and by vegetation type. They can be as inexpensive as less than a dollar an acre in Oklahoma, but usually run $10 to $250 an acre.

The federal agencies have had to cut back on their prescribed burning programs in recent years due to budget reductions.

The Forest Service expects to make a decision on the Medicine Bow plan in mid-2019.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.