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Restoring Resilience with Low Severity Fire

Can WUI (wildland-urban interface) get pedicured and hair styled without increasing widespread demand for smelling-salts? And who pays for such a make-over? Shall homeowners solely pick up the tab or should government subsidize this hygienic style change that benefits fire-prone communities?

There’s no question it’s necessary. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly concludes that the most cost-effective actions to protect WUI means fuel treatment on private land within 50 meters of houses. A small minority dispute whether mandatorily regulations should be required. The rub remains: who foots the bill? Compared to the economic value of one ’s real estate accruement, it’s cheap. The cost of this socially-demanded grooming remains trivial and it doesn’t have to occur so often as a haircut.

So what tools should groom WUI? Perhaps three choices exist: constant thinning and disposal of fuel; initial one time thinning followed by periodic prescribed fire; and using only periodic prescribed fire until the WUI resumes a fire-hardy, fire-permeable landscape. Constant thinning remains the most constantly annoying and most expensive. Using only periodic prescribed fire can be the cheapest. An initial thinning with periodic prescribed burning allows the most control over producing those aesthetically pleasing, dreamy, park-like savannah woodland vistas that seemed to have embedded in the collective unconscious psychics of our Bonobo-chimpanzee ancestors as they developed opposable thumbs, bipedalism, and their steadfast commitment to the tribal twilight battle between empathy and authoritarianism.

Some of the best evidence for the effectiveness of WUI fuel treatments comes from Jack Cohen’s research. He focuses on areas within the WUI that prevalently produce house ignitions. Cohen calls these Home Ignition Zones (HIZ). He found that a relatively small part of home ignition is from radiant or convection heat from local burning trees. Many home loss results from an initial house burning down producing flaming debris that causes other houses to ignite. Ignitions within the HIZ usually remain independent of even extreme fires in wildlands. Cohen suggests that fuel treatments within even small areas of the HIZ will be the most cost-effective. But ingress and egress must also be protected. Otherwise, people could be trapped in lethal conditions. This means there must be also fire management in nearby lands. Once we have worked over the HIZ and it’s adequately maintained, then we can expand treatments.

Have such practices had demonstrable results? Yes! When Safford et al. 2009 looked at results from the Angora Fire in Lake Tahoe Basin, California, they found that fuel treatments predicted to reduce wildfire intensity and severity generally performed as designed. As the Angora Fire burnt through fuel treated areas, fire behavior substantially changed. Crown fire dwindled to surface fire within 50 meters of encountering a fuel treatment.

Lyderson et al. 2017 looked at the 2013 Rim Fire and found that both fuel treatments and previous low-to-moderate wildfires reduced the prevalence of high severity fire. Areas that previously burned at high severity tended to have a greater proportion of higher severity in the Rim Fire. Areas treated with prescribed fire, especially combined with thinning, had the lowest proportions of high severity. Their results show that fuel treatments and low to moderate severity wildfire can reduce fire severity in a subsequent wildfire.

Elizabeth Reinhart and Nicole Vaillant suggest current implementation of fuel treatments has not focused on areas that would reduce fire hazard nor is it at a scale that approximates historic disturbances. Because restoration may not be needed in every forest, strategies to reduce fire hazard and achieve ecological benefits should: 1) place fuel hazards-reducing treatments to protect high-value resources and assets; 2) increase fuel treatments in wildlands that evolved with frequent low-severity fires and decrease them in forests that evolved with stand-replacing fires; and 3) design treatments to spawn milieu that allow natural wildfires to burn under favored conditions and fulfill ecological roles. We can’t treat enough of the wildlands to dampen the trend toward more megafires. However, we must prioritize fuel treatments around communities and engender incentives for reducing fuels on private lands to safeguard communities and reduce home loss.

What could summon the best strategies to integrate low-severity fire, even domesticated fire, into a fire-hardy, fire-permeable WUI and a resilient fire-scape beyond? Many WUI denizens remain in denial, fail to take action, or even front a fierce NIMBY face towards fuel treatments on or nearby their private property. Ironically, they can remain meekly mute as their valued viewsheds become shredded by road-cuts and McMansions that narcissistically dominate local hilltops. But Global Warming has placed a big flaming bag of dog pooh on WUI’s front porch and knocked on the door. WUI residents risk having their insurance revoked and their assets reduced to ashes and cinders.

Academics call operations in the HIZ, the 50 m nearby houses, “fuel treatments” or “hazard abatement.” Homeowners may call it landscaping and yard maintenance. Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it any more than taxpayers should pay for clean-up of unhygienic and dangerous rubbish on private property. Usually, local codes and ordinances already exist that demand action. Government can further facilitate information dispersal through excellent programs such as Fire Adapted Communities, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and FIREWISE. They can incentivize insurance companies to become more proactive. Insurance companies could offer WUI dwellers fuel treatment premium discounts and easily monitor insuree performance using Google Earth.

Some insurance companies already fund private firefighting contractors to protect insurees’ homes during wildfire events. How these programs evolve will be important. They could become valued components among government and private efforts. Alternatively, without rigorous monitoring, they could become another “disaster capitalism” boondoggle.

Also, should we explore establishing programs similar to Australia’s “Leave Early or Stay and Defend?” This concept promotes early evacuations to prevent evacuees from becoming trapped on fire-vulnerable roads during egress from WUI. The “stay and defend” part recognizes that most destroyed WUI houses burn down after the initial wildfire pulse subsides but the house has a small ignition point (wooden steps, porches, eves, and vents) that could be easily extinguished if someone stayed present. However, the program paused after the deadly 2009 Australian Black Saturday bushfire that killed 130 home defenders and panic-fleers. Perhaps we can evaluate such a program after the WUI becomes truly fire-permeable or has reliable, fire-resistant community stockades.