FUSEE sees a Wildfire Triad that inalienably links Safety with Ethics and Ecology. If expedient policy decisions cause unsafe outcomes for wildland firefighters, then most probably ethics and ecosystems become damaged. When captured processes yield unethical results then, no doubt, safety becomes compromised and wildland ecology becomes harmed. When wildland management strictures trammel ecosystems, then you can bet firefighter safety withers and our legacy of wildland ethics atrophies. Scientific analyses remain the best chronicles of this triad. In this series, we explore crucial articles, analyses, and reports that demonstrate the best in wildland fire research.
A relatively recent paper from wildfire scientists succinctly sets down many of the concepts that FUSEE has advocated over the years. The paper is “Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions” by Schoennagel et al. January 2016. It robustly compiles elements that comprise safe, ethical, and ecological wildfire management. They take their “‘social contract’ as scientists seriously … and seek to contribute information in support of a policy process that helps promote resilient communities and landscapes facing more fire in the future.” It’s a short and wonderful paper to read. Three of their insights pertain to their paradigm: Learning to live with wildfire.
(1) Global Warming will increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, and expand the area burned.
(2) WUI residents should use fire-resistant building materials, appropriate landscaping, and do routine yard maintenance within about 200 feet of homes to create defensible spaces.
(3) Ethically and safely managing prescribed and naturally ignited fires can reduce future wildfire threats and increase ecological benefits. Four of their insights contradict some “common-sense” beliefs.
(4) Fuel treatments distant from the WUI will not aid in its protection nor reduce acreage burned.
(5) Not all forests need restoration.
(6) Not all high-severity fires are bad, most have ecological benefits.
(7) Insect outbreaks do not make fires worse.
Who could argue with this? I can think of four categories of opponents. The first tiny, but most vocal, group consists of those thwarted in a bureaucratic inertia of wildland management and unrequited goals. Professional allegiances, or a feeling that their status, careers, and sense of self-worth may be threatened, perhaps causes them to quibble with some fine-grained implications of these insights. Paul W. Hirt’s “A Conspiracy of Optimism” best describes the ardor and consequences coiling in this inertia. Second, a large group comprises those with sort of a tribal affiliation. They resist any facts and arguments against their self-righteous, vengeful vision of human dominion over nature. They also refuse to recognize scams and subsidies in furtherance of extracting resources and taming the wildlands. Next, a smaller third group consists of those actually employed in extracting resources and taming the wildlands. This group also includes some of those in the fire-industrial complex who find personal meaning in steadfastly standing on firelines or contracting out huge machines for fire suppression. The fourth group swells to the largest but most benign. They fear and resent wildfire and become heartbroken when they see the effects of wildfire on the viewscape. They haven’t yet understood that their heartache has kinship with those of parents when they watch their youngest trudge off to school or when they talk to a son or daughter about becoming betrothed. And they can’t yet realize what tidings shall come. (464 words) Below, we offer a summary of “Insights from wildfire science.” Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions. Federal agencies annually now spend $2 to $3 billion fighting fires. Societal costs may be 30 times more than direct firefighting costs. Because the future brings more fire, we must promote resilient communities and landscapes. We will need to learn how to adapt to more wildfire.
- Fire size and frequency will increase under a warmer and drier climate.
Global Warming’s influence on fuel moisture, wind, and higher temperatures will iteratively increase annual area burned. Analyses of tree-ring and lake-sediment indicate increased area burned during past warm periods. The effects of fire suppression and logging remain small compared to the role of Climate Change.
- Fuel reduction on federal lands will do little to reduce acreage burned and homes lost.
The paper states that, “We will never be able to treat enough land to alter the trend of increasing acreage burned.” We must prioritize federal fuel treatments around communities and reduce fuels on private land to abate home loss and protect communities.
- Not all forests need restoration.
“Not all western forests need restoration to remedy effects of past fire suppression. Climate change may render restoration less important than adaptation and mitigation, since future environmental conditions may not resemble those of the past.” In moist and cool high-elevation forests, “naturally high tree densities have changed little from their pre-suppression-era condition.” High severity wildfires remain ecologically necessary here. In ponderosa pine forests, where logging and fire suppression increased tree density and continuous fuel loads, wildfires shifted from past frequent low-severity to present-day high-severity. Here, thinning and prescribed fire can help restore low tree density, reduce fuel continuity, lower fire severity, and enhance important ecosystem services.
- High severity fires often have ecological benefits.
“Severe fire is not necessarily ecologically catastrophic, but rather a natural mechanism of renewal and diversity.”
- Insect outbreaks do not necessarily make fires worse.
Data show that “bark beetles have little influence on the occurrence or severity of forest fires in the 10 to 15 years after trees’ death.” Forests that co-evolved with insect outbreak recover well without management intervention. High-elevation and high-latitude forests, where most outbreaks occur, routinely experience high-severity wildfires, so bark beetle activity rarely increases fire severity.
- Land-use planning can reduce wildfire risk.
Most firefighting risks and costs directly relate to protecting communities. However, most fire policy and management tries to tame fire risk in distant landscapes. Better policies should encourage WUI residents to use fire-resistant building materials, appropriate landscaping, and do routine yard maintenance within about 200 feet of homes to create defensible spaces.
- Managing fires to burn safely can reduce risk and increase ecological benefit.
“Natural or prescribed fire today can help prevent worse fires tomorrow—flames consume debris and live fuel, often limiting the places where new fires can burn.” Ethically and safely monitoring and managing fires under moderate conditions can restore landscapes, aid vegetation recovery, and may reduce the risk of large severe fires during extreme conditions. Conclusion: Learning to live with wildfire. Wildfire will continue to increase in frequency and extent as the climate warms. To protect people, property, and promote resilient communities that face more wildfire in the future, the most effective changes in wildlands and wildfire management will be near homes and on private property. Managing prescribed and naturally ignited fires will reduce future wildfire threats and increase ecological benefits. (1026 words)