Managed Fire and Tempting the Wildfire Fates

Managed Fire and Tempting the Wildfire Fates


Paul Hessburg is with the Forest Service’s Research and Development branch and a leading fire and landscape ecologist. He recently bought and read my book First, Put Out the Fire! He enjoyed the book but, in a subsequent note to me, he wrote that he’s worried about the confusion that persists surrounding the use and meaning of “managed wildfire.”

I’m worried, too, but not for all the same reasons, so after we posted our Frank Carroll interview [Blowtorch Forestry], I decided it was good time to circle back to the idea of managed wildfire.

Carroll and Hessburg both speak positively of the ecological benefits of fire, but Carroll is an outspoken critic of its misuse by the Forest Service. Hessburg is an agency research scientist and much less the critic.

One of Carroll’s major points is that “herding” wildfires during peak summer heat can be dangerous. They can jump fire lines or throw burning embers a mile or more ahead of the head-fire.

Breaks in hot summer weather can be a godsend. Such was the case when an air inversion moved over the top of the 2012 Wenatchee Complex, pushing cooler air close to the ground. It slowed the fire’s progress, allowing wildland firefighters to “backfire” and “burnout” large areas, reducing the risk of a much larger fire later.

“Backfires” or “burnouts” should not be confused with “prescribed fires,” which trained fire crews purposefully set when weather permits safe ignition and more moderate fire behavior, generally later in the fall or early in spring. Prescribed fires help reduce accumulating forest fuels and are often associated with replanting in areas where logging has recently occurred.

“Backfires” should also not be confused with “managed” wildfires. Hessburg does a nice job of explaining the difference in his Ted talk and his Era of Megafires presentation and the question and answer session that follows.

“Pre-planning is key to success with managed fire,” he says. “This is proactive work using a natural ignition to do good fuels management work. Circumstances really matter. The wildland urban interface can’t be too close, so managed fire is better used in the backcountry. Fuels, topography, road access, and fire weather must be in a sweet spot. Experienced overhead teams can tell the difference.”

Assuming the stars line up, fire managers then need time to identify and establish anchor and control points where the “herding” can occur.

“Ideally, the prep work will include some additional pre-burning designed to harden anchor and control points that have been identified and can be used later to successfully hook, turn or hold the fire when it advances,” Hessburg explains.

He cites the 2016 Buck Creek on Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the 2019 Granite Gulch Fires in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on Oregon’s the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest as examples of successfully managed wildfires that worked well in backcountry.

“They were carefully managed wildfires, not burnout operations,” Hessburg explains. “Good examples of how well things can work when these anchor and control points have been identified and hardened before the advance of fires.”

Unlike managed fire, backfiring is a method of indirect attack often used against rapidly spreading wildfire. It widens an established defensive perimeter and can reduce the force of a convection column. The “herding” that Carroll described last week is a backfiring or burnout method used on large wildfires.

Faced with fire behavior that can change in an instant, firefighters are often in full reaction mode. Their immediate goal is to build a defensible perimeter around the fire. Topography, fuel loads, road access, an assessment of resistance to containment and short and longer term impending weather guide their decisions. Backfiring is often used to harden the perimeter or even within the perimeter to reduce heavy fuel loads – often at night when air temperatures drop and fires burn more slowly, though there are nights when the temperature doesn’t drop enough to slow the fire’s advance. Such fires may blow through two, three or more boxes before they are contained.

Given so much knowledge about prescribed fire, backfiring, burn-out operations and managed fire, one could easily ask why we are facing such a wildfire crisis in western forests. Here’s my take:

As public opposition to the harvest of old growth timber in the West increased, the Forest Service’s post-World War II timber sale program – which enjoyed wide public support in the 1950s and 1960s - began to decline. Mills that depended on a steady diet of federal logs began to go out of business.

Old growth logging created a corresponding loss of habitat used by several species including the northern spotted owl, which was added to the federal threatened list in June 1990.

This shift in public sentiment is seen in federal policy and rule changes that signal less active protection-oriented approaches that favor natural disturbance [fire] over human disturbance [logging]. Unfortunately, today’s wildfires – in part a result of policy and rule changes - are anything but “natural.”

Faced with the massive loss of wood processing infrastructure capable of doing the necessary stand tending work [thinning and prescribed fire] and predictably explosive growth in the size, frequency, and destructive force of today’s wildfires, the Forest Service began a slow but inexorable transition from managing forests to attempting to manage wildfires.

It might have worked 50 years ago – before insects and diseases invaded drought stressed federal forests that hold too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land - but using today’s wildfires to prevent even larger fires in the future poses enormous risks to life, community and forests.

All the more reason why fire and landscape ecologists, including my friend, Paul Hessburg, are trying to figure out how to safely “return fire to the land,” a credo that anchors the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

Cohesive in the sense that all landowners, stakeholders and agencies are collectively engaged in a search for better ways to steer away from a long-standing policy of excluding wildfire from forests. Fire will come to fire-adapted forests, so the question is, will it be planned, or wild and unpredictable?

Also cohesive in the sense that it works to bring together the three main pieces of the overarching story, which are: [1] resilient landscapes [2] well-prepared fire-safe communities and [3] an effective suppression response.

It looks great on paper but how heavily should we lean on the risks associated with wildfire when forest managers already know how to safely reduce the risk using pre-planned treatments centered on periodic thinning and prescribed fire, a time tested and proven regimen for reducing the threats posed by insect and disease infestations that inevitably lead to wildfire.

Sadly, the skill sets and capital investments that underpin this regimen are becoming increasingly scarce as federally dependent sawmills and loggers throw in the towel because they can’t find enough processable logs to keep their businesses running.

Many in Congress are deeply suspicious of the motives of western lumbermen and loggers. But if they were doing their due diligence, they’d come out here to see the “before and after” results of thinning and prescribed fire as opposed to the utter devastation big wildfires cause. If seeing is believing, it might whet their appetites for re-investing in our nation’s federal forests.

Maybe the place to start anew is with the physical scale of things. The federal forest estate covers about 297,000 square miles, an area larger than all but one of our 50 states. Alaska spans 570,641 square miles and Texas, our second largest state, covers 261,914 square miles. By contrast, Washington, D.C. covers 68 square miles and the White House lawn .028 square miles, 18 acres.

Our wildfire seasons are four to eight weeks longer today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Is it drought? Is it climate change? Does it matter? Blame whoever or whatever you want. What cannot be denied is that we are rapidly losing much our federal forest estate. It is going up in flames. In an average recent year, wildfires have scorched about seven million acres of forest and rangeland. This is an area larger than any of our nine smallest states.

Fire is inevitable in our maladapted western national forests. The question is will it be planned, or wild and unpredictable. In our two worst years in recent memory – 2015 and 2017 – we lost 20 million acres to escaped wildfires. And the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho has already warned us that 2020 is probably going to be another god awful wildfire season. What are we to do?

Thousands of career Forest Service professionals have retired over the last 35 years: engineers, silviculturists, foresters, hydrologists, ecologists, botanists and biologists. Most have not been replaced. Our colleague, Michael Rains, a Forest Service retiree whose credentials are above reproach, has written several briefing papers explaining and documenting the Forest Service’s workforce shortages.

Michael estimates that Congress shorts the Forest Service budget by $2 billion a year. For background, I recommend that you read Sustaining the Forest Service: Increasing Workforce Capacity to Increase the Pace and Scale of Restoration on National Forest System Lands, a well-documented and impartial report developed by the National Association of Forest Service Retirees and delivered to Secretary Perdue on July 25, 2019.

NAFSR’s report got a polite “thank you” from Secretary Purdue, but that was all. I wonder if he noticed the startling shift in workforces between fire and forest management personnel:

Fire workforce2,8003,0006,500
Forestry workforce25,53317,93211,797

It’s hard to miss a 54% reduction – nearly 14,000 people - in the number of professionals who could be managing our forests and reducing the risk of damaging wildfires in the West’s national forests.

Harder still to miss the 230% increase in fire personnel at the expense of resource management, a primary charge given to the Forest Service.

Why does Secretary Perdue think this shift occurred? Better yet, why does Congress think it occurred? How can you fund the Fire Service but not fund the forestry part of the Forest Service that works to reduce the risk of wildfire, save lives, and protect communities?

I’m in no position to judge Secretary Perdue’s polite disinterest in NAFSR’s workforce capacity study, but I will say that it has been decades since we’ve had an Agriculture Secretary who had much interest in the Forest Service. They do a great job for America’s farmers, but most seem to consider the affairs of our nation’s largest forest landowner to be a pain in the rear.

There is another comprehensive report with lots of history in it that you should read and consider. Reinventing the United States Forest Service: Evolution from Custodial Management to Production Forestry to Ecosystem Management. It was written by Doug MacCleery, an old friend who was a senior policy analyst with the Forest Service and, for a time, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Doug’s 1993 book, American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery, is an excellent primer published by the Forest History Society.

I could go on with this, but I think you get the point – the point being that the Forest Service probably needs another $2-3 billion a year from Congress so it can rehire several thousand professionals capable of pulling our federal forest estate back from the brink of fiery ruin.

Which brings me back to Paul Hessburg and his worries about my depiction of managed wildfire. Paul is one of dozens of fire ecologists who are trying to help quantify conditions for the safe and appropriate re-introduction of fire, including managed wildfire.

There are two peer-reviewed reports in our library that I encourage you to read. They are technical but informative. The first study, Designing Operationally Relevant Daily Large Fire Containment Strategies Using Risk Assessment Results, addresses how to use key data layers and modeling to build containers on the landscape that hold more promise for constraining the flow of problem wildfires.

Among the data layers are terrain, road access, the time required to get to the fire, burn probability, fire weather, flame length probability, fire rate of spread, time to construct fire lines, risks to wildland firefighters and availability of firefighting resources.

The key word here is probability, and probability - like fire behavior - is merely an estimation subject to a myriad of variables - that can quickly alter outcomes. How likely is it that the wind will change directions, or a fire will jump 1 to 2 miles ahead of itself in heavy timber and 100-degree heat? Pretty likely.

So where might we manage a lightning ignited fire to test the probabilities and where does testing probability become testing fate? I have no idea, but my gut tells me that the likelihood of rolling a seven or an 11 at this crap table is fairly remote. I shudder to think what might happen in our Idaho Panhandle National Forest. The place is crawling with hunters, anglers, berry pickers and water lovers of all stripes. And we’re going to “reintroduce fire” to a forest that hasn’t seen a major fire since 1933? Good luck with that.

The second study, Wildfire Risk Science Facilitates Adaptation of Fire-prone Social-Ecological Systems to the New Fire Reality, speaks more to public concerns that I discuss in my book: the wildfire-related impacts on air and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, forest-related recreation assets and the roles forest collaborative groups are playing in helping the Forest Service design, implement and monitor forest restoration projects. I like this study except for its presumption that the deadly wildfires we are enduring are “the new reality.” It sounds too much like surrender to me.

It’s true that an estimated 100 million acres of national forest land in the west is in Condition Class 3 [ready to burn] or Condition Class 2 [soon will be ready to burn] but I struggle with the idea that managed fire is our only out. Fortunately, we have more options.

Hessburg reminds me in his Era of Megafires presentation that while he too isn’t “wild about just using managed wildfire,” he accepts the impossibility of limiting ourselves to my favored one-two combination [thinning and prescribed fire]. We don’t have the social license to thin, say, 60 million acres of dense forest. Nor do we have the time or wood processing infrastructure needed to undertake such a massive project in the 30 or so years that fire ecologists say we have left before wildfire claims what hasn’t been thinned. Hessburg thus suggests that we add managed fire to our toolbox because fire managers need an appropriately broad set of tools for each condition and circumstance they encounter.

He’s right - but I contend that the U.S. Government must also protect private property and forestlands from misuse of managed wildfire, burnout operations and back-burning on public lands. Frank Carroll and Van Elsbernd consult with several lawyers representing landowners whose tree plantations have been overrun by fires that got away from their handlers. Since 2012, they’ve helped landowners recover more than $60 million. The legal swamp is deep.

Likewise, the federal government must protect its wildland firefighters from COVID-19 related health risks. The Forest Service is currently trying to revise its firefighting strategies and tactics [smaller fire camps and social distancing on fire lines] but it must also immediately embrace the strategies discussed in our most recent post – Yes, Mr. Sheley, this is how it’s supposed to be.

The Western National Forests Timberland Chart (96.1MM acres) - illustrates national forest gross growth, mortality, net growth and harvest from 1979 through 2016. In 2016, gross growth [the sum of all tree growth in national forests] was 4.451 billion cubic feet, but mortality was 3.37 billion cubic feet_,_ which means that 75 percent of gross growth died. Net growth [gross growth minus mortality] was 1.081 billion cubic feet and harvest [thinnings] stood at 320 million cubic feet.

Wouldn’t it make sense to thin more trees from at-risk forests before we tempt the wildfire fates? And when and where fires strike, wouldn’t Rapid Initial Attack, using smokejumpers, aerial rappellers and quickly deployed Single Engine Aerial Tankers also make sense?

These forests are sources of immense pleasure and relaxation for millions of Americans. They also provide domestic water for 80-some percent of the west’s population and critical habitat for several hundred federally listed threatened and endangered species – birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, plants, crustaceans and freshwater mollusks.

I freely admit to my high frustration with our wildfire conundrum. It is true that the more we fight these godawful fires the more frequently they occur and the more deadly they become. Thinning and prescribed fire remain my preferred option but time and circumstance have made managed fire a worthy deterrent in the battle against larger and more destructive fires.

I take Hessburg at his word when he says, “If the goal of fire managers is to prepare forests for more frequent, larger and hotter fires, the current research shows that reducing forest density, eliminating fuel ladders on drier sites and favoring fire tolerant tree species in the larger size classes will improve the ability of a forest to survive most fires. And depending on the conditions managers encounter in the field, there is often more than one tool available for this job.”

We do need to find a way to add carefully managed wildfire to our fire management toolbox. But I believe the uncertain road ahead will be far more easily traveled if we first significantly and strategically increase the number of acres thinned and prescribed burned annually.

Doing this necessitates leadership and resolve in the office of the Secretary of Agriculture and in the Forest Service’s Washington office. Time to saddle up and ride Mr. Secretary. The Chief of the Forest Service needs your support and your voice. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

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