“Fuel Treatments” of Our Forests: Does It Protect Us from Wildfire?

Jul 30, 2013

The drama and distress of wildfire season is upon us again: Fires sweeping towards homes, families hurriedly evacuating their homes; the constant buzz of fire retardant bombers, water-carrying helicopters, and spotter planes; and exhausted fire-fighters struggling up hill to try to contain a fire while other firefighters stand guard at our homes.

            This drama and distress always raises the question of whether there is something we could have done or should be doing that would better protect us against wildfires.

            The simple answer to that, of course, is “yes!” We could stop moving our homes into highly flammable landscapes where they are difficult to protect. We could also design or remodel our homes so that they are less likely to ignite from fire brands blowing into flammable nooks and crannies on our homes.  We could remove flammable vegetation from around our homes so that the radiant heat from the fire cannot get anywhere near those homes. 

            But those sorts of common-sensical measures often are not taken and, even when they are, they are not maintained. We tend to want other people to take the steps that would make us safer from wildfire.  We don’t want the government to tell us what to do with our homes, but we do want the government do something to protect our homes at all costs.

            That confused political instinct is what has led to the push to make “forest fuels management” an important part of the policies governing our public forestlands. The simplistic argument is that our forests have grown unhealthy, with far too much fuel in them. If we were to remove that excess and unnatural fuel, wildfire would not be as much of a threat to our lives and homes.

            But simple answers are rarely effective answers.  Consider a few of the problems with this “hazardous fuels reduction” strategy to control wildfires.

            First, it would be good to ask how our forests got “unhealthy” and developed these “excess fuels” to begin with.  An important part of the answer is past timber harvest with little or no forest management after the harvest. Some of it is due to grazing private livestock on public lands.  A bit of it is due to over-zealous fire suppression in the past. That is, the source of the problem is the past management of those forests. How confident can we be that the strategy being offered now will not continue to recreate our wildfire problems?

            Part of the problem here is that the U.S. Forest Service does not have access to the money to engage in extensive non-commercial activities on public lands. The Forest Service has to use commercial timber harvests to raise the revenues to pay for non-commercial activities in the forests, like hazardous fuels reduction. That can create conflicts of interest: The hazardous fuel reduction approach would take the smallest trees and leave the larger, less flammable, trees. Commercial timber harvest would do the opposite, take the larger, more commercially valuable trees. Similarly, hazardous fuel reduction would minimize the amount of flammable wood waste created during the harvest of trees, removing that waste from the forest. But that is costly and undermines the commercial value of a timber sale. As a result, the typical timber sale initially leaves more flammable material on the ground than was there before.

            In short, commercial timber harvest and hazardous fuels management often are in conflict, but the first is needed to fund the second.

            In addition, fuels management is not something you can do once and protect a particular part of the forest from hot, intense fires. Those fuel reduction activities have to be repeated every five to ten years. But that is very costly and the chances of commercial timber harvests supporting those activities decline dramatically as you revisit the same site after relatively short intervals.

            The initial thinning and removal of woody material, opens up the forest to more sunlight after having removed much of the competing vegetation. This just leads to a bloom of other vegetation, grass, forbs, shrubs, and new trees, which, in turn, makes the “treated” area even more flammable after five to ten years.

            One could say that five or ten years of reduced wildfire threat is better than nothing. But from a probabilistic point of view, that protection may well have near zero value. The problem is that we do not know where lighting will strike next nor what area will burn in the near future. The relatively small areas of the forest that are treated to reduce their fuels would have to burn in the next five or ten years for that fuel reduction effort to have an impact. Given the tens of millions of acres of flammable landscape but only hundreds of thousands of acres that are currently in the five to ten year window of effective forest fuel reduction, the likelihood that the treatment of a particular stand of trees would have any impact on the size or severity of an actual wildfire in any given year are near zero, about one percent.[1]

            This does not mean we are helpless to protect ourselves and our property. We may not know where a wildfire will burn next, but we do know where we do not want a wildfire to burn. Hazardous fuel reduction can focus on those high priority areas. That, in fact, is what we have been trying to do in recent years.

            But that has not stopped those who think they could make money commercially harvesting trees on public lands from suggesting that commercial timber harvest is the same as hazardous fuel reduction. Once that false assertion is accepted, it is a small step to asserting that citizens have a significant public interest in subsidizing widespread commercial timber harvest in remote locations.

            That would just drain resources away from being ready to protect our highest priority objectives over the many fire seasons ahead of us, leaving us both less safe and poorer.

[1] “Wildfire and fuel treatment effects on forest carbon dynamics in the western United States,” Joseph C. Restaino and David L. Peterson, Forest Economy and Management 303 (2013):L46-60.  “Fuel Treatments and Fire Severity: A Meta-Analysis,” Erik J. Martinson and Philip N. Omi, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, RMRS-RP-103WWW, June 2013.