Explaining fuels treatments: Thanks, Smokey, but we’ll do this without you.

Forest that burned during the 2010 Four Mile Fire. Before the fire, it was thinned to reduce risk of crown fire. However, it was thinned too little to be an effective fuels treatment. It is hard to sell the idea that cutting down many trees can actually be good for the environment. Kristen Pelz, 2011.

By Kristen Pelz

The intense wildfire season has put a spotlight on fire ecology and forest management in the general media. There has been a lot of talk about active forest management and its potential to reduce property losses due to catastrophic fire. Many western forests have had an “unnatural” buildup of fuels following a century of active fire suppression. As a forest ecologist, it is great to see widespread enthusiasm for restoration of these forest’s structure and function.

But, how do we manage expectations and communicate what fuels treatments can really do to change fires? Contrary to what Smokey the Bear taught us, we cannot prevent wildfires. What will happen when fires do occur after expensive fuels treatments are done? The potential for confusion (and disappointment, anger, litigation…) is huge.

I was glad to hear this addressed today on the NPR. (Of course, NPR isn’t Fox News, but I’ll accept baby steps forward.) Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters is focusing on wildfire this week. On today’s show they talked with Paul Langowski, the Forest Service’s Branch Chief for Fuels and Fire Ecology in the Rocky Mountain Region. He did a great job of explaining that fuels treatments are not to prevent wildfire. Their intent is to reduce the intensity of the fire (from a crown fire to a surface fire, for example). However, they only work under non-extreme weather conditions. They will not prevent extreme fire behavior with 60 mph winds and temperatures around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  In extreme weather conditions intense fires are going to happen no matter what we do to change the forest, short of removing all combustible materials from the landscape.

I do wish the program had delved further into the difficult decisions that come with forest restoration and fuels treatments. I used to think all trees were sacred. (Many environmentally-concerned people certainly do). No longer.  For fuels treatments to be effective, forests must often be thinned to a much lower density than people expect. A forest restored to its pre-settlement density might not be a forest at all… it might be more of a meadow. The photo above shows forest that burned during the 2010 Four Mile Fire. It was thinned too little to be an effective fuels treatment, likely because the property owner did not want to cut down more trees. (Check out this great discussion of the Four Mile Fire for more information.)

I hope that the subtlety of this message can be communicated. We can help fires in some forest ecosystems be less destructive and increase forest resilience, but effective and ecologically appropriate treatments may not be socially acceptable.  Even with treatments huge fires are still going to happen (with an increase in such activity even more likely under predicted warming temperatures – see Kelly Ramirez’s ECE post). Houses will still burn. I do worry that people will think, “Well, if we can’t prevent catastrophic wildfires, why bother with treatments?” It is hard to explain so I see why it is hard to understand. But, I think it is important to keep moving this conversation forward. The fact that controlled burns are used by the Forest Service is proof that fire ecology research is pushing public policy in a more sustainable direction.  We must help this push continue.

Colorado Public Radio’s “Scorched Summers” series airs this week; you can listen locally at 90.1 FM or online.


2 thoughts on “Explaining fuels treatments: Thanks, Smokey, but we’ll do this without you.

  1. Well said and a thoughtful post. It is also important, especially for those of us in the southeastern US, to discuss the effective “life” of fuel treatments, as the fire behavior improvements often diminish as soon as the vegetative starts to grow back. The trouble is, especially here in the southeast, we don’t have a great understanding of the duration of such treatments, or how they impact forest species composition, microclimatic conditions, and carbon/nutrient dynamics.

  2. Great point, David. The “life” of fuels treatments seems impossibly short for effective forest landscape management of fires here in the arid West– I can only imagine how fleeting the effects of fuels treatments in the humid southeast might be!

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