Wildfire is a growing concern for recreation as well as property owners within Wildlands-Urban-Interface (WUI). With the movement of people from suburbia and inner cities to the country seeking open space, there is a growing risk (and danger). These private property homes are often adjacent to public lands where fire is a constant risk, unlike urban living. (For more about WUI - The 2010 wildland-urban interface of the conterminous United States)
Within the WUI, insurance requirements, and many state laws, demand the homeowner create a defensible space or face citation and fines; those same requirements do not apply to the government property managers of adjacent public lands. Within the WUI and outside the WUI, public lands managers have been neglecting their charge to maintain public lands in trust for the public. Public lands are overgrown and mismanaged by the very agencies charged with maintaining the public lands in trust for the public. Water supplies are at risk from infrastructure damage to uncontrolled runoff causing erosion and lake and stream siltation.
Mismanaged is a strong word. Just what is meant by mismanaged? For starters, consider a theoretical situation where no one has visited a forest. No trees have been logged to build homes, nor space cleared for crops and grazing. This theoretical “natural” forest would have periodic openings and trees of varying height, with wide spacing, creating a mosaic pattern across the landscape. This is referenced as “basal area”. Basal area is the area of a given section of land that is occupied by the cross-section of tree trunks and stems at the base. The larger the calculated number, the denser the forest; i.e., more trees per acre. More trees per acre means dense, over grown forests.
Assuming the human interaction with western forests began about 150 years ago, during the following time frame, trees have been cut to provide wood for fuel and lumber for homes. Native Americans and early settlers used fire to create open space for homes and crops. The result was increased open space for home, crops and grazing and a decrease in the basal area coverage. Those efforts kept the fuel loading down and the fires small.
In recent years, management policies began to limit logging and aggressively fight fires resulting is an dense, over grown landscape. The actions from human intervention began to upset the ecosystem.
Fire has always been part of the natural environment. Fires have occurred at periodic intervals for thousands of years. Those fires created the mosaic pattern of the natural forests where low to moderate intensity fires were the norm. Studies of tree ring data indicate that “stand replacement” (high intensity) fires have occurred at 200-500 year intervals. Stand replacement equates to sever, high intensity fires that sterilize the soil and burn everything in the path of flames. That is the same type of fires now being seen in western forests at more frequent intervals.
Fires are classed low, moderate and high intensity. Historically, high intensity fires are (and have been) infrequent occurrences. Typical fires (and beneficial to the ecosystem) are low to moderate intensity. These burn dead, dying and downed trees and under growth. These fires clean the forest floor and return nutrients to the soil - a natural fertilizer.
A healthy forest will have more trees of larger diameter with greater spacing. Trees with upper story still intact. The forests are, and have been, mismanaged for decades. Natural fires were suppressed aggressively allowing uncontrolled growth of bio-mass. That mindset is giving way to a “let it burn” philosophy. The result, more high intensity fires.
One of the mismanagement aspects deals with the reduction (in some cases elimination) of logging. As noted, human interaction contributed to the current condition of the forests. Logging is a prime resource extraction industry - trees cut down, logs milled to produce lumber to build homes.
Logging practices have adapted over the years to a “plantation” concept. In other words, trees would be logged in sections designed to mimic the mosaic pattern of the natural forests. (It should be noted that logging in many western forests is on its third or fourth cycle of logging.) Current logging practices include removal of the dead and dying trees and thinning the forest to a desired basal area. Each forest type has a different desire basal area which should consist of a mixture of standing snags, logs on the ground and trees spaced enough to allow some open space for wildlife forage.
The current ecosystem cannot adapt, nor sustain, the scope of devastating fires currently being experienced. Yup, past management practices got us into this mess. Past logging logging practices of clear cuts and re-planting created “plantation” type forests where trees are a uniform height but smaller diameter. Multiple decades of aggressive fire suppression allowed uncontrolled growth of under story.
Small, controlled fire is good for the forest; just as rain and snow are good for the forest. Many trees have adapted to where they need fire to rejuvenate the forests. Small, controlled fires remove the dead, dying and downed trees as well as thick under brush. Leaving that biomass in the current condition of the forests is a prescription for disaster. Fires in a healthy forest occur on average every five years.
The controversial issue is moving from current conditions to a desired state. That transition period is going to be difficult and many people will need to accept radical changes. I have spoken with Forest Service fire officials that estimate 60+ tons of dead and dying bio-mass per acre along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains forest floors. The 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Act did authorize (and fund) a number of thinning projects address this issue.
If you set aside the theory and suppositions of forest management, consider what is known about fire activity within the past 150 years of human interaction in the west. Fires are now hotter in intensity and more frequent.
Now, let's consider another important variable that is hard to quantify -- drought. Tree ring studies indicate that the 20th Century was one of the third wettest in the past 1200 years, or last 120 centuries. And, forests are considered to be the headwaters of the water supply.
The 200-500 year stand replacement burn cycle coincides with the "wettest century" observation. Within that big cycle spanning centuries is another cycle spanning decades. Wet years are followed by dry years. Wet years stimulate growth. Dry years provide fuel for fires.
Fires do occur and have been occurring for centuries. And, fire is beneficial to the ecosystem. And, current data is recording more frequent and higher intensity fires.
With high intensity fires, three things of note happen: 1) the soil is sterilized several inches to several feet down; 2) there are not many residual "charcoal" (carbon sequestration) and soil nutrients left behind; 3) uncontrolled runoff from rain and snow melt cause erosion. The landscape lies fallow for several years.
When you couple the increase of population in the Wildlands-Urban-Interface (WUI) and aggressive fire suppression, we have a situation where the active intervention of man has created an imbalance in nature.
As good as natural fire is for overall system ecology, you will not achieve the desired condition in 1, 2, 5, or 10 years. It will take longer and it will take active management to reduce the fuel load where a beginning of introduction of fire can be started.
Analysis of wildfire history over the last several decades tells us federal land management efforts are ineffective in preventing large catastrophic fires. In fact, recent experience in Idaho shows BLM management is aggravating the situation. BLM needs to change its biased, ineffective practices in dealing with fine fuel loads and employ all available options in fine fuel load management on Idaho’s rangelands.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, BLM began arbitrarily capping grazing in eastern Owyhee and Twin Falls county grazing allotments. This allowed large amounts of fuel to accumulate. In 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire burned 652,016 acres, the third-largest wildfire in the United States between 1997 and 2009, costing taxpayers well over $11 million in reclamation alone, with full recovery of natural systems taking years.
The 2015 Owyhee county Soda Fire’s burned and blackened 284,000 acres and will have negative impacts for recreationists, ranchers, endangered species and the local economy for many years. All of this because of a BLM institutional bias against using livestock for fuels management. The institutional bias is also prevalent with the U.S. Forest Service.
History shows that federal agency management practices have been a complete failure. It’s time for a change. It is time for the agencies to discard their institutional biases. For the property owner, it endangers their home. For the rancher, it endangers their livelihood. And, for the recreationist, it endangers the trails, hunting spots and fishing holes. For wildlife, it destroys their habitat. For everyone, it endangers their water supply.