MANAGED FIRE OR MISFIRE?
The time has come for society to consider alternatives to fires so large that they escape suppression efforts, often with deadly consequences. If we don't like the fire trajectory we are on – and I don’t - shouldn’t we try something different?
26 MINUTE READ
The whole notion of “fighting fire with fire” has been around for a long time. It has gained considerable traction in recent years as it becomes increasingly clear that carefully restoring 100 million acres of at-risk forestland poses huge challenges. Resources such as labor, skill sets and wood processing infrastructure are all in short supply. It is incumbent on us to examine every option available to us.
Change with historical roots
In my book, First, Put Out the Fire! I suggest that the best place to start to rebuild labor and skill sets rests in reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Franklin Roosevelt founded the CCC’s in April 1933 under the aegis of his Executive Order 6101. More than three million young men – ages 17-28 – worked in CCC camps from coast to coast. During its 11-year run, the “Tree Army” planted 3.5 billion trees, fought forest fires, build trails and bridges, did timber stand stream improvement and flood control work.
The need today is even greater than it was in 1933. We have somewhere between 90 and 100 million acres of federally owned forest and rangeland in dire need of help. Billions of dead and dying trees are fueling a wildfire pandemic unprecedented in American history. Congress is moving in the right direction – but too slowly for physical scale of the problems we face. The necessary forest restoration work is expensive, but many projects can pay their own way. We just need to get after it.
Learning from the past
This is an old story. I saw my first dead and dying forests in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains more than 30 years ago. Thinning and prescribed fire would have helped eradicate the bevy of insects that had invaded the Umatilla National Forest. Enter the spotted owl. The area was declared off limits negating valuable research by Larry Irwin, a wildlife biologist. Irwin worked for the National Council of Air and Stream Improvement. Only recently have some wildlife biologists warmed to the idea that protecting owl habitat requires that some trees be removed to reduce wildfire risk and severity.
Not in my wildest dreams did I think that the carnage I saw between Mitchell and Elgin, Oregon in 1989 - would 30 years hence - span plus or minus 100 million acres. This gave rise to our current wildfire pandemic in western national forests. You have to walk back thousands of years to find evidence of other natural calamities – mainly floods and wildfires – on the same scale.
The evidence - tree ring counts, pollen samples taken from lake beds, and visible sediment layers – tell us a great deal about climate fluctuations. The warming and cooling events that have occurred over millions of years and are still occurring.
How did we get here?
I love this stuff because I love history and geology, but it distracts from our more immediate wildfire crisis. We are seeing the loss of forests, fish and wildlife habitat, communities, watersheds and lives, and the dreadful health risks associated with breathing carcinogenic wildfire smoke for months at a time. These are real world, in-your-face impacts that can’t be ignored.
The crisis has fueled a contentious debate between environmentalists who oppose most forms of forest management and rural communities whose timber-based economies were destroyed in the aftermath of the federal government’s June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. A decision that killed the post-World War II timber program that enjoyed wide public support and annually produced about 14 percent of the nation’s lumber.
Was some sort of softer landing possible? I think so – but it would have required a level of cooperation with state and private timberland owners who were in no mood to be drug deeper into the legal swamp created by a string of federal court decisions. The government was left with no choice but to list the spotted owl.
Less apparent at the time was the more subtle impact of technological advancements in wood processing. It was possible for many western sawmills to wean themselves from steady diets of old growth timber harvested from the West’s national forests following World War II. More uniformly sized plantation-grown trees 10-20 inches in diameter soon found favor with lumbermen because the logs were solid and pretty much defect free. None of the rot frequently found in the cores of old growth logs.
Lumber associations that had for decades lobbied Congress for bigger Forest Service budgets and harvest programs became increasingly ambivalent about federal timber. The wild gyrations in log prices that were predicted following the spotted owl listing never occurred. Instead, log prices stabilized for the first time in memory – in part because so many smaller mills that were totally dependent on federal timber went out of business. The surviving mills prospered on the strength of their multi-million-dollar investments. They could afford technologies that increased processing speed and log recovery – the amount of lumber that could be cut from each log.
Meantime, private timberlands that were over cut during World War II were again ready for harvest – not in the customary 70 to 80 years but in 35 to 40 years. By 1990 - the year the owl was listed - the hundreds of millions of dollars private landowners had poured into genetically superior trees - were yielding logs ideally suited to a new mix of engineered wood products.
“Engineered” wood products disassemble and reassemble lumber cut or peeled from logs to create products that are stronger, more stable and easy to assemble. Among them: Oriented strand board [OSB[ laminated veneer lumber [LVL] and, more recently cross-laminated-timber [CLT] and mass panel plywood [MPP]. The latter two have given rise to lots of excitement among architects who are using CLT and MPP in multi-story building designs.
The loss of mills
Before the federal timber sale program fell into public disfavor in the 1970s, there were probably 600-700 federally dependent mills in the 11 western states. Today, there are fewer than 100 and there is scant evidence lumbermen have any interest in building new mills that would require federal timber. Private, state and tribal timber sources have proven to be far more reliable than Uncle Sam’s meager and litigation-wracked program.
Left high and dry - amid these new economic arrangements - are hundreds of small timber communities that prospered during the post-war federal timber era. Learn more about these nearly forgotten towns.
Forests for self-interest or all our interests?
Amid the unfolding drama, few noticed the “forest health” problem that I saw first in the Blue Mountains in 1989. In my subsequent research, I discovered the late Harold Weaver. Weaver was a Bureau of Indian Affairs forester who called attention to the problem in the early 1940s. He warned that the post-war emphasis on harvesting old growth ponderosa pine was fostering a proliferation of shade tolerant white fir. Weaver predicted that the white fir problem would be made worse by the absence of historically frequent, low-intensity fire in Intermountain dry-site mixed conifer forests.
Such fire would have killed most of the thin-barked white fir seedlings and had little or no impact of thick-barked ponderosa. But the publicly popular policy of “excluding fire” from forests held sway – and still does with most Americans. Among fire ecologists, there has been an awakening to the unanticipated consequences of excluding fire. There too many trees for the carrying capacity of the land, insect and disease infestations are well beyond the range of natural variability. Counterintuitively – there is a dramatic increase in the frequency, size, and destructive force of destructive wildfires we are still trying to extinguish, especially near communities. In a phrase - the wildfire paradox, and its accompanying social pathologies.
The impact of REITS and TIMOS
Concurrently, once strident interest in maintaining the federal timber supply has given way to resistance from private timberland owners – especially Real estate Investment Trusts [REITS] and Timber Investment Management Organizations [TIMOS] that  enjoy very favorable tax treatment and  view Uncle Sam’s timber as unwanted competition for their log and land prices. Millowners don’t care where their logs come from as long as the source is reliable, log quality is high, and prices are competitive.
It is hard to blame REIT’s and TIMO’s for wanting to take advantage of very favorable tax treatments the federal government offers. Does anyone in Congress see the connection between the loss of family-owned sawmilling infrastructure and the fact the labor, skill sets, and wood processing infrastructure needed to treat ailing forests on meaningful physical scales? Does anyone see what our wildfire pandemic is doing to the nation’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation sector?
What to do? Factors and considerations
In First, Put Out the Fire!I make a strong case for thinning and prescribed fire. A time-tested and proven one-two punch that yields park-like stands in Intermountain mixed conifer forests that span the West. East of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington - and East and West of the Sierra Nevada Range in northern and central California.
Time is short. Fire ecologists tell me we have plus or minus 30 years in which to restore natural resiliency on as many acres as we can possibly reach before times runs out. We have the boots-on-the-ground knowhow and wood processing technologies to transform low quality fiber into high quality products. Political confidence and political will are both sorely lacking.
Confidence is undermined by anti-forestry activists continue to litigate most project work proposed by the Forest Service. Serial litigation squanders years of costly planning. It frustrates conservationists who often invest thousands of volunteer hours helping the Forest Service design projects. Projects that have been vetted seven ways from Sunday by national forest stakeholder groups who help design and monitor projects.
Pace and scale
Pace and scale are both so lacking that I doubt we will reach more than 10 percent of the 100 million acres needing thinning. 15 percent at the high end – so 10 to 15 million acres over the next 30 years. The remaining 85 to 90 percent will be lost to fire unless Congress gets serious about clearing the way for a more significant pushback against serial litigators. Likewise, the Forest Service needs to run a tighter ship – make sure its forest planners and project leaders have crossed all the ‘T’s” and dotted all the “I’s” in required environmental documents.
In such a scenario, lumbermen would build new mills on the federal government’s assurance of a log supply that is stable and adequate. Sufficient time would be allocated to amortize a $100 million per mill investment in technologically superior small diameter mills – 20 to 25 years.
The most advanced of these new mills can process the least valuable material removed from at-risk forests. This means that most restoration projects will no longer require taxpayer subsidy. What to do?
The role of Managed Fire
Enter managed fire – a controversial and not well understood technique for fighting fire with fire. The goal is to use pre-planned managed fire to prevent even larger unplanned ignitions caused by careless campers and frequent summer electrical storms. Managed fire is a complex and controversial issue. Semantics – the lack of commonly understood and accepted terms - have made the situation worse. More on this in a moment.
Retirees who served
Most Forest Service retirees I know consider the concept of “managed fire” to be an egregious and insulting affront to their careers and their forestry sensibilities. A blatant disregard for the attendant risks to public forests that were once in their care. For decades the federal timber sale program was one of only two profit centers in the entire federal government. Forest Service retirees kept that objective.
People who fight forest fires for a living also tell me that the risks associated with such fires escaping their handlers are exceptionally high, especially near rural communities. The same can be said for national forest watersheds that provide possibly 80 percent of the domestic water consumed in the 11 western states. And then there those millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and all those recreation areas Americans love – and on and on.
The overarching question. If the public that owns our national forests won’t allow us to log our way out of our wildfire pandemic should we try to burn our way out? Probably not with so many natural assets at risk. But would a combination of  thinning and prescribed fire and  preplanned managed fire - produce a more pleasing result than simply leaving our federal forest heritage to nature’s vagaries?
To answer this question – and several more - I interviewed Chris Dunn, formerly a member of a Forest Service “Hotshot” crew. Dunn holds a PhD in Forest Resources and teaches in the Oregon State University College of Forestry in Corvallis. Elite Hotshot crews work in teams of 20 or so. They provide initial and extended attack on high-priority wildland fires in remote areas with little logistical support.
Dunn has co-authored several peer-reviewed papers. His work projects a role for managed fire when and where the risks are lower. The focus is in areas miles distant from rural western communities that are surrounded by national forests. Places where annual mortality already exceeds annual growth.
MANAGED FIRE OR MISFIRE?
Evergreen: Chris, were your Hotshot experiences what got you thinking about managed fire as a new approach to some of the wildfire problems we are seeing in western national forests?
Dunn: Yes, in an indirect sense, but more so because of what I could see happening in the West. More fires. Bigger fires. More intense fires. It was clear to me that suppression alone wasn’t working. I – among many others – began to discuss the possibility of working with fire to perhaps turn it on itself.
Evergreen: Fighting fire with fire.
Dunn: In a manner of speaking, yes. In such a scenario, fire becomes a tool in the boxes of those who fight forest fires. But I think it is important to separate burn outs and back burns used in wildland firefighting from what most are calling “managed fire.”
Evergreen: Did you read our interview with Frank Carroll? [Blowtorch Forestry, April 28]
In the fire, before the fire
Dunn: I did and I’m glad you were willing to tackle the topic, but I think Frank Carroll may have confused the issue for your readers. What’s he’s talking about is what happens in the heat of battle. What I’m talking about are carefully pre-planned fires in carefully selected areas where fire can be safely used to reduce woody debris accumulations that are fueling larger and more intense burns.
Evergreen: You call what you are doing “managed fire.”
Dunn: The techniques have been popularized under the managed fire marquee but conversationally those of us who are doing the research prefer to call it “wildland fire use.” The Forest Service seems to be zeroing in on “managing fires for resource objectives.” I try not to get too hung up on semantics.
What is Managed Fire?
Evergreen: But you can understand why the managed fire discussion has become a lively debate.
Dunn: I can. Our term implies a process that is both intentional and for good reason. The problem with the term “managed fire” is that it doesn’t separate one strategy from the other. All fires are managed - albeit differently.
Evergreen: Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Dunn: Precisely. With managed fire, It’s important that objectives be stated clearly – which they aren’t always – and that some objective is met that is in line with the land or resource management plan. If that’s creation of early seral habitat, let’s say that. If it’s protection of timber, let’s say that. Whatever the objective, make it actionable and transparent.
Defining “Nature” and “Managed Fire”
Evergreen: The anti-forestry crowd has stoked a lot of anger and fear with its “let nature take its course” rhetoric. And now we have this thing called “managed fire” stoking a fear that more communities will be overrun by wildfire and more forests will be lost.
Dunn: Some environmentalists have publicly said things that other environmentalists wish they hadn’t said. But the time has come for society to consider alternatives to fires so large that they escape suppression efforts, often with deadly consequences. If we don’t like the fire trajectory we are on – and I don’t - shouldn’t we try something different?
Evergreen: What something would you like to try?
Dunn: About three percent of fires escape initial attack and do most of the damage reported in the media. Fire weather and its interaction with altered forests is the main reason why wildfires escape. Our forests are ravaged by the worst of the worst fires because we suppress the easy ones - and lose the tough ones. Inverting this pyramid by managing fire in more benign weather would help us gain the upper hand where wildland fire risk is concerned.
Evergreen: I confess that I struggle mightily with the whole idea of purposefully allowing wildfires to burn. Politically, it’s a slippery slope. It unmasks decades of Forest Service failure to manage overstocking problems that state and private landowners manage very effectively using mechanical thinning and prescribed fire.
Dunn: I do my best to stay out of the political weeds, but I understand your frustration. In our public outreach we are finding great interest in learning more about the role managed fire can play – when and where it is appropriate - in averting larger unplanned fires. This is the social-ecological pathology I mentioned earlier. The internal fire system biases are for aggressive, high risk suppression activities over much else. What if in using managed fire we could reduce some of the risks to forests, wildland firefighters and communities?
Evergreen: Great question. We share your concern on all three fronts.
Dunn: The challenges we face demand the best thinking we can bring to the table.
Evergreen: I’ve studied the two peer-reviewed papers you co-authored. We will post them with this interview but the paper I found most timely dives into the social aspects of the wildfire conversation. Amid so much science, why tempt the social fates?
Dunn: Because social values will ultimately drive the discussion. Scientists can’t pretend that there aren’t social concerns about smoke and wildfire-related loss of social assets and values. But the public needs come to grips with the fact that wildfire dynamics are changing rapidly and that suppression, alone, isn’t working. Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire are good tools in dry, fire-prone forests, maybe our best existing tools. However, the problem we face today is much larger than it was even a decade ago. Current science-based management strategies are insufficient to allow us to address fire as a problem or a solution.
Risk reduction and risk management
Evergreen: So, we need to try something different?
Dunn: Where we can, yes, but understand that our pre-planning objectives are risk reduction and risk management. The data sets we are compiling can be used to manage a wildfire or a prescribed burn. One of the misconceptions we face is the assumption that managed fires are deliberately set. Not true. They are set by lightning or human error. The only deliberately set fires are prescribed burns purposefully set to consume forest and logging debris.
Evergreen: Paul Hessburg’s megafires presentation has been seen by thousands who live in rural areas. People are worried about their homes and the beautiful forests that give them peace and solitude. Do you speak publicly about your research?
Dunn: Yes, workshops and other organized events focusing on natural resource. My work is generally too technical for the general public.
Gathering great minds
Evergreen: Who participates?
Dunn: Mostly professionals – federal agency personnel, non-governmental organizations, tribes, members of forest collaboratives and the timber industry when they invite me. As you can tell, I love talking about managed fire.
Evergreen: What’s their reaction?
Dunn: They enjoy brainstorming the possibilities that put them in control of a situation that is currently beyond everyone’s control. They see the pre-planning concept as a tool that can be used in all sorts of situations, including aggressive suppression.
Another tool in the toolbox
Evergreen: Your research isn’t limited to increasing acres treated using managed fire.
Dunn: Definitely not. Our research also supports more successful aggressive suppression. We are trying to find the best pathways forward using the tools we have for the West’s many and varied landscapes.
Evergreen: Is there a tipping point in your discussion – a point at which your audiences become more comfortable with the managed fire idea?
Dunn: Integrating local knowledge is key. You can’t just show up in town and say, “Hey, we have this new tool and we’re going to try it here.” People who have lived in an area for years and years bring lots of knowledge to the table. We have to respect it and must integrate it into our pre-planning process. Support and guidance are my main roles.
Evergreen: How do you get off on the right foot with skeptics like me?
Dunn: Great question. First, we have to respect your knowledge. Then we have to ask you to start thinking from a fire perspective. It’s different from a forest or wildlife perspective.
Evergreen: What’s different about it?
Dunn: The devil is always in the details. We are identifying areas where the risk of very large wildfires is highest, then doing the pre-planning work in a way that allows us to prioritize values we need to protect.
Evergreen: How do you even start the process you describe?
Dunn: Good question. We look at the landscape the same way a fire manager would look it. It’s akin to how a forester would design a timber management program or how a wildlife biologist might zone a landscape to protect threatened or endangered species. We ask ourselves what values we are trying to protect and how will we protect them in an integrated and efficient manner while also keeping wildland firefighters safe and extinguishing the fire.
Evergreen: There are a lot of false narratives in the public discourse today that ask us to simply accept our wildfire fate as atonement for past sins. The extracted price for the way our national forests were managed or mismanaged. How do we avoid these narratives?
Dunn: That’s a social question I can’t answer for you. I can tell you that we are using layers and layers of data to build analytic and mapping tools that will allow decision-makers working in fire-prone landscapes to better assess and manage wildfire risks. The goals being to protect natural resource assets, wildland firefighters and communities.
Evergreen: We worked with the Intertribal Timber Council to help them illustrate a similar concept called “Anchor Forestry.” It envisions adjacent public and private landowners working together at the landscape level. It protects and manages entire ecosystems while producing timber for mills that would maintain stand density as sustainable levels.
Dunn: We confine ourselves more to the wildfire side of the equation in our research, but there is definitely an economic component to the social conversation we need to have, so we are constantly in the hunt for interagency and cross-boundary symmetry.
Evergreen: You are involved as are researchers at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Colorado State University Forest Restoration Institute. One of the essays you shared with us discusses Potential Operational Delineations or PODS. This system forms a spatial network that could be used to identify control points for one of your pre-planned ignitions. What can you tell us about PODS.
Dunn: Wildland firefighters have been using POD-like features for a long time. The idea being to use what you have - to establish control lines. An old clear-cut, a fire scar, a road network, an area where fuels have already been treated or a change in topography that gives firefighters the advantage. In our pre-planning work, we aren’t tasked with identifying PODS amid the chaos that confronts incident commanders on fire lines. When we identify PODS in a collaborative setting using local knowledge, we can valuable community buy-in.
Evergreen: This makes an excellent argument for thinning and prescribed fire.
Dunn: Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire are great tools but remember we have way more acres than we can possibly reach in a reasonable timeframe.
Evergreen: It seems to us that the highest value in your research lies in simply identifying areas of highest risk in our national forests. A far less risky proposition than deciding at the spur of the moment to allow an existing fire to burn itself out while hoping to stop its advance at some POD-like point before it gets too large.
Dunn: A great deal of analysis and pre-planning accompany our work. From my days on a Hotshot crew, I can tell you there is no time for planning like this on fire lines. We either develop this information well ahead of time, or we don’t have it and the opportunity to use fire against itself will be lost amid the chaos.
Fire Management vs. Forest Management
Evergreen: No one should confuse what you are proposing with forest management.
Dunn: That’s true but we need a better alignment between fire management and forest management. They are inherently different but not mutually exclusive. What we are doing is learning how to identify high risk areas - where wildland ignitions can be used - to manage forest and rangeland assets the public values. Part of this process involves deciding where aggressive suppression is the best strategy. Then we assess managed fire might be the best tool for achieving resource management objectives.
Evergreen: It seems to us that the kinds of major forest actions you describe should be accompanied by NEPA analysis – perhaps even an environmental impact statement as required with many forest restoration proposals.
Dunn: Some forest plans allow for managed fire but other don’t. Those that do have gone through NEPA-required analysis, albeit years ago in some cases. None of the forest plans that have been through NEPA include the research and data sets we’ve developed.
Evergreen: You would favor NEPA analysis of all managed fires.
Dunn: It would be impossible in a time constrained environment – say an actual fire – but if the managed fire is functioning as a tool in a management action it should be thoroughly evaluated. This would generally occur during a forest or resource plan revision, similar to how the Forest Service does it now, though many forests plans are decades old and would benefit from revisions that account for our research.
Evergreen: Are you involved in any forest planning or plan revisions?
Dunn: I am currently working with a couple of national forests in Oregon and California that are including NEPA analyses. The actual documents aren’t done yet. I understand the objective is to analyze several wildfire risk reduction strategies including mechanical thinning, prescribed fire and managed fire. I am told final decisions will be based on forest values deemed to be at greatest long-term risk. That being said, I do not work for the Forest Service, so I am not fully privy to their decision-making process.
Evergreen: But you do hope they use your research and you do answer their questions when they ask. Is that correct?
Dunn: That’s correct.
It’s not as easy as it looks
Evergreen: Seems simple enough.
Dunn: Yes and no. The complicated part is wildfire response – whether we can identify a managed fire versus an aggressive suppression fire. The 2009 changes in national fire policy focused on integrating our concepts in a way that allows fire managers to make appropriate response decisions. Portions of fires may be suppressed indirectly while others receive greater and more direct suppression. Is that a managed fire, partly a managed fire or a full suppression fire? Typically, full suppression is desired and pursued but with different tactics.
Evergreen: No wonder there is so much confusion surrounding the whole discussion.
Dunn: The permutations and combinations are massive, and we don’t yet have the necessary data to really understand these decisions. We have no choice but to trust that fire managers make the right choices. These decisions are not easy in the heat of battle.
Evergreen: But your goal is to design a pre-planning process that improves decision-making.
Dunn: My hope is that with strong spatial fire planning – before there are fires – we can align fire response with land management objectives. The most appropriate venues are the forest plan and NEPA analysis.
Evergreen: You are clearly in a position to have some influence on the planning process.
Dunn: To the extent that all forest plans should be based on science and data, but we can’t predetermine emergency response actions or constrain them because there is too much risk and uncertainty. What’s needed is a process that helps inform the best outcome without being prescriptive. Prescriptive is doomed to fail.
Evergreen: Now we have COVID-19 and an apparent Forest Service decision to attack wildfires more aggressively. The goal being to minimize the risk the coronavirus poses for wildland firefighters and reduce wildfire smoke related health concerns.
Dunn: It’s the perfect year to test some of concepts for which we now have good data.
Evergreen: A year like no other.
Dunn: That’s for sure.
Address current conditions
Evergreen: One of your peer-reviewed papers has you steering clear of human-imposed values like timber or threatened and endangered species.
Dunn: Yes and no. We try to steer clear of the politics surrounding old debates about utilitarian versus non-utilitarian use, but we always integrate human values and competing social values in our research. This said, the current situation is always our starting point. We want to stay focused on the current wildfire problem and build out from there.
Evergreen: You have a lot of time and effort invested in the social conversation about what is being lost in forests and how to reduce loss.
Dunn: It’s a worthy and timely conversation. We’re trying to diplomatically deal with lots of preconceived notions about fire management replacing forest management. Our goal is to better integrate the two disciplines over large landscapes so that fire can be safely returned to fire-prone landscapes. Some people will always debate the relative merits of fire and forestry. What we seek is a general consensus on how to best tackle today’s wildfire challenges.
Protecting Assets and risk management
Evergreen: In First, Put Out the Fire! we identify four assets the public seems to value most: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity. Protecting these assets isn’t easy. The public has perennially negative perceptions of both wildfires and any kind of forest management that involves logging.
Dunn: Those assets are all publicly very important. I wouldn’t put timber as far down the list as some have because Americans do love their big houses and decks. On the flip side, there is research suggesting that the public is open minded about landscapes that green up quickly following low-intensity fire. It is not high-intensity stand-replacing fires that scar forests for long periods of time. You’ve heard foresters talk about desired future conditions. We are looking for ways to use different types of fire to promote publicly desirable future conditions.
Evergreen: The public is very comfortable with “the look” of their western national forests. They don’t understand that 150 years ago there may have been 60 percent fewer trees growing in these same forests. This was due to the presence of frequent, low intensity burns that created grassy savannas with scatterings of big ponderosa.
Dunn: That was certainly true in parts of eastern Oregon and Arizona and New Mexico. Native Americans used fire to clear land, but much has changed in the West since Europeans entered the picture. The gentle under-burns you reference have given way to deadly wildfires that are the focus of our risk assessment and risk management research.
Evergreen: Lots to consider.
Dunn: Yes – and much of it leads to conflicting perspectives.
Evergreen: The more technical of your two reports includes a math model that measures probability on a continuum. You assess hazard and vulnerability using data layers that look like they could be used by an incident commander on a big fire. Are we correct?
Dunn: Incident commanders need lots of data at their fingertips. You are correct to the extent that we crank in lots of geospatial information. We consider types and amounts of fuel. Slopes, burn speed, flame lengths, weather, watersheds, people and property. Timber resources, fish and wildlife habitat and infrastructure. Then we work in the locations of electric transmission lines, highways, railroads, forest roads, cell towers, seed tree orchards, mills, recreation areas and historic sites.
Evergreen: This kind of research could be applied to a planned or an unplanned ignition in an area you have mapped and analyzed? Is that correct?
Dunn: That’s correct.
Evergreen: We do need to reintroduce fire to fire-prone landscapes. We need to use unplanned ignitions to good advantage but many people – me included – fear the slippery slope this could become. Maintaining the status quo is easy. Analysis and public engagement associated with restoring natural resiliency in forests before they burn is essential.
Dunn: I agree. We are developing variable data sets and pre-planning tools that can be used by decision-makers on the fire side or the forestry side. We want to target areas before they burn. Safely use fire to good advantage where it is possible. Quickly extinguish wildfires when needed to protect people, communities, and publicly valued resources.
Evergreen: Strategy and tactics. Thin where you can. Engage rapid response time when and where necessary. Use fire as a tool for ecosystem benefit when and where it can be safely applied. With more and better data, you shorten the decision time, giving early responders the opportunity to act decisively. But none of this addresses wildland firefighter safety.
Our wildland firefighters
Dunn: Fighting fires is dangerous business. Crew training and safety are always paramount considerations. Fire containment does not mean fire control. We need better data and more of it. It is why in so many cases, rapid initial attack can make all the difference. But that is a different conversation. This conversation is about using fire as a tool to reduce the risk of larger fires. The goal is to increase wildland firefighter and community safety.
Evergreen: It all seems so simple.
Dunn: Deceptively so. You don’t need to wade too deeply into these weeds before you discover there is nothing simple about it. For example, it’s difficult to determine whether monitoring a fire – or indirect attack – increases firefighter exposure more than aggressive initial attack. It is possible that managed fire increases firefighter exposure because the incident is of longer duration. Hazards may be lower but the number of hours of exposure may be higher. Conversely, there may be high hazard exposure for limited duration during initial attack. Which one results in greater safety of our firefighters? We don’t know but maybe could try and figure it out!
Evergreen: Reminds us of Paul Hessburg’s question. “How do you want your smoke.”
Dunn: Just like high risk mountaineering. There is an alpine style that tackles big mountains. One long climb with limited rest and multiple days of acclimation and climbing. Some feel the rapid, but high exposure is better while most pursue the longer climbing strategy. Debatable, but a debate worth having and understanding.
Evergreen: As you suggest, we have our work cut out for us. Time is short.