Flash Point: The Double Bind, Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires

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A firefighter performs burn out operations in the Cascade Complex in 2007 in Idaho. Photo: Kari Greer (Used with permission from National Interagency Fire Agency)

A firefighter performs burn out operations in the Cascade Complex in 2007 in Idaho. Photo: Kari Greer (Used with permission from National Interagency Fire Center)

 

The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires

By Michelle Mercer • April 25, 2013

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The devastating 2002 wildfire season generated public discussion about the need for treatments to fix our dangerously overgrown forests. Ten years later, last year’s destructive fire season has a lot of Colorado residents wondering why more of that treatment hasn’t happened.

An area  of untreated forest. Photo: Michelle Mercer

An area of untreated forest. Photo: Michelle Mercer

In the Manitou Experimental Forest north of Woodland Park, a dirt road divides two types of forests: On the north, open, park-like woods so sparse they’re almost a meadow; on the south, trees so dense you can’t see 100 feet into them. It’s an object lesson in forest management, explains forest ecologist Merrill Kaufmann.

“The difference is that this area has been treated to get the forest density and the tree distribution back to what it was like historically,” he says, “whereas the area across the road to the south here has not been treated and really kind of represents the problem that we have up and down so much of the Front Range in the ponderosa pine/Douglas fir forest zone.”

Forest ecologist Merrill Kaufman stands in a treated forest area. Photo: Michelle Mercer

Forest ecologist Merrill Kaufmann stands in a treated forest area. Photo: Michelle Mercer

After a century of fire suppression, forests are so uniformly thick and loaded with fuel that when wildfires start, the flames “ladder” up from the understory to treetops and become hard to control—especially in an increasingly hot and dry climate.

By the time the Waldo Canyon Fire had burned through the dense forest and reached Mountain Shadows, even fastidious homeowner mitigation and the best firefighting efforts couldn’t save many homes. And Paul Langowski, the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain branch chief for fuels and fire ecology, says only a wide swath of forest treatment would have weakened the fire’s fierce march toward town.

“It could be anywhere from half a mile to a mile and a half from the property line into the public lands,” Langowski says, “and folks will go, ‘I didn’t see anything in my backyard. Why aren’t you doing something there?’ Well, we can’t do treatments everywhere.”

Treatment is ideally a combination of two methods: mechanical thinning and prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is an especially effective tool for reducing hazardous fuels in the forest, but it can have side effects.

“One of the byproducts is smoke,” Langowski says, “so I f we want to increase the amount of treatments and the pace of treatments that we’re doing, then smoke is of a concern.”

Firefighter burns slash in the Cascade Complex in central Idaho in 2007. Photo: Kari Greeer (Used with permission from National Interagency Fire Center)

Firefighter burns slash in the Cascade Complex in central Idaho in 2007. Photo: Kari Greeer (Used with permission from National Interagency Fire Center)

And prescribed fires don’t always go where intended. Langowski says of the 2000 prescribed burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountain region since 2002, ten have escaped. But even with the complications, Sen. Mark Udall believes prescribed burns are necessary.

“We shouldn’t take the use prescribed fire off the list of things we can do,” he says. “If we do, we run the risk of more catastrophic fires. So we are in a Catch-22.”

To make prescribed burns safer, the Forest Service often needs to do mechanical thinning first. Merrill Kaufmann says there’s one major obstacle.

“Oh if we had the money,” he says. “The cost of doing these treatments so far has run between a few hundred dollars an acre — depending on what kind of condition it is for doing prescribed burning — up to several thousand dollars an acre to get the biomass out of the woods. And If we look at the whole Front Range, we’ve got 750 [thousand or] 800,000 acres of land that warrants treatment.”

At an August field hearing hosted by Senator Udall, Merrill Kaufmann testified that government resources should be refocused on treating high-risk ponderosa pine forests in the Front Range, where most of the severely damaging fires have occurred. Senator Udall didn’t need much convincing.

“We need to have more resources to both prevent fires and mop up afterward,” Udall says. “The idea that an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure is spot-on when it comes to fire policy.”

Senator Udall took Kaufmann’s recommendations back to Washington. He pushed for an amendment to a disaster assistance bill that would have restored $653 million to the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Account, some of which was earmarked for forest treatment. The amendment failed. Sen. Udall and others have since succeeded in raising funds for watershed treatment and are still pushing for air tankers. But that’s for fire suppression and recovery rather than fire prevention.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Dave Petersen lays out the numbers, and the double bind.

“Right now in the U.S. Forest Service, over 50 percent of the entire budget of the agency is spent on fire management,” he says “And the largest portion of that is spent on fire suppression. And this continues to increase. So everyone recognizes this is a problem.”

With so many resources going into wildfire suppression and recovery there’s less funding for forest treatment that helps prevent the need for suppression and recovery.

“We would have to increase the mitigation effort, the treatment of more acres, at a much faster rate than we are now to really make a dent in it,” Petersen says. Otherwise, we’ll probably be stuck continuing to suppress fires and that’s where most of our money will be spent.”

The Forest Service estimates with current resources it can only get to about 20 percent of acres in need of treatment throughout the West.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON FOREST HEALTH

• Merrill Kaufmann: Photos of Front Range Fires

• Good Fire, Bad Fire [.pdf]

• Manitou Experimental Forest

• Smokey Bear: Only You Can Prevent Wildfires


RESOURCES FOR LIVING IN THE WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE

• CSFD Wildfire Mitigation Information

• Colorado Springs: Community Wildfire Protection Program

• Colorado Springs Fire Department WUI Interactive Map

• Colorado State Forest Service Risk Assessment Map

• Fire Adapted Communities

• Firewise Communities


EMERGENCY PLANNING RESOURCES

• Ready Colorado

• Pack a Kit

• Pack a Kit (Spanish)

• Ready, Set, Go!

• Plan for Pets in Advance of an Emergency

• Build a Kit


Merrill Kaufmann: Photos of Front Range Fires


Over the past couple of decades, the Front Range has been hit by a number of megafires. Forest ecologist Merrill Kaufmann, who was interviewed in the story above, shared these photos of some fires that burned between 1993 and 2002.

Good Fire, Bad FireA .pdf about how to think about forest land management and ecological processes by Merrill Kaufmann, Ayn Shlisky, and Peter Marchand

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Flash Point: Living with Wildfire Main Page
A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding
The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
• The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires
Wildfires and Climate Change Perception