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Managing wildfire: What works and what doesn’t

We now have solid science and decades of experience managing western wildfires. But in our hyper-partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 80’s and 90’s. In an attempt to contribute to a fact based debate, I present a brief summary of respected, published findings on wildfire management.

The fire management status quo is not working

We are experiencing hotter, drier fire seasons throughout the West.

Since record keeping began in 1895, maximum temperatures at Medford have increased 2 degrees. For forests, 2 degrees has a powerful drying effect, setting the stage for larger, more intense wildfires.

Many papers have documented that western fires are getting bigger and more severe. One study showed that an area in California and western Nevada of more than 46,000 square miles experienced a notable increase in the extent of high severity forest fires between 1984 and 2006.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment predicts more fires to come. By the 2080s, the median annual area burned in the Northwest would quadruple relative to the 1916-2007 period, to 2 million acres.

Large-scale salvage logging does not work

The 2002 Biscuit Fire burned in the footprint of the 1987 Silver fire. Areas that were salvage-logged and planted after the initial Silver fire burned more severely than comparable unmanaged areas, suggesting that fuel conditions in salvaged and planted conifer plantations can increase fire severity. My own experience tells me it is reasonable to salvage log for a tree length or so along main roads, especially ridgetop and valley bottom roads. This allows future firefighters to use those roads as fire lines. This type of limited salvage can actually make a little money for the taxpayers. In contrast, most area-wide salvage logging loses money, essentially taking money from the taxpayer while increasing the fire hazard.

Legislating Forest Service timber cutting will not reduce wildfires

Wildfire is largely a problem of private land. One paper sampled land ownerships in the 2000 fire season. It  found that “Only 31 percent of the nationwide burn area is on National Forest land.” Obviously legislation that claims to address fire issues by "streamlining" Forest Service laws is only dealing with one-third of the problem.

Timber cutting tends to remove large trees with their crowns (the flammable part) high above the ground. These trees are replaced by brush and small trees, with crowns near the ground, within easy reach of surface fires. Often the slash (branches, tops) from logging is only partly cleaned up, thereby increasing the fire hazard.

Thinning works

There are at least a dozen papers documenting this fact. Research from five major wild fires showed that low thinning with slash treatment is very effective in slowing the spread of wildfires and reducing their severity. Thinning out the smaller trees and dealing with the slash can be very effective. This thin-pile-burn technique to thin around homes and outbuildings has proven to be effective in Southern Oregon.

Zoning and building codes work

For fires near homes, zoning makes a big difference in how much damage is done. Southern California and Southern France both have flammable Mediterranean-type vegetation and both have seasonal dry winds. France loses an average of less than 10 structures per year, while California burns thousands of structures per year (8,400 structures this year). The difference is that France has strong zoning and building codes for structures in their chaparral and dry forest lands.

Simple building code changes such as screens on house soffit vents and use of metal roofing can make a huge difference in home losses. Zoning restrictions for wood-frame housing developments in high hazard areas would save lives and property.

Conclusion: There are many things we can do to decrease the impact of wildfires. We can thin out smaller trees and burn the slash, creating both more defensible space around our homes and forests that are more resilient to wildfires. Simply legislating timber cutting on public lands won’t work, and large-scale salvage logging is counter-productive. We need to have an honest discussion about how to adjust our actions, because we can expect more wildfires and more intense wildfires. We cannot apply 20th century solutions to 21st century wildfires.

— Rich Fairbanks has 44 years of experience in fire management. He spent 20 years with the federal Incident Command System, working on fires in seven Western states, most of them in the Pacific Northwest. He was interdisciplinary team leader, responsible for  a team of 18 experts, for the U.S. Forest Service on the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project. He lives in the Applegate.