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Posts Tagged ‘Wildfire’

New study challenges forest restoration and fire management in western dry forests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 23, 2012

(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)

New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.

The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.

“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”

The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.

“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.

“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”

Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.

The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.

The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.

Key findings:

• Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.

• Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.

• The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.

The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”


Posted in Climate Change, Forests, logging, Restoration Economy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

New Report Debunks Myth of “Catastrophic Wildfire”

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 3, 2010

There is no such thing as “catastrophic wildfire” in our forests, ecologically speaking. That is the central conclusion of a report released this week by the John Muir Project (JMP), a non-profit forest research and conservation organization.

The report, “The Myth of Catastrophic Wildfire: A New Ecological Paradigm of Forest Health“, is a comprehensive synthesis of the scientific evidence regarding wildland fire and its relationship to biodiversity and climate change in western U.S. forests. It stands many previously held assumptions on their heads, including the assumptions that forest fires burn mostly at high intensity (where most trees are killed), and that fires are getting more intense, as well as the assumption that high-intensity fire areas are ecologically damaged or harmed. The report finds that the scientific evidence contradicts these popular notions.

“We do not need to be afraid of the effects of wildland fire in our forests. Fire is doing important and beneficial ecological work,” said the report’s author, Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist who is the Director of the John Muir Project, as well as a researcher at the University of California at Davis. “It may seem counterintuitive, but the scientific evidence is telling us that some of the very best and richest wildlife habitat in western U.S. forests occurs where fire kills most or all of the trees. These areas are relatively rare on the landscape, and the many wildlife species that depend upon the habitat created by high-intensity fire are threatened by fire suppression and post-fire logging.”

The report notes that hundreds of millions of dollars are being needlessly spent each year suppressing fires in remote forests and implementing widespread “forest thinning” logging projects. This puts firefighters at unnecessary risk in remote wild areas, puts homes at greater risk by diverting scarce resources away from efforts to create defensible space around structures, and further threatens the many rare and imperiled wildlife species that depend upon post-fire habitat.

Specifically, the report finds:

• There is far less fire now in western U.S. forests than there was historically.

• Current fires are burning mostly at low intensities, and fires are not getting more intense, contrary to many assumptions about the effects of climate change. Forested areas in which fire has been excluded for decades by fire suppression are also not burning more intensely.

• Contrary to popular assumptions, high-intensity fire (commonly mislabeled as “catastrophic wildfire”) is a natural and necessary part of western U.S. forest ecosystems, and there is less high-intensity fire now than there was historically, due to fire suppression.

• Patches of high-intensity fire (where most or all trees are killed) support among the highest levels of wildlife diversity of any forest type in the western U.S., and many wildlife species depend upon such habitat. Post-fire logging and ongoing fire suppression policies are threatening these species.

• Conifer forests naturally regenerate vigorously after high-intensity fire.

• Our forests are functioning as carbon sinks (net sequestration) where logging has been reduced or halted, and wildland fire helps maintain high productivity and carbon storage.

• Even large, intense fires consume less than 3% of the biomass in live trees, and carbon emissions from forest fires is only tiny fraction of the amount resulting from fossil fuel consumption (even these emissions are balanced by carbon uptake from forest growth and regeneration).

• “Thinning” operations for lumber or biofuels do not increase carbon storage but, rather, reduce it, and thinning designed to curb fires further threatens imperiled wildlife species that depend upon post-fire habitat.

• The only effective way to protect homes from wildland fire is to use non-combustible roofing and other materials, and reduce brush within 100-200 feet of structures.

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Report: Ten Solutions to Curb Forest Fire Costs, Currently $3 Billion Per Year

Posted by Matthew Koehler on November 18, 2009

Note: The following press release was issued today from Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based independent, nonprofit research group. The press release is to draw attention to their new report titled, “Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface.” – MK

Report Promotes Ten Solutions to Curb Forest Fire Costs, Currently $3 Billion Per Year

BOZEMAN, MT. – A report released today by Headwaters Economics outlines ten proposals to help curb the rising expense of fighting forest fires—which already costs taxpayers $3 billion annually or roughly half the Forest Service’s budget. The new report shows that, unless action is taken, firefighting costs could at least double in the next 15 years because of expanding residential development on fire-prone lands along with the increasing temperatures associated with climate change.

“The current policy of looking the other way while more and more homes are built on dangerous, fire-prone lands is not sustainable,” said Ray Rasker, the report’s author. “This report shows that we have the knowledge and solutions needed to address this problem. Now is the time to implement responsible, accountable steps that can help hold the line on future fire costs.”

The report, Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface, was completed by Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based independent, nonprofit research group.

The fire cost research paper enjoys the support of Dale Bosworth, former Chief of the Forest Service, and Roger Kennedy, former Director of the National Park Service and author of Wildfire and Americans.

The research paper outlines ten possible solutions, ranging from increased education to changes in insurance or mortgage laws. Addressing the issue of ever-escalating fire suppression expenses could achieve a number of related public policy goals: fiscal responsibility, a fairer and more equitable distribution of costs among those benefiting from wildfire protection, and increased safety for future homeowners and wildland firefighters.

Even though less than four percent of homes in the West are located within this wildland-urban interface (WUI), a number of studies have show that these residences are a significant contributor to the rising costs of fighting wildfires.

Yet, the cost of protecting these homes is spread among all taxpayers and little has been done to address the pace, scale and pattern of development in the WUI. In this context, the current approach to fire suppression has perverse incentives and lacks accountability. People who develop in forested areas, and local governments that allow such new subdivisions, do not pay their share of fire fighting costs. The majority of firefighting expenses instead are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Across the West today, only 14 percent of forested private lands near fire-prone public lands has homes on it. Using Montana as a case study, Headwaters Economics found protecting the average home from a wildfire event costs roughly $8,000. Statewide, the cost of protecting homes from forest fires averages $28 million annually. If development on private land near fire-prone forests continues, costs associated with home protection likely will rise to $40 million by 2025.

Climate change would increase costs even further.  A one-degree increase in average summer temperatures in Montana would at least double home protection costs, and the combination of additional development and hotter summers could push the average annual cost of protecting homes from forest fires to exceed $80 million by 2025.

“Unless we address one of the root causes of the problem—home building in wildfire prone areas—the costs of fighting forest fires will continue to escalate,” noted Rasker.

The report outlines ten possible solutions. Headwaters Economics does not advocate one solution over another. Rather, all are presented, with background, to explain how each idea could work along with its pros and cons.
1. MAPPING: Publish maps identifying areas with high probability of wildland fires;
2. EDUCATION: Increase awareness of the financial consequences of home building in fire-prone areas;
3. REDIRECT FEDERAL AID TOWARD LAND USE PLANNING: Provide technical assistance and financial incentives to help local governments direct future development away from the wildland-urban interface;
4. COST SHARE AGREEMENTS: Add incentives for counties to sign agreements that share the costs of wildland firefighting between local and federal entities;
5. LAND ACQUISITION: Purchase lands or easements on lands that are fire-prone and at risk of conversion to development;
6. A NATIONAL FIRE INSURANCE AND MORTGAGE PROGRAM: Apply lessons from efforts to prevent development in floodplains;
7. INSURANCE: Allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums in fire-prone areas;
8. ZONING: Limit development in the wildland-urban Interface with local planning and zoning ordinances;
9. ELIMINATE MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTIONS: Eliminate home interest mortgage deductions for new homes in the wildland-urban interface;
10. REDUCE FEDERAL FIREFIGHTING BUDGETS: Induce federal land managers to shift more of the cost of wildland firefighting to local governments.

A newsletter summary is also available here.

Posted in Climate Change, Forests | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Video Clips: Ecological Role of Insects and Fire in Our Forests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on October 22, 2009

I work for a non-profit forest and wilderness protection organization called the WildWest Institute. Over the years we’ve spent more than our fair share of time in the public forests and wildlands of the northern Rockies.  We’re monitored countless timber sales and so-called “forest health restoration” projects. We’re documented illegal ATV and snowmobile trespass. And we’ve lead public field trips to the deep silence of ancient cedar groves in western Montana, as well as to the tops of peaks affording 360 degree views of unbroken expanses of wild forests.

Through all of these adventures, we’re also managed to also take our fair share of (amateur quality) pictures and video clips as part of our effort to educate the public about the management of their public lands and wildlife.

Occasionally, I’ll be sharing some of these clips and photos on this site. To start us off, I’ll post two video clips that were shot in January 2005 as part of our monitoring efforts of the Middle East Fork Heathy Forest Restoration Act project on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana.  This project was one of the first timber sales out-of-the-gate after the Bush Administration passed their Orwellian-inspired Healthy Forest Initiative.

Originally, the project called for cutting down almost 6,000 acres of some of the best remaining unlogged old-growth forests up the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, a drainage that was so heavily clearcut and roaded during the 1960s and early 70s that it lead directly to the US Congress passing the National Forest Management Act.

Fortunately, in 2006 we were able to save over 2,000 acres of some of the best unlogged, old-growth from being cut down, but the rest of the project (which we still had some serious concerns with) went forward. Ironically, because of the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent plummeting of lumber demand in the US, all logging on this project stopped in 2008 and 2009, until $1 million in federal stimulus (taxpayer) money was given to subsidize a helicopter logging operation to finish the logging.

In the first video clip,
a field introduction to the Middle East Fork project is given.

The second clip includes a short talk about the important ecological role that insects, fire and disease play in the overall health of our forests, as well as how these natural processes affect fire risk in the short and long-term.

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