The Wildfire Conundrum

Jun 29, 2016

In 2015, for the first time ever, the Forest Service spent
more than half its budget on firefighting.

Last year was the most expensive wildfire season ever. Federal agencies alone spent more than $2 billion on suppressing fires in 2015 and an estimated 2,500 homes were lost. This trend has been on the rise since the mid-1990s and continues to pick up steam.               

Is there any end in sight?

The wildfire conundrum is made up of a complex set of interrelated factors. But it boils down to three main parts: forests out of ecological balance from decades of fire suppression; sprawling development in the woods that requires expanded firefighting efforts; and the mounting impacts of climate change.

Getting a handle on those problems will require creative and focused attention on all three.

This is a look at those factors and some approaches that are being taken to dealing with them.

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At a trailhead in the mountains just outside Ashland, Oregon, forester Andy Lerch gives his crew a last-minute safety reminder, “Be careful with your footing,” he warns. “Also overhead hazards are always something to be aware of … “

“And bees!” chimes in crew member Emily Fales.

“Yeah, watch out for bees, as well,” Lerch says. “Those are …”

“… our nemesis,” Fales cracks. Everybody chuckles.

The six-member crew loads up with cans of spray paint and clanks off down the trail.

Lerch and his crew work for the non-profit Lomakatsi Restoration Project. 

Andy Lerch, Lomakatsi lead forester, heads the crew marking trees for removal as part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project.
Credit LIAM MORIARTY | JPR NEWS

Founded in 1995, Lomakatsi designs and implements forest restoration projects in Oregon and northern California. Today’s job is to mark trees for removal. But this isn’t your standard commercial logging operation.

“We remove the smaller trees” Lerch explains, “the trees that are less vigorous, have smaller crowns are less likely to be successful. So we retain the best trees on the landscape.”

Essentially, Lomakatsi is weeding the forest, removing smaller trees that will crowd each other out and leaving the bigger, healthier ones.

Lerch lays his hand on a nearby tree.

“These larger, older trees, like this one right here, this Douglas fir, they lessen the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he says. “And they’re also really important for habitat for some of the threatened and endangered species, like fisher and spotted owl.”

The crews also trim so-called “ladder fuels,” low-hanging limbs that can carry a fire from the forest floor up into the canopy. Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey is along on the operation today. He says this process not only reduces fire danger, but helps restore forest health.

“Once we open up the understory by thinning the small trees, we’re gonna get light on the ground that’s going to help with regeneration of these large trees,” he says. “We’re going to increase their cone crop potential because the stress of resources is going to be diminished. That’s our future old growth.”

Getting sun on the forest floor also encourages biodiversity, creating conditions for flowers, grasses and other undergrowth, as well as the insects and other wildlife that use that habitat.

Once the small trees and ladder fuels are removed, carefully controlled, ground-hugging fires are deliberately set to burn out the rest of the excess fuels. The goal? A well-balanced forest that looks more like it did a century ago, before humans began suppressing wildfires.

Welcoming Fire Back Onto The Landscape

Chris Chambers says that means allowing fire to resume its historic stewardship role in dry forest ecosystems. Chambers is a forester with the City of Ashland. When fighting forest fires became the norm, he says, “all that work that fire was doing was just shut off. And now we have a forest that’s three times as dense as it was historically.”

This model of collaborative forest restoration is garnering interest around the West and other fire-threatened communities have sent staff to Ashland to see how it's done.

“We’ve got trees tightly packed in,” Chambers continues. “You’ve got a lot of undergrowth that wouldn’t be there in a functioning fire regime. So that sets us up for a catastrophic, severe-type fire.”

Lomakatsi forestry technician Emily Fales marks a tree for thinning in the Ashland watershed.
Credit LIAM MORIARTY | JPR NEWS

Chambers says such a fire could harm designated habitat for spotted owls and other threatened species. It could also do severe damage to Ashland’s municipal water source and destroy homes and businesses, not to mention mar the natural beauty that contributes to Ashland’s $145-million-dollar-per year tourist economy.

Beyond The Timber Wars

This effort – called the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project – grew out of forest “treatment” projects that began in the 1980s. For many Ashland residents, these projects often looked more like an excuse for commercial logging than anything intended to restore ecological balance to the watershed. The Timber Wars were still raging in the region, and logging projects were coming under increasing suspicion.

That mistrust came to a head in the late 1990s, when the U.S. Forest Service proposed a project known as HazRed, short for Hazard Reduction. It proposed to log large trees to make it commercially attractive to clear smaller trees and brush to reduce fire risk. The community pushed back, hard.

“There was a lot of unrest about it,” recalls Lomakatsi’s Marko Bey.

That unrest ultimately killed HazRed, but it led to an effort to get the community involved in devising a new approach. After morphing through several interim variations, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project emerged in 2010. It adopted a stewardship model – based on restoring ecosystem balance – and a collaborative structure in which the Forest Service has worked with the city, non-profits and community volunteers to craft and implement the project.

Chambers says the high level of transparency built into the project has earned trust and community buy-in, essential ingredients. Community members, he says, “can look up the data, they can go on a field tour, they can walk through the woods and say, ’Hey! What they did here looks pretty good.’”

A pile of cut branches and brush awaits burning when conditions are right as part of the effort to clear the forest of excess flammable fuel.
Credit LIAM MORIARTY | JPR NEWS

The Nature Conservancy is one of the non-profit partners in the Ashland project, and the group has done a lot of the scientific research underlying the plan. Darren Borgias is Southwest Oregon Program Director for the Nature Conservancy. He says that research found the primary threat to local forests is “the loss of the natural role of fire, and the propensity for uncharacteristically-severe fires to now burn through these dry forests.”

The Ashland project has treated about half the 7,600 acres targeted. Funded initially by a $6.5 million federal stimulus grant, the City of Ashland has approved an ongoing water users charge to continue funding.

This model of collaborative forest restoration is garnering interest around the West and other fire-threatened communities have sent staff to Ashland to see how it’s done.

But there’s also science that questions whether reducing forest fuels will really result in less-damaging fires.

Setting The Stage

The growing conventional wisdom says forests in the West are overstocked and need to be thinned to prevent “catastrophic” wildfires. Not surprisingly, there remain considerable differences about what “thinning” means in practice. The timber industry tends to picture something that looks too much like clear-cut logging to suit conservation groups. The enviros envision a much lighter approach, that clears out small trees, ladder fuels and underbrush, but takes much less of what could be called “merchantable timber.”

When I visit Darren Borgias at the Nature Conservancy’s Medford office, he shows me a colorful poster that illustrates an example of a well-balanced dry, southwestern Oregon forest might look like. It features widely-spaced trees and areas of open canopy with a rich understory. And historically, he says, this ecosystem was nurtured and maintained by fire.

“What we’ve lost, over a hundred years of fire exclusion,” Borgias says, “is the portion of the landscape that supported open, sun-dappled woodland and forest.”

Borgias says the Nature Conservancy’s research found there was a fire in the Ashland watershed about every two years, with any given stand likely to have had a fire once each decade. The same research across the Rogue Basin shows an average fire return interval of seven years.

And those fires, Borgias says, “would do their stewardship job of cleaning up the needles, burning up the small fuels, reducing the density of small trees and seedlings and maintaining an open, wide-spaced forest that was very productive and had a lush understory that was important for a whole host of insects, and vertebrates and birds that need that kind of productivity to supply their food and their nesting habitat.”

Borgias says that means putting fire back to work on the landscape is a key part of a restorative approach to forestry.

“We’re setting the stage for the return of fire,” he says. “To a large extent, we anticipate that’s going to be planned, controlled burns, conducted at times when we have the highest certainty that we’ll get the outcomes that we need and that the burn can be conducted safely.”

Borgias says the same principles being applied in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project could be scaled up to apply across larger landscapes – for instance, the Rogue Basin.

“We have a draft strategy out now that shows about 2.1 million acres that should be treated for a variety of reasons and for a variety of objectives,” he says.

This idea has gained wide currency, and the U.S. Forest Service has identified tens of millions of acres across the West as needing this kind of treatment.

But some researchers say the focus on reducing fuels downplays a greater and growing driver of wildfire: climate change.

“Logging isn’t going to help …”

Dominick DellaSala is chief scientist at the Ashland-based Geos Institute, a non-profit that deals with climate change. DellaSala agrees that fire is a crucial element in maintaining healthy forests. But, he says, the data don’t support the idea that a buildup of forest fuels is the main problem.

Dominick Dellasala is Chief Scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, OR.

“If fuels were contributing to more forest fires and more severe fires, that’s what we would be seeing in the West.” Instead, he says, “We are actually in a deficit of fire severity and fire acres in most of the West compared to historical times.”

DellaSala points to records that show the number of acres burned in the West in the early 20th century was as high or higher than in recent years. Those numbers dipped mid-century, then started picking back up in the 1980s. Levels now are back on par with those of a hundred years ago.

That roughly tracks a cyclical climate phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or P.D.O., which was in a cool phase from about 1946 to about 1979. DellaSala believes the P.D.O. was in large part responsible for the lower levels of wildfire we came to consider “normal,” and against which the current perception of rising fire danger is measured.

But while the P.D.O. cycles back and forth between warm and cool periods, DellaSala points out, global warming is trending nowhere
but up.

“We now have a climate signal that’s driving fire behavior,” he says. “More and more fires are responding to climate; extreme weather events, drought, high winds, high temperatures. That is going to override any fuel treatments that we do on the ground.”

And as time goes by, DellaSala says, that climate influence will only grow.

“In 10, 20, 30 years from now, we’re going to see a lot more fire in this region. And logging isn’t going to help that.”

DellaSala says computer simulation models that have looked at large landscapes show that fuel reduction efforts have a surprisingly limited effectiveness, because once thinned, the forest quickly grows back.

“The likelihood that a fire is going to encounter a forest that has been thinned when the fuels are lowest — and that only lasts for about ten years until the vegetation starts coming back — is about five percent ... So we really are rolling the dice.”

Rather than try to reduce fire across the landscape, DellaSala says, it makes more sense to prioritize forest treatments in the areas immediately surrounding homes. Given the massive amounts of money it would take to treat tens of millions of acres across the West, DellaSala says it makes more sense for westerners to learn to co-exist with wildfire.

“Co-existence involves letting more of these fires safely burn in the backcountry, and focusing on protecting lives and homes. Logging in the backcountry does not help.”

DellaSala notes that using fire-resistant building materials and clearing trees and brush from around a house improves the odds of it surviving even a severe fire to better than 90 percent.

He says co-existence with fire also means thinking twice about where we build. “Just like we don’t build on top of a volcano, or we don’t build in a flood plain, we need to really look at some tighter land use restrictions, because we’re setting people up, and homes up, for future fire effects.”

Wildfires may not be at historic high levels, but the cost of fighting them certainly is. In fact, the cost of fighting wildfires has skyrocketed over the last 30 years. At the same time, close to two million acres of wildland have been developed each year. In 2015, for the first time ever, the Forest Service spent more than half its budget on firefighting. And one main driver of that expense is the need to protect lives and property as development pushes further into fire-prone areas where people didn’t used to live.

Creating “Defensible Space”

Doug Kay is showing me the work he’s done to improve fire safety at his home in the Mountain Ranch subdivision on the south end of Ashland …

“On my property there wasn’t any combustible trees to speak of, but I did add some trees that are considered safer,” he says. “Also, around the property I added a lot of stonework to act as a little fire break.” Kay has also ringed his foundation with rock and screened his roof gutters to prevent leaves from accumulating there.

Kay and his wife Rebecca bought their house in 2010, just a year after a fire burned its way over a nearby hill, showering the neighborhood with hot embers. He points to the crest, less than half a mile away, where blackened trees can still be seen.

“It was right there!” he recalls. “Yeah, right there! You can see it! I mean, you can take your hose out and water all you want. You’re not doing anything.”

That sense of vulnerability led Kay to spearhead an effort in his neighborhood to join the Firewise program. It’s a national program to help homeowners take steps to create non-flammable buffers around the home, so-called “defensible space.” Kay rallied his neighbors to join in. Many did, taking advantage of financial incentives to add stonework, replace fire-prone trees and shrubs, and change to non-flammable roofing.

Other neighbors didn’t.

Kay is enthusiastic about the program, but he also acknowledges its limitations.

“I feel I’ve done as much as I can do. But if we get a rager coming through here, it’s gone,” he says with a shrug. “Also, if my neighbor doesn’t take care of his house, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done on mine.”

“They can no longer afford to defend all of it.”

But while Firewise may help homes survive a wildfire, economist Ray Rasker says it’ll take a lot more than that to keep the cost of fighting fires from continuing to spiral upwards. 

Rasker is executive director of Headwaters Economics, a non-profit research group in Bozeman, Montana. Headwaters Economics found in a 2014 study that while Firewise programs did help protect homes and improve firefighter safety, they had no discernable effect on lowering the costs associated with wildfires.

Rasker says a better approach would be to focus on not putting more homes and people in the way of future wildfires.

“The effective strategy is to really think about where we’re going to build the next homes and under what conditions we’re going to build those homes,” Rasker says. “Because the agencies are getting to the point where they can no longer afford to defend all of it.”

Rasker says one factor in the sprawl into fire-prone areas is a fundamental disconnect.

“The decision where to build is held by local government,” he says. “They decide whether to approve a subdivision or not. But the consequence of that decision is borne by the federal taxpayer.”

The $2 billion the Forest Service spend last year on fire suppression was more than four times as much as it spent in the mid-1980s.

In 2014, Headwaters joined with the Union of Concerned Scientists to study expanded development into fire-prone areas in the West. Rachel Cleetus is lead economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says as more homes are built in fire-prone areas, more people and property are put in harm’s way. Cleetus says there is some good news: “We have a lot of wildland spaces that haven’t yet been developed. So the opportunity here is to try to make sure that as we go forward we limit development in high-risk areas.”

Ray Rasker’s group helps local planning officials use a mixture of regulations and incentives to discourage unsafe development in fire-prone areas. He says doing this in Summit County, Colorado proved very cost-effective.

“The whole years’ worth of work that we did in Summit County was less than half a day of air tanker support (fighting a wildfire).”

Headwaters is urging federal agencies to establish a grant fund to help local governments do this kind of planning to avoid sprawl into areas where fire is likely.

Katie Lighthall says she understands this often isn’t the top priority for local officials.

“Y’know, they’re thinking about how do we bring more economic vitality to our area,” she says. “It certainly isn’t by putting more restrictions on building.”

Lighthall is the western regional coordinator for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, a federal initiative to find solutions to the growing wildfire problem. She says the time is coming when folks who build on the edge of the forest will find they do so at their own risk.

“You chose to build here. You’ve got to understand that there aren’t enough fire trucks to go around, and where are we going to put our resources to do the most benefit?”

That means local officials are going to have to put the brakes on development in fire-prone areas. Joe Stutler, senior advisor to the Deschutes County government on wildland issues, says officials across the West are starting to accept that reality.

“We do not need to occupy all the unoccupied space,” he says. “So we need to treat that like a flood zone or an avalanche zone or anything else. From a county perspective, we need to say ‘no’.”

Stutler says there’s a growing consensus around three basic principles regarding fire.

“We put them out when we have to, we manage fire with prescribed fire or natural fires and as a nation learn to live with wildland fire.”

In the end, success may hinge on whether we can come to see fire as a natural, even necessary, part of living in the West.

And whether we’re willing to live within the limits it imposes.

This article is based on a three-part radio series titled “The Wildfire Conundrum,” by JPR reporter Liam Moriarty. The series was developed in collaboration with the Seattle-based journalism non-profit InvestigateWest.