By Rich Fairbanks
I’ve spent most of my career working in fire management, reaching back to the 1970s when we knew very little about the behavior of wildfires and often took a seat-of-the-pants approach.
Now we have solid science and skilled fire professionals to guide our response to wildfires, but unfortunately that knowledge and experience has not yet been put to full use. In our hyper partisan age, the issue of fire management is becoming as politicized as timber management was in the 1980s.
In an attempt to contribute to fact-based discussions, I present a brief summary of published findings on wildfire management.
The last 40 meters (130 feet) before a fire reaches someone’s house is where we can make the biggest and most important difference in protecting lives and property. Property owners can clear brush, thin and prune to create defensible space. To make homes less ignitable homeowners can retrofit structures, for instance, replacing a worn-out wooden deck with a stone patio.
Fuel treatments done before wildfires start enable firefighters to attack fires more safely and effectively. There are at least a dozen papers documenting this fact. Research from major wildfires showed that thinning of the under story with controlled burning of slash is very effective in slowing the spread of wildfires and reducing their severity. Other proactive pre-attack activities, from maintaining snag-free zones along strategic firebreaks to constructing turnouts on key road systems, could give firefighters a better position to aggressively attack future fires.
Our land management agencies need resources to do this important preventive work.
Zoning and building codes are key elements in successful efforts to reduce home losses in wildfires. Consider 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 (over 10,000 structures this year). The difference is that France has strong zoning and building codes for structures in their wildlands.
Simple building code changes such as screens on house soffit vents and use of metal roofing can make a huge difference in preventing home losses. Organizing fire-safe councils to help residents take these proactive actions could be especially effective.
Salvage logging gets the lion’s share of political attention but it does not reduce fire danger.
The big logs removed by salvage do not burn easily, since oxygen can only reach the outer layer of the log. The small diameter branches left on the ground after logging ignite and burn easily, being richly supplied with oxygen. A walk through a burned forest will confirm this for the reader.
The 2002 Biscuit Fire burned in the footprint of the 1987 Silver Fire. Areas that were salvage logged and planted after the initial fire burned more severely than comparable unmanaged areas, suggesting that fuel conditions in salvaged and planted conifer plantations can actually increase fire severity.
My own experience tells me that on public land it is reasonable to salvage log for a tree length or so along main roads, especially on ridgetops and valley bottoms, to create snag-free fire lines for future fire-fighting. This type of strategic salvage logging can be done economically on public land. Most of the logs produced can be loaded directly onto trucks.
In contrast, most area-wide salvage logging loses money, given the low bid price for burned logs and the need for expensive helicopter yarding. On public land, this often creates a deficit sale with cleanup and replanting costs passed on to the federal taxpayers.
Future wildfires are inevitable and some of today’s wind-driven fires become so severe that little can be done to stop them. But those extreme situations should not stop us from doing the practical and proactive things that we know protect people and homes in most fire conditions.
We need to ask, are we ready for the next one? What will it take to get prepared? Communities will be successful in managing fire if they drop the rhetoric, work together, and use evidence based actions that will work on the ground.
Rich Fairbanks has 44 years of experience in fire management. He spent 20 years with the federal Incident Command System, working as squad leader and foreman on hotshot crews and as division supervisor and felling boss on fires in seven Western states. He was also interdisciplinary team leader for the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project. He lives in Applegate.