Forest thinning won’t stop destructive fires — @HighCountryNews

Camp Fire, California, 2018. Photo credit: AOL.com

From The High Country News (Jodi Peterson):

BACKSTORY

Over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of homes have been built in the West’s wildland-urban interface. Meanwhile, wildfires have become more frequent, more severe — and more costly, thanks to the expense of protecting those houses. Unfortunately, homeowners often ignore guidelines for decreasing fire risk. Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service’s FireLab in Missoula, Montana, told HCN, “At this point, we need to change the perception of houses being victims of fire to one of them being fuel.” (“What the High Park wildfire can teach us about protecting homes,” HCN, 8/8/12.)

FOLLOWUP

In November’s Camp Fire, which destroyed 14,000 homes in Northern California, buildings burned but surrounding woodlands often survived. Researchers say the pattern confirms that thinning forests doesn’t reduce home loss nearly as much as fire-wise design and property maintenance. Making wildland-urban communities resistant to ignition is crucial in preventing disasters, Cohen, now retired, told E&E News. The Trump administration, though, has decided to concentrate on increased logging and thinning.

Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org.

2 thoughts on “Forest thinning won’t stop destructive fires — @HighCountryNews

  1. It is not just that forest “thinning” won’t stop destructive wildfires; the truth is that “thinning” as currently practiced on our national forests will make destructive wildfires more likely and more destructive, except in the very short term. Here’s why:

    1. The Forest Service insists on using the timber sale contract as its main tool for “thinning to reduce fire risk” projects. The timber sale contract is a good tool if the task is getting logs from the woods to the mills. But when a timber sale is planned it is economics, and not the need to reduce fire risk, which determines what gets cut and what gets left behind. Timber economics almost always dictates that too many trees and the wrong trees are removed. Opening the forest canopy to light and decreasing competition for soil moisture results in the sprouting and rapid growth of small trees and brush. As a result, the risk for catastrophic fire effects, while reduced for a bout five years, is increased for the following 20 or 30 years until the canopy closes from above.

    2. The Forest Service is institutionally and culturally incapable of making a commitment to follow-up treatments after “thinning.” The funding provided by Congress for needed follow-up treatments (prescribed fire and manual removal of small trees and shrubs) is woefully inadequate to get that job done. Furthermore, Forest Service officials are trained not to make commitments beyond the current fiscal year.

    Unless and until these institutional and cultural barriers are addressed, national forest “thinning” will increaser the risk of catastrophic fire effects except in the very short term. There is a better way: Forest Service managers can use service contracts instead of timber sale contracts to “thin” national forests. Congress can provide funding for needed follow-up treatments and require that Forest Service managers report each year not only how many acres were “thinned” but also how many previously “treated” acres received follow-up treatments.

    Removing the institutional barriers to effective fire risk reduction and the myopic Forest Service culture are not easy tasks. In order to make progress, we must first debunk Fire Establishment propaganda which, for the most part, has successfully hidden fire risk reduction realities behind a smoke screen of propaganda. The Forest Service, and the Fire Establishment of which it is a major part, work hard to manipulate the public’s fear of wildfire for their own institutional agendas, including ever increasing funding for fire risk reduction that will increase rather than reduce the risk for catastrophic fire effects except in the very short term.

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