Report’s conclusion calls for fire-resilient forests

Report’s conclusion calls for fire-resilient forests

1 April 2009

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USA — The final stretch of “Objectives and considerations for wildland fuel treatment in forested ecosystems of the interior western United States” by Elizabeth D. Reinhardt, Robert E. Keane, David E. Calkin and Jack D. Cohen covers a wide range of considerations for treating wildland fuel.

The first point the authors make is that they believe that site specific analysis should be completed before creating a fuel management plan, as different areas can require varying techniques and solutions.

“The most appropriate fuel treatment methods vary with forest type and spatial context – there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ fuel treatment design,” the authors state, listing such varying issues as combinations of surface, ladder and canopy fuels, invasive species, endangered species, forest conditions and spatial configuration of residential developements, among others.

The authors go on to say, “Tree removal can play an important role in treating fuels, especially removal of small understory trees that can provide a ladder into the forest canopy, but is subject to site specific limitations.”

While the authors believe that thinning alone does not achieve the best management strategy, they state that it is important in areas that “historically burned frequently and had open structures [that] have become dense with vertically continuous canopies.” The authors add that this situation creates a higher likelihood of a crown fire, which they state is “one of the prime causes of the wildland fuel problem.”

Offered in the report are four principles for thinning treatment: reducing surface fuels, increasing height to the canopy, decreasing crown density and retaining big trees of fire-resistant species.

The authors claim that in the absence of surface treatments, thinning can actually increase fuel loads, which they believe can be mitigated by prescribed burn or other methods to reduce the fuels created during the harvest activity.

Other considerations mentioned are the increase of windspeed and the risk of drying due to the exposure of surface fuels to more sun with the crowding trees removed.

The authors next state that they believe that the creation of fuel breaks to protect untreated areas of the forest from fire should not be the driving factor in fuel treatment plans. They explain their position by stating that fuel breaks are typically fire suppression aids that do not make treated areas more resilient to fire.

Another consideration posed in the report is the belief that continued fuel treatment will be required in order to restore resiliency to the forests.

“A common misconception is that fuel treatments are durable and will last for a long time. In reality, fuel treatments have a somewhat limited lifespan that depends on a number of factors, mainly pretreatment conditions, the effectiveness of the treatment, and the productivity of the vegetation on the treatment site,” according to the authors.

Much of the need for repeated treatments, the authors state, comes from the increased risk posed by the detritus left behind in initial treatments, including chipping debris, burned biomass and others.

“These treatment regimes should include silvicultural prescriptions and prescribed burn objectives that address the current condition of the stand and the landscape in which it resides in combination with the actual goal of the treatment regime,” the authors state.

According to the report, saving important ecosystem components and minimizing fires that could burn homes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) are also goals of fuel treatment.

Economically speaking, the authors state that “Treating fuels will be an expensive venture.”

The various costs and benefits vary from area to area, the authors state, but there are some general certainties regarding fuel treatments. Those include: WUI treatment costs will typically be higher; site specific analysis will best determine cost; some silvicultural activities can produce merchantable products; and oustide funding will more than likely be needed to fund the type of recurring fuel treatment regimes suggested by the authors.

The final consideration discussed is the opportunity to utilize biomass created by fuel treatments to provide wood products as well as be used in energy production, the authors state. “Utilizing this resource for energy production or value-added small diameter forest products could provide an alternative disposal method that could increase the economic returns of treatments, encourage local economic development, reduce negative externalities associated with smoke production from open burning or increased fire hazard due to treatment slash, and offset carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel use.”

In the final section, the authors go over the importance of treating fuels in light of climate change, again reiterating their main point that fuel treatment should work toward fire resilience. They also discuss what they believe is the need for and importance of incorporating research into fuel treatment strategizing and execution.

In conclusion, the authors summarize their main points throughout the report, and end by stating, “Successful integration of fire management and land management programs and objectives can result in treatments that restore ecosystems as well as treating fuels. We believe that the primary goal of fuel treatment should be to create landscapes in which fire can occur without devastating consequences.

“Once these conditions have been achieved, wildfire need not be as vigorously suppressed and can itself play a role in maintaining these landscapes. Fuel treatments should not be used to reduce or eliminate fire from landscapes.
“Fuel treatment programs should be designed in concert with new fire suppression policies to encourage a return of fire to the landscape and improve the resilience and sustainability of US ecosystems.”

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