Good fire, bad fire: the myth of the mega-blaze

Good fire, bad fire: the myth of the mega-blaze

06 April 2013

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USA — Last summer, talk of wildfires filled newspapers and dominated the headlines. Wildfires were “trending,” as they say.

Blazes were burning the western forests in record numbers, announced policy officials and reporters. Every news and science organization from USA Today to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was calling 2012’s fire season one of the worst on record.

“Records maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and NASA both indicate that 2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the United States,” NOAA wrote in a year-end review.

Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters blamed the growing threat of wildfire on “rising temperatures and earlier snow melt due to climate change” and added that “fire suppression policies which leave more timber to burn may also be a factor.”

In August, as fire season continued to rage in most of the West, National Public Radio ran a five-part series calling mega-fires the “new normal.” This new reality was attributed to excess forest growth — an overly abundant accumulation of combustible materials – all resulting from an overzealous Forest Service that put out too many fires. NPR dubbed it the “Smokey the Bear effect.”

But a growing body of empirical data suggests these superlatives might be more storytelling than science. “Those terms, ‘mega-fire’ and ‘catastrophic fire,’ are not scientific terms,” says forest ecologist Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project. “And such hyperbolic and extreme terms are not going to lead us to an objective view of the evidence.”

An objective view of the evidence, Hanson argues, reveals that the vast majority of wildlands and forests aren’t burning hotter and faster. They’re actually starved for high-intensity fires — fires Hanson says are more ecologically valuable than they’re given credit for.

As Hanson argues in his most recent study, The Myth of “Catastrophic” Wildfire, high-intensity fires are the exception in the U.S. today, not the norm. And he finds no correlation between increased fire-suppression activity and high-intensity fire. Hanson says the opposite is true: the longer a forest goes without fire, the more mature it becomes, the higher its canopy grows, and the less susceptible it is to fire damage.

Matthew Koehler, executive director of the Wild West Institute, a forest and wildland advocacy group, also thinks both the intensity and the extent of wildfires are being overstated.

“Every year since 2000 has been called the worst fire season on record,” Koehler says. But the historical data show otherwise. “Last year, we burned about ten million acres,” says Koehler. In 1934, we burned 52 million acres. In the 20’s and 30’s, we were averaging 35 or 40 million acres a year.”

Good fire, bad fire: a false dichotomy

The idea that fire is beneficial to forests isn’t new. As A. Sydney Johnson and Philip E. Hale of the University of Georgia point out, the Forest Service has embraced the idea that fire is healthy for certain types of forests and the species that live in them. But critics say the agency continues to create a false dichotomy between good and bad fire — claiming that small and medium low-burning fires are good, but large high-intensity fires are bad.

In 2004, in a pamphlet addressing the challenges of managing the Sierra Nevada forests in California, the Forest Service put it this way: “Fire is natural to the forest. But not the kind of fire that burns so hot, and shoots up so high, it destroys everything.”

A major part of the problem is education, Hanson, Koehler and others say. Though it sounds simplistic Hanson and Koehler says pop culture staples like the movie Bambi fan the flames of our ignorance — teaching Americans at a young age that fire is destructive and unnatural. And the media’s presentation of the facts — designed to attract readers, viewers and clicks — continue to make matter worse, reinforcing common misconceptions about the nature of wildfires.

Richard Hutto, forest ecologist and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, says our aversion to wildfire may be unavoidable. “It’s a chromosome problem,” he jokes. “We, as human beings, are programmed to fear and hate fire.”

He says most Americans think severe fires are destructive to the natural environment. Allow Hutto to take you on a nature hike, however, and he promises he’ll convince you of the exact opposite. “Ninety-nine percent of people that go out in the forest with me are converted,” he claims. “They change their mind.”

Hanson and Hutto are part of growing chorus of scientists that suggest severe fires are not detrimental to forest ecology, but are, instead, a natural biodiversity booster shot — a boon to forest health.

And they’re not just talking about trees. For a variety of animal species, forest fires (severe, moderate, and otherwise) are more Godsend than nuisance or calamity. They’ve adapted and then some, having come to rely on sizable pockets of scorched forest, or snag forest. Rare indicator species — animals that signify the forest’s broader health — including birds like the Olive-sided Flycatcher or Red Crossbill, insects like wood-boring beetles, and even mammals like the Sierra Nevada Snowshoe Hare have all been observed to thrive in and around severely burned forest habitat.

It looks like this ecological truth is not yet understood by the general public. But the Forest Service also seems to be gripped by an old-fashioned view of fire’s functions. “It’s still a good old boy network,” says Hutton, “full of rangers who honestly believe in their heart of hearts that their job is to keep trees green.” Their idea of a healthy forest is “no beetles, no fire,” he explains. “And they’ll thin and cut away trees to prevent fires or any other disruption that might prevent trees from being green.”

Making matters worse is the fact that the agency remains underfunded. And when the Forest Service is strapped for cash, Hutto points out, it’s the younger, better-educated, more ecologically-minded rangers that get the ax – and the trees follow.

“What’s missing,” says Hutto, “is ecology, in a word. There are too few ecologists in the forest service.”

And it’s this lack of ecology, forest ecologist Chad Hanson explains, that has the Forest Service relying on “a wildly outdated wildland fire philosophy.”

Thinning a forest to save it

The narrative around supposedly catastrophic fires and the difference between good fires (small to medium) and bad fires (high intensity) has not simply become the fodder for standard media reportage. It has become the scientific backbone for the Forest Service’s wildfire management policy — a policy that includes a mix of forest thinning and controlled burns.

“Some forests have experienced a buildup of trees and brush due to a lack of fire or other active management,” the Forest Service recently told GIMBY in an e-mail from public information officer Mike Ferris. “In some areas where low intensity fires were historically the norm, fuel loads on the forest floor have increased. These forest types are now seeing high severity fires under even moderate weather conditions.”

The Forest Service says they want to be sure fire patterns remain consistent with historical norms, but also to make sure forests “are fire resilient; so that they can withstand the effects of fires and still provide clean water, recreation, habitat to wildlife, and many other uses post-fire.”

And that’s why, according to the Forest Service, thinning operations are necessary.

One of the biggest of those thinning operations is set happen in the forests of the Southwest. It’s called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative. The project aims to “restore” one million acres, from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border, over 20 years to a more historically accurate, sparser state by removing small ponderosa pines.

Richard Hutto says the thinning operation in the forests around Flagstaff, Arizona might be one of the few cases where the strategy is actually on-point.

“The forests are kind of out of whack there,” he admits. “But to apply that standard to other forests, throughout the country, like the ones I’m looking out my window at in Montana, or in Florida, or over California’s Yellowstone, is hogwash.”

Hutto says 85 to 90 of forest fires are low to moderate in severity, and that the vast majority of forests need more severe fires, not less, to fall back in line with historical norms and restore their natural state.

Thinning means money for timber interests

But a lack of ecologists in the Forest Service isn’t the only problem critics see; they also describe the agency’s cozy relationship with the timber and logging industry. Hutto believes most rangers think they are doing doing the right thing by thinning forests and using other questionable suppression strategies. But even so, Hutto argues that the influence of the timber industry is ever-present. “It’s subtle and indirect, but very large,” he says. “The pressure is most definitely on.”

Letters from logging company CEOs and lobbyists pour in to Forest Service rangers every week, Hutto explains, congratulating them on the successes of their forest thinning operations and calling for more of the same. Members of Congress from states where loggers far outnumber electoral votes — and where campaigns are regularly assisted by logging industry donations — are keen to fund forest thinning operations. And when severe fires do happen, these same politicians are quick to call for salvage logging operations to remove any timber that can be processed and sold – ignoring the fact that burned and fallen timber helps replenish the forest.

Wildland advocate and forest restoration expert Matthew Koehler brings a more cynical interpretation of the Forest Service’s timber-thinning approach. He says the Forest Service and cronies in the timber industry are purposefully hyping the threat of catastrophic forest fires as way to encourage more logging — and as a way to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and other regulations.

Koehler says he and his group, the Wild West Institute, have had difficulty getting the Forest Service to listen to their ideas. The Forest Service has been holding regional meetings to discuss this year’s wildfire management strategy. But Koehler complains that “it’s been impossible to participate in the process.” And while the meetings have been packaged and sold as a collaborative, he says “it’s more like cooperation among like-minded individuals.”

Real change begins at home

Ecologist Chad Hanson agrees that the financial incentive for forest thinning and the influence of the timber industry remains problematic for the Forest Service. But he’s hopeful that change is on the way.

“Back in the early 1980’s, the prevailing view among the Forest Service was that old growth forests were biological wastelands,” Hanson says. “That was the dominant paradigm offered by experts, and given without a trace of irony.”

But Hanson says by the 1990s, the conversation had shifted, and a more holistic and nuanced appreciation of the forest and wildland management had emerged. Hanson senses that things are again beginning to improve. “On a number of ranger districts, we’re seeing relatively more prescribed fire alone, and relatively less thinning,” he says.

Still Hanson, Koehler and Hutto, as well as many other scientists, ecologists and environmentalists, say millions of scarce federal dollars are being wasted on forest thinning operations — a flawed technique to address a problem they say doesn’t exist.

In addition to educating the public about the biological and ecological value of wildfire – especially severe fires – Hanson, Koehler and Hutto say wildfire management strategists should focus on preventing damage to people, property and communities, not the forest.

That means starting at the home and going out from there. It also means regulations requiring homeowners to have metal roofs and to use fire-wise landscaping. It means putting leaf guards on rain gutters, and removing nearby brush and small trees.

“Focus fire suppression activities on land immediately adjacent to people’s homes and properties, 100 to 200 feet,” says Hanson.

Hutto puts it even more succinctly: “We need to learn to live with fire.”

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