USA — Recent wildfires have brought into question the basis for policies for management of forest resources, especially considering how these wildfires interact with the urban forest interface. In New Mexico, the Las Conchas, Wallow, Little Bear and Whitewater fires have provided an unprecedented spectacle of wildfire size and intensity. Similar cataclysms have occurred in neighboring states.
A number of resource managers, politicians, the general public and other stakeholders have called for a re-examination of the policy for forest management and strategies for fighting wildfires on public lands.
Fire suppression now accounts for more than half of the Forest Services budget. This year, the agency had $948 million budgeted, but analyses show costs are closer to $1.4 billion by seasons end. Moreover, the Forest Service Policy of working with and adapting wildfire to manage forest resources changed in August 2012 back to complete initial suppression. In February, the service changed back to a more adaptive strategy. At this time, even the trees in the forest are confused. Now that the presidential elections are over, new administrative initiatives will be implemented, and a new look at wildfire analysis and control measures can be implemented.
Two general factors influencing the size and intensity of these recent fires have been identified by a number of sources as:
u Fuel buildup of various forest cover types due to decades of fire suppression;
u Variables comprising climate change causing long-term drought, which results in vulnerable, fire-prone standing vegetation. One of the parameters of climate is wind direction and velocity. Wind velocity appears to be a primary factor in the spread of the mega wildfires over the last two years in New Mexico.
A third factor not usually listed as a factor in fire behavior is land form, steepness and length of slope in mountain, canyons, plains, etc.
If analyzing the flood frequency and heights for various reaches of rivers can be used as a tool for zoning for various types of activities and buildings, so, too, can developing maps based on ecoregions, forest types and past fire history assist in what can be expected from various drought scenarios. These maps, combined with data from the U.S. Drought Monitor Program, can serve as a template to aid in decisions for when to suppress fires. Policy considerations include when to prohibit campfires, when to close the forests, where to effect thinning and where and when to effect fire suppression at various levels.
Particularly for the Las Conchas Fire conflagration, the factors cited have been the fuel buildup, the extreme aridity and the wind.
And what good, what would be the use of these maps, of this approach? First, they would analyze the historical frequency of various forest types (i.e., piñon-juniper, ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, spruce fir, etc.) within various regions. Second, the use of the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is produced in partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, could give an expected estimation of fuel dryness in real time.
Recently, 700 firefighters met in Prescott for the 11th Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy to review use of shovel, Pulaski, McCleod, pumper, bulldozer and slurry plane use. While this is a commendable review of wild-land firefighting tactics, there should be a commensurate effort made on when and where to fight wildland fires.
Given fuel loading, droughts, slope and wind (oh the wind), predicting the behavior of wildland fires will probably never be an exact science. However, by collating and organizing existing information, we can at least begin identify the terms of the equation that will allow resource managers to be more expectant and communicate with the public the risks of catastrophic fire and its place within various regions and forest types.