By Kylie Mohr, High Country News
This year’s fire season broke records: In July, the National Interagency Fire Center raised its preparedness level to Level 5, the most critical status possible, indicating that 80% of all wildfire fighting resources nationwide were already allocated.
It remained there for 69 days, the longest stretch ever. Firefighting resources were stretched thin and communities engulfed by flames, while people thousands of miles away inhaled smoke. In early August, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore called this wildfire season a “national crisis” and temporarily suspended some resource-heavy management practices, including prescribed fires. He also stopped the practice of letting some blazes burn — a calculated risk, since such fires could balloon into bigger, more dangerous ones that require much larger crews to put out.
Wildfire scientists say there’s a better way. A team of more than three dozen people from universities, conservation groups and government labs published an unusual trio of scientific papers August in the journal Ecological Applications. Together, the studies are meant to provide a roadmap for how land managers and policymakers can move from passive to proactive wildfire and forest management.
Climate change is clearly setting the stage for hotter, drier summers, more flammable forests and, consequently, more frequent and damaging fires.
“We’re living in and literally breathing climate change through wildfires,” said Susan Prichard, a forest ecologist at the University of Washington, who was a co-lead author on the papers. But, she said, there are ways to reduce some of the harmful impacts. “I’d love to translate that into practical tools for managers, and also let the public know that it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to adapting forests to climate change.”
Still, no one thing is guaranteed to work in every forest. For example, the thin-barked, higher-elevation lodgepole pines in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem respond differently to fire than the Douglas fir and ponderosa pines in the Eastern Cascades. But after reviewing more than 1,000 papers representing over a century of research and observations, the researchers concluded there are several strategies that can make wildfires less destructive under certain circumstances.
These include thinning dense forests that haven’t recently burned, removing some flammable shrubs and bushes, allowing wildfires to burn when conditions are appropriate, and ramping up Indigenous fire stewardship practices, including prescribed burns. If forests are managed well, they’ll still burn — but the fires won’t be so devastating.
One paper takes a non-traditional approach: It’s formatted in a “frequently asked questions” style that clearly states the benefits and limitations of management practices like thinning and prescribed burns. Can thinning alone mitigate wildfire hazards? Usually not; the technique is most effective when coupled with prescribed burns. Which is the primary problem driving destructive wildfires — climate change, or extra fuel, meaning burnable vegetation like trees, tree needles, grasses and shrubs? Neither; the answer is both. Can wildfires do the work of fuel treatments on their own? Not always; that’s too simplistic, Prichard said. The fires that do end up burning in the height of fire season are too big, too hot and too severe to help keep an ecosystem healthy.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County and the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “The holdup is so multifaceted.”
Hurdles include getting vast numbers of private landowners to work together and understand what they need to do, dealing with federal and state regulatory barriers, permitting red tape, an insufficient federal workforce, a lack of funding, the risks stemming from liability and insurance policies, and a deeply ingrained fire suppression mentality.
Considering that laundry list of barriers, there’s a fear that adapting Western forests to climate change will prove almost impossible. Yet experts are hopeful.
We can wrap our mind around having prescribed fire on a given ranch, but it’s pretty overwhelming when thinking about the entire West,” Quinn-Davidson said. “(But) if we break it down, thinking about forests and communities and what we want to persist, I think it’s doable.” While no solution will be fast, cheap or smoke-free, Prichard said, “the biggest risk we’re taking right now is to continue kicking the can down the road.”
Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana.