In wildfire ‘pivot,’ experts question federal focus

Some say the strategy may place too much focus on protecting buildings and urban areas adjacent to wilderness

A burned vehicle sits in a Louisville, Colo., neighborhood hit by a wildfire Jan. 4. Officials reported that 991 homes were destroyed, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty ImagesGetty Images)
A burned vehicle sits in a Louisville, Colo., neighborhood hit by a wildfire Jan. 4. Officials reported that 991 homes were destroyed, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty ImagesGetty Images)
Posted January 28, 2022 at 6:00am

A series of forest fires burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington over two days in 1910, prompting a new firefighting era.

After those fires, which charred a region a bit smaller than Delaware, it became federal practice to stop the use of human-set fires to cull excess fuel. In 1935, the Forest Service set policy to extinguish all wildland fires the morning after detection. By 1944, the federal government had debuted Smokey Bear, whose catchphrase — “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” — underscored a suppression focus.

“We have a history of suppressing wildfires,” Cecilia Clavet, senior policy advisor at the Nature Conservancy, said. “Some of those wildfires are actually healthy for the ecosystem and help to create more wildfire-adapted landscapes.”

More than a century later, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to pivot from that long-held practice and instead use smaller fires as a tool to limit catastrophic blazes fed by decades of fuel buildup. The shift comes as more Americans live in fire paths and climate change is accelerating fire and drought.

The 10-year strategy, announced Jan. 18, hews closer to what scientists have recommended for years: an emphasis on using human-lit fires to prevent massive conflagrations. But some wildfire experts say the new plan may place too much focus on protecting buildings and urban areas adjacent to wilderness, and that it could lead to complacency from people who live in at-risk zones.

The Forest Service said it will use about $5.5 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill (PL 117-58) on the plan and to train wildland firefighters, raise their pay and convert more than 1,000 seasonal firefighters to year-round employees.

With nearly one-quarter of the contiguous U.S. at moderate or high fire risk, according to federal officials, the agency said it would first treat, through logging, mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, 20 million acres of Forest Service land and support efforts to treat another 30 million acres in local, state, tribal or private hands. (The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forest land.)

Brian Ferebee, who is leading the new approach and is the agency’s chief executive for intergovernmental relations, put the total expense of the 10-year plan around $50 billion. Of the $5.5 billion from the infrastructure bill, $3 billion will go to this firefighting plan, he said in an interview Tuesday. “We think that is a great and significant down payment,” he said.

Early steps to clear out fuel will start this year, with projects in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.

Republicans in Congress and timber interests have long advocated more aggressive logging practices, in part citing fire breaks as techniques to cut off advancing wildfires. While Ferebee did not exclude any methods of reducing the fuel backlog, he said the Forest Service's new approach centers around human-set fires, mechanical thinning and pruning to clear debris.

Though the agency formally ditched its policy of aggressive suppression that began in the 1910s by the 1970s, the effects of accumulated fuels – shrubs, grasses, trees, leaves, pine needles – remained.

'Crisis proportions'

“Fuel buildups have now reached crisis proportions,” the plan says, noting how ponderosa pine stands that historically include “40 to 60 trees of all sizes per acre” are clogged. “Today, many of these same open woodlands have become dense forests with hundreds of trees per acre, including thickets that erupt into devastating wildfires when ignited by people or dry lightning.”

Compounded by climate change, unpredictable snowpack and an urbanizing West, fires are growing larger and more economically damaging, according to an October 2021 study from the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.

Conditions can be so arid that fires start with so-called dry lightning strikes – lightning hitting the ground without raindrops, which evaporate into the air. 

James Johnston, an Oregon State University fire ecologist, said there may be a window for federal agencies to reduce fuels in the country.

“For the first time Congress has recognized the scale of the problem, and I think for the first time, the Forest Service and other agencies have been given significant resources to do fuel reduction,” Johnston said in an interview. “It remains to be seen if the Forest Service and other agencies can get the work done.”

Techniques to mitigate fire can be broadly broken into two categories, he said: using machines to cut down trees, and “prescribed fire,” in which fires are reintroduced to clear out fuel on the ground. Prescribed fires are essential to reduce built-up fuel, such as grasses, scrubs or fallen branches and other woody remnants that aren’t used commercially for timber, Johnston said.

“We've actually made decent progress in the last decade in increasing mechanical treatments,” he said. “But prescribed fire has been flat for decades and that needs to change.”

Meghan Housewright of the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that works to limit death and damage from fires, electricity and related hazards, said some details are unclear.

“How are you going to fund it going forward? Workforce is a really big issue,” she said by phone.

Housewright and other fire experts said the timeframes to execute prescribed burns can be narrow, due to fluctuating wind speeds and proximity to human populations, among other factors. She said there is a dearth of firefighters skilled at conducting such burns: “They are not necessarily trained people who can do this safely.”

Since 2000, an average of 70,600 fires have burned an annual average of 7 million acres, sharply up from the 1990s, when more fires occurred yearly on average, 78,600, but consumed less territory, 3.3 million acres, according to National Interagency Coordination Center data.

Growing neighborhoods near wildlands, such as in Boulder County, Colorado, where the Marshall Fire in December destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, have placed more people and property in risky zones.

Areas where wilderness and homes meet – what fire researchers call the wildland-urban interface, or WUI – have become more common since the 1960s, according to the Forest Service, which says one-third of all homes in the U.S. are in the WUI.

The destruction of buildings in these spots is rising, the agency said. “The running 5-year average annual number of structures destroyed by wildfires rose from 2,873 in 2014 to 12,255 in 2020, a fourfold increase in just 6 years.”

Neighborhoods

Susan Prichard, a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said she and her colleagues have been “waiting for big investments” from federal agencies “to be proactive and get ahead of these wildfires, reduce some of the fuels so that when wildfires inevitably come to forests, they're not as catastrophic to people and ecosystems.”

Prichard said the plan may place too much focus on the areas where neighborhoods meet wilderness.

“What it sounds like they're planning to do is mostly treat right around the wildland-urban interface,” she said. “The WUI is ever-expanding as people are allowed with more flexible work schedules to move out to the woods,” Prichard said. “It is a big concern that people are living in harm's way. So I really understand that intention to protect communities that live close to fires.”

But, Prichard added, “We get our drinking water from public lands, and we're really hoping that our forests will also sequester and store carbon as we're thinking about ways to mitigate climate change. And unfortunately, those values are not protected by just treating forests right around where people live.”

Chris Dunn, a researcher at the Oregon State University forestry school, said by email the plan was a “big pivot.”

Still, he said it could lead to a false sense of security among at-risk residents and a shirking of the “shared responsibility homeowners, city, county or state governments and other partners (all of us really) have in adapting to and mitigating the consequences of climate change as currently manifested in our contemporary fire challenge.”

Dunn wrote in part: “In other words, someone may think they do not need to do anything because the Forest Service has it covered, while their actual exposure may not change a lot.”