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Researchers say wildfire debate misses crucial science, despite clear evidence

by Rob Chaney, The Missoulian (Missoula, Mont.) |

Science has clear evidence but a muddled message about how to treat forests and protect homes from wildfire, local researchers said in response to national controversy over fire management.

"We want to reassure folks that the science is solid, despite rumors they are in conflict,” retired Missoula National Fire Lab Director Colin Hardy said during a National Forest Foundation webinar Monday.

But the answers are more nuanced than a recent debate over forest thinning might imply.

“This may seem like a radical statement, but we don’t have to control extreme wildfire to keep neighborhoods from burning up,” fire physical scientist Jack Cohen said. “Science reveals how homes ignite in extreme conditions. These are preventable human disasters.”

While the number of homes destroyed nationwide during wildfires has skyrocketed in recent years, Cohen said study of how those houses burned shows they had little to do with the wall of flames rushing through the surrounding forest. Instead, the problem comes in what’s called the “home ignition zone” of vulnerabilities such as open windows or flammable materials piled against walls that destroy the buildings.

Cohen showed numerous examples of well-sealed homes that survived wildfires when every surrounding tree and bush turned to charcoal. He compared that to photos of whole subdivisions of homes burned down — but all the surrounding trees and wooden fences remained unburned.

“The community is the location where we need to change the results of the fire,” Cohen said. “We can create ignition-resistant home zones. And restoring wildland fire as an ecological process requires ignition-resistant homes.”

Fire Lab research scientist Mark Finney explained that the 20th century’s emphasis on suppressing fires, combined with steadily warming and drying climate in the West, has produced extreme wildfires rather than prevented them. In the process, it has led the public to consider fire as an enemy, instead of an essential tool for forest management.

“Today, 98 percent of wildland fires are extinguished before reaching 300 acres — that means we’re saving the fuel,” Finney said. “And it means the remaining 2 percent will burn the most area under the most extreme conditions. Our current practices are not protecting our wildlands, timber, watersheds or communities. We can’t improve our suppression effectiveness. All our technology is of little utility in extreme wildfire.”

John Muir Project researcher Chad Hanson and others have claimed that forest management is usually “logging in disguise” that doesn’t protect against wildfire. In his new book, “Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate,” Hanson claimed that thinning around the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed Paradise, California, “did not stop the fire which raced through the logged areas faster than any forest fire in recent memory, ultimately destroying many thousands of homes and costing 85 people their lives.”

Finney countered that Hanson and other critics were making “spurious claims with selective use of information” to say fuels management was ineffective. Finney added that getting ahead of extreme wildfire requires long-term, counterintuitive measures.

“Thinning alone doesn’t stop fires — it’s true that it isn’t that effective,” Finney said. “But it wasn’t intended to stop fires. Thinning plus burning does change fire behavior. The science is clear that when fuels mitigation involves thinning and burning, it reduces intensity and vegetative impact.”

The Dixie Fire in California that smoked up Montana’s skies this summer has burned nearly 1 million acres. Finney said fuels mitigation has to take place on a similar national scale to have an impact.

“It took us a century to get at the position we’re at, and it will take decades to get out,” Finney said. “We need to think much larger. To get 40 percent of the landscape maintained in a treated condition will require treating 1 percent to 3 percent of the landscape every year. That will take decades.”

Cohen added that also will take clear public messaging by land managers. Forest logging projects shouldn’t be called public safety projects or vice versa, he warned.

For example, a recent project in the Gallatin National Forest involving a 22-mile road between wilderness areas was initially put forward as a combined logging and fire safety effort.

“They were trying to reduce fire intensity around a safety zone, but the project manager proposed it as a logging project, which was not the purpose, and it immediately got objected to,” Cohen said. “Finally the project got defined for its real management objective, which did away with environmental objection.”

Firefighters face similar messaging challenges, according to National Incident Management Organization specialist Bea Day. As an incident commander on a wildfire, her job involves bringing many stakeholders together who have different goals for the same landscape.

For example, one fire could affect state forest managers who want to log the trees to support schools, U.S. Forest Service rangers who want beetle-killed groves cleared for wildlife habitat, federal wilderness restrictions limiting where Day can place safety equipment, and local communities who fear for their homes and object to summer-long smoke.

She often faces public demands for retardant planes, even when such retardant drops won’t affect the fire spread and greatly increase the cost of the incident.

“The stakeholders want fires under control as quickly as we can, when the best solution may be to let a particular area burn on our terms,” Day said. “Then we get accused of doing prescribed fire on a wildland incident. So we miss opportunities because it’s not an acceptable strategy with stakeholders.”

Add to that a serious lack of personnel to fight any fire, and the lengthening active wildfire season that eliminates most ability to do forest treatments when the chance of disaster is low, and Day said about all she has the ability to do in a big fire event is keep crews and local residents out of immediate danger.

“This year, any sort of fire on the ground created huge headaches for us,” Day said. “There wasn’t time to do landscape-type treatments. And then what about a public that fights projects that attempt to return fire on landscape?”

Finney said getting public acceptance of fire as a necessary tool remains crucial.

“We have Smokey Bear, but Smokey is about prevention of careless fires, not fire-dependent ecosystems,” Finney said. “Where is the complementary symbol to communicate these issues?”