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Resilient Forest Act Needed To Defend Homes From Fires

by Scott Bates |

The severe drought, along with accumulated massive fuel build-ups, extended hot, dry weather, in conjunction with passing cold fronts this summer, turned into catastrophic burns in a lot of forested areas in the Northwest. We shouldn’t forget that a lot of people suffered the personal loss of their homes, their way of making a living for a while, the inconvenience of evacuation, and the air was filled with unhealthy smoke for days on end.

Fire can be a good management tool if used right, but the ones I worked on burned with extreme intensity and severity in areas. There will always be wildfires as well as natural severe droughts and tree insect and disease cycles, but the key is to modify their fire behavior through fuels reduction near populated areas.

The reality is that people like living in forested areas. Fire managers have to struggle with this new complexity because there are now more urban interface homes, outbuildings and infrastructure located throughout our forests in the West. We have to deal with protecting structures on almost every wildfire we get dispatched on now. We can’t let fires burn naturally out of control in these areas, unlike Glacier National Park or the Bob Marshall Wilderness. And even they are limited in what areas they can let burn.

Anyone who has spent much time on the fire line knows that wildfires are easier to control where tree crown-thinning projects with scheduled under-burning or periodic ground fuels reduction in the forested areas surrounding populated areas have been completed prior to an approaching flame front. They are better known as shaded fuel breaks in the fire world, and there are good online pictures on Goggle and Yahoo of what they look like. They are usually done on federal, state or private lands, and accomplished by tree spacing or by leaving a predetermined stumpage of basal area per acre.

With them, there is less chance of running crown fires and long-distance (up to a mile and half) spotting of hot fire embers starting new fires by depositing hot embers near homes ahead of the fire front and jumping our fire lines. They help keep the fire on the ground, where it is more controllable.

These type of fuels reduction projects usually generate jobs and help pay for themselves with the wood products they produce too. There are also grants available for private landowners to apply for to help pay for the cost of doing fuel reduction on their property. The available funding for them varies from year to year.

My opinion doesn’t represent the political position of the National Incident Management Fire Team I serve on as a safety officer, but I support U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke’s and co-sponsor U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2016. It incorporates collaborative, responsible fuels reduction, and the public and stakeholders get an opportunity for input for fuels reduction plans for their local area. It is the only proposed forest bill that I have read that tries to limit litigation too.

As a former resource professional, I have seen what I thought were good, environmentally sound fuels reduction projects get stonewalled in court for years by a few environmental groups. The system is still broken until these groups’ unnecessary lawsuits are limited and they are forced to sit down at the table as an equal partner with all the vested public in a collaborative effort in which everyone is equally represented in a decision.

On the other hand, there are a lot of conservation groups and sportsmen groups that support Zinke’s bill. I hope that with enough support and good collaboration from everybody, Zinke’s Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2016 will help homeowners make their homes and forests more defensible from wildfires.

A better-informed public should agree that proactive, responsible fuels reduction programs with periodic controlled under-burns or ground fuels manipulation of fuels by homeowners is a more realistic, more controllable long-term solution than blaming the wildfires on climate change or spending $1.2 billion-plus on fire suppression like we did this summer - and then doing nothing.

Scott Bates of Whitefish was a smokejumper for 10 seasons and has served as a safety officer on a national Incident Management Team for the past 18 seasons. He is a retired U.S. Forest Service silviculturist/forester. The views in this opinion are his own and do not represent the views of the Incident Management Team.