Friday, August 17, 2018

USDA Announces New Strategy to Improve Forest Conditions

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service announced yesterday the concept of an outcome-based investment strategy that responds to the urgent national crisis of growing challenges including catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, droughts, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease. 

Despite huge advances in collaborative efforts across the US to achieve ecological, social, and economic gains, they are not always coordinated across boundaries and at the scale needed to achieve lasting outcomes across broad landscapes.  The Forest Service and its partners have limited budgetary resources; even pooled, cannot begin to treat all of the landscapes in need. The belief that individual landowners and land managers can and should shoulder all responsibility for disturbance-related risks within their jurisdictions is outdated.  The risk is at scales now that are simply too great. Catastrophic wildfires and the corresponding loss of lives, homes, natural resources and other values have continued to grow.   

A new report titled Toward Shared Stewardship across Landscapes: An Outcome-based investment Strategy outlines the Forest Service plans to work more closely with states and Tribes to identify landscape-scale priorities for targeted treatments in areas with the highest payoffs. The Cohesive Strategy is prominently featured in the new strategy concept as a foundation for working with partners and stakeholders to effectively co-manage risk across broad landscapes.  

“The challenges before us require a new approach,” said Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.”

A key component of the new strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest treatments in direct coordination with states and Tribes using the most advanced science tools. Targeted investments are needed at the level of shared landscapes, including partner contributions of resources.  

The concept of an outcome-based investment strategy is ground in assessing risks and tradeoffs. Co-managing fire risk means learning together about firesheds and landscapes around communities, watersheds and other values and choosing the risk reduction strategies with the highest rate of return on investments. The key is to bring stakeholders together to learn about the particular fire risks they face, examine the options for managing them and decide what actions to take. Convening and planning at multiple scales will be crucial. 

The report highlights Scenario Investment Planning based on a new data-driven tool that gives the wildland fire community the ability to manage fire risk across broad landscapes. It will allow for shared stewardship among stakeholders so they can make cross-boundary investments to increase the scope and scale of reducing fire risk and improving forest conditions in way never done before. (See our article on this cutting edge risk assessment that can be used to make these important decisions).

These concepts are not new to the Cohesive Strategy which makes three key assumptions that underlie meaningful reduction in risk:

  1. Prioritization of investment and use of resources - existing resources are used more efficiently, perhaps requiring reallocation of resources across agencies, areas or programs. 
  2. Acceptance of increased short-term risk - wildland fire is used as a tool, which carries inherent risks that must be considered in the short-term to achieve longer-term benefits.
  3. Greater collective investment - all who have a stake in the fire outcomes share the costs and level of effort necessary to redeem responsibilities for reducing risks.
Through shared stewardship, the Forest Service, States, Tribes and other partners have unprecedented opportunities to co-manage fire risk and achieve positive outcomes at the most appropriate scales. The keys will be working with partners to convene stakeholders for planning at fireshed and landscape scales, using scenario investment planning as a tool for assessing risk, evaluating tradeoffs and managing risk through targeted investments in areas with the highest payoffs. The Forest Service envisions outcomes that include resilient fire adapted landscapes, flourishing fire adapted human communities and fewer responder injuries and deaths.   

The report is a beginning, a recognized opportunity for reducing fire risk and improving forest conditions by enhancing the entire wildland fire system. Fully developing and deploying the concept will take time. It will be up to the partners and stakeholders, working together to decide what the strategy looks like on the ground and what tools to use. We need shared approaches, the report contends, at the scale of the challenges we face, using shared resources and the right kinds of investments in the right places. The wildland fire system can be improved by joining with partners and stakeholders to make smart choices about where we work and investments that can truly make a difference at an all-lands scale.  

Read full press release here. Read the full report here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Can "Moneyball" Fix How the West Manages Wildfire?

In a sobering look back at the last five decades of fire management, author Tony Schick outlines the conundrums facing fire managers today and asks, can 'Moneyball' fix how the west manages wildfires?  

The history and science is clear - fires on the landscape in the right place, at the right time, can deliver a wealth of benefits including improved forest resiliency and health, and reduced fuel buildup in forests that contribute to larger, more destructive fires. The problem is people. More homes, water sources and infrastructure in historically fire-prone environments have contributed to the ongoing decisions to actively suppress most fires (over 99% of all fires last year). Socially and politically, the decisions to manage a fire for the benefits it provides to the landscape and the community, are not supported. When a fire burns a long time, envelops cities in smoke, threatens people and homes, decision-makers take heat from politicians and the public over why they weren't stopped sooner. This, says Schick, results in a destructive feedback loop that leads to worsening fire outcomes. 

"The uncertainty and societal pressure lead many fire managers to being risk-averse and thinking that suppression is the safest decision," said Dave Calkin, economist and research forester with the US Forest Service. 

Fire managers are in a ridiculously tough spot here. If we are going to make meaningful progress towards more resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities and a safer, more effective wildfire response, we must address the hard truth of risk and be willing to take some short-term risk for the long-term gain.

US Forest Service researchers are now sharing a cutting-edge, wildfire risk assessment that can bring data-driven decision-making to wildland fire management. The researchers call their work 'Moneyball for fire,' referencing the 2003 book chronicling the Oakland Athletics' attempt to outsmart richer baseball teams by using advanced statistics.

 "Pick your spots to re-introduce burning and maybe that 100,000 acre megafire won't seem so devastating," said Matt Thompson, who along with Calkin, authors much of the Forest Service's work on the subject. 
"Those extreme events are still going to happen. But maybe if we capitalize more when things are moderate, we can at least dampen their impact," Thompson added. This will require a tolerance for risk and a willingness to trust the process - something the Cohesive Strategy insists is required to make meaningful progress towards more resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities. 

The risk assessments of Oregon and Washington (seen in the map above) are the broadest use of these wildfire analytics so far. Fire managers can now use it to target fuels treatments and help prioritize where to put resources. Soon, Calkin's team will match that effort with calculations of where suppression efforts are likeliest to succeed. They can then design the ideal response to a fire depending on when and where it happens. 

This scenario investment planning tool will help fire managers make the tough decisions about when and where to appropriately use prescribed and unplanned fire. Their use will also help build a greater tolerance for risk and a willingness to accept short-term risks to break the harmful feedback loop and reduce the potential of future megafires. 

During fire season the Forest Service will be experimenting with on-call analytic teams to provide relevant risk data to assist incident commanders in their decision-making. We'll be watching to see the results. Stay tuned.  

Sunday, July 8, 2018

New Tool Allows Oregon Residents and Land Managers to Track Current Wildfire Risk

Oregon Explorer. Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry
The Oregon Department of Forestry recently released the Advanced Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer, a new tool that allows residents to track current wildfire risk to their exact location anywhere in the state. The tool uses a variety of data including historical wildfire data, local vegetation and weather. It offers resources as well.  Residents can generate a report specific to their address that shows how much defensible space should be cleared around their homes, wildfire history and local contacts for more information. 

The tool is also intended to provide a data-based risk assessment for planners and forest managers as they prepared for where wildfires are predicted to grow more intense.  

The Cohesive Strategy strongly supports the use of science and technology to help stakeholders achieve landscape resiliency goals, fire adapted communities and a safer, more effective wildfire response.

Test drive the new tool here

Read the full article here

The True Costs of Wildland Fire - Updated 7-9-18

Tubbs Fire aftermath. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle
To "live with wildland fire" is at the core of the Cohesive Strategy vision. But to understand what that truly means for us in the West's fire prone environments, we must understand the full impacts and costs of wildland fire. 

State and federal agencies routinely capture costs and impacts in terms of dollars spent, houses and acres burned and sadly, lives lost. We now know however, that the true costs of wildland fire go far beyond those measurements.

Headwaters Economics approached this issue in their recent study of the Full Community Costs of Wildfire.  In summary, the report suggests:

  • Almost half of the full community costs of wildfire are paid for at the local level, including homeowners, businesses, and government agencies.
  • Many of these costs are due to long-term damages to community and environmental services, such as landscape rehabilitation, lost business and tax revenues, and property and infrastructure repairs.
  • By comparison, our analysis suggests suppression costs comprise around nine percent of total wildfire costs. The remaining costs include short-term expenses, or those costs occurring within the first six months—and long-term damages accruing during many months and years following a wildfire.
  • Communities at risk to wildfires can reduce wildfire impacts and associated costs through land use planning.

Review the Headwaters Economics full report here

In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released their review, Costs and Losses of Wildfire, in November 2017. This report enumerates all possible costs of wildfire management and wildfire-related losses as well as the economic burden of wildfire for the United States. 

The review includes an assessment of costs associated with:

  • preparedness  
  • mitigation
  • fuels management
  • suppression
  • legal and incarceration costs
  • research and development
  • deaths and injuries
  • psychological impacts
  • evacuation
  • structure loss
  • timber loss
  • burned area rehab
  • housing market loss
  • tax base loss

Read the full NIST review here

In April 2010, the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition and Council of Western State Foresters produced a report, The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western US. Using data from case studies of large fires in the 2000s, the report concludes that a range of total wildfire costs are anywhere from 2 to 30 times greater than the reported suppression costs. The report also makes recommendations for continued investment in active forest management, a fire funding fix, and development and implementation of the Cohesive Strategy.

Read the full WFLC/CWSF report here

These reports can be used to help stakeholders better mitigate potential losses and budget for the true costs of fire to avoid the painful trade-offs between fire mitigation and fire suppression. 

Update 7-9-18:

Since we first published this blog piece, Bob Zybach contacted us to share some work on this issue that he and others completed for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in 2009.  Take a look here. It includes a one-page check list that is intended to make initial estimates of total fire costs, and to ultimately be used in conjunction with a more comprehensive ledger for better tracking costs and losses over time. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

2018 Cohesive Strategy Workshop a Huge Success

Second pic: Joe Stutler moderating a panel of State Foresters - Dave Celino, Massachusetts; Darryl Jones, South Carolina, Peter Daugherty, Oregon; Jeff Whitney, Arizona.  Third row:  George Geissler relating the national Cohesive Strategy focus from the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). John Ruhs, NIFC Fire Direction for the BLM. Fourth row: the three regional coordinators for the Cohesive Strategy effort - Larry Mastic (NE), Gary Wood (SE) and Kate Lighthall (W). Photos: Kate Lighthall. 

Over 170 practitioners ranging from national, regional and state leaders to on-the-ground practitioners from across the United States gathered in Reno, NV March 26-29 for a shared learning experience centered around implementation of the Cohesive Strategy. 

The goal of the workshop was to provide a innovative, interactive, learning environment where people can learn from the experiences of others - in terms of success as well as barriers to achievement. With Micro-Talks, hands-on sessions, panel discussions, and an inspiring wrap up from John Ruhs, NIFC Fire Director for the Bureau of Land Management, the Workshop exceeded all our expectations. The program and presentations are archived here. We are looking forward to #CohesiveStrategy2019! Stay tuned for details! More photos and information from the Workshop here. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

WFLC Meets in Colorado Springs - Witnesses Cohesive Strategy Implementation at the Local Level

From top left: Field tour to local children's camp where prescribed fire used immediately adjacent to buildings to reduce risk. 2nd row: subdivision visit to see impacts from 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and community investment since then; Western Governors Association update at WFLC meeting. 3rd row: visit to Colorado Springs Fire Department to learn about local recovery programs; the WFLC meeting. Photos: Kate Lighthall

Members of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council met in June in Colorado Springs, Colorado to view and understand on-the-ground successes that support WFLC priorities and the goals of the Cohesive Strategy. The first day of the meeting included a field tour that highlighted activities based on Cohesive Strategy principles at the local level including prescribed fire, smoke management, wildfire response, competing priorities, post fire recovery and collaboration. The tour showcased how these activities are working to address challenges, opportunities and successes of partners along the Front Range of Colorado where several destructive fires have taken lives and destroyed over 1,000 homes in the last six years.  

The following day, the group convened to hear updates on priority issues and national legislation from Western Governors Association, the Intertribal Timber Council, the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, the Council of Western State Foresters and the three Cohesive Strategy Regions.  

WFLC continues to focus on their top priorities provide strategic leadership to their organizations and the Regional Strategy Committees:
  • Work environment  
  • Active Management 
  • Mitigation post fire impacts
  • Integration of technology and data
Through their discussions and viewing of on-the-ground implementation of the Cohesive Strategy, WFLC members and partners gained valuable insight that will continue to set the stage for how local implementation is impacted by policies and directives nationally.

The Wildland Fire Leadership Council is an intergovernmental committee of Federal, state, Tribal, county and municipal government officials convened by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Defense and Homeland Security dedicated to consistent implementation of wildland fire policies, goals and management activities. The Council provides strategic recommendations to help ensure policy coordination, accountability and effective implementation of Federal wildland fire management policy and related long-term strategies through a collaborative environment to help ensure effective and efficient wildfire management, promote fire-adapted communities and create resilient landscapes to achieve long-range benefits for society and nature. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Trans-boundary Wildfire Risk Assessment in Arizona Can Help Determine How Stakeholders Co-Manage Risk

Through a partnership with Arizona Landscape Restoration Partnership, principal investigator Alan Agar and his team have released a case study on trans-boundary wildfire risk that offers a number of newer concepts and methods related to trans-boundary risk governance for the state of Arizona. The methods and results can be used to better define the scale of risk and develop "all-lands" strategies to address drivers that perpetuate wildfire problems. These concepts fit squarely within the context of the Cohesive Strategy.

Risk governance concepts were originally stimulated by trans-boundary risk issues such as floods, pollution, environmental hazards and disease but only recently have been discussed in the context of wildfires. The Arizona case study describes newer risk assessment concepts based on the principle that trans-boundary risk has a spatial and functional scale that is determined by a host of social, institutional, biophysical and ecological factors. Investigators mapped the spatial structure of wildfire risk to Arizona's communities in terms of the amount  of contributing land tenures and then discuss the implications for managing wildfire risk. The results illustrate how this type of risk assessment can facilitate managing wildfire risk at a multi-jurisdictional scale and facilitate dialogues between federal, state and private land management organizations and the communities they impact. 

We are looking forward to learning how Arizona stakeholders utilize this information and additional studies within these concepts across the West. 

Read through full Story Map here.