Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Record Year for Controlled Burns by The Nature Conservancy

Prescribed fire on Loup Farm in Oregon.  Photo: Jason Houston.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is celebrating a record year for controlled burns in 2016, helping to restore forests, protect water and safeguard communities. 

TNC led controlled burns on 154,577 acres in 2016, surpassing their yearly average of 118,000.  Completed in close coordination with fire departments, government agencies and neighbors, TNC achieves dual purposes with controlled burns - restoring forest health and enhancing community safety by reducing flammable fuels, thereby reducing the likelihood of devastating fires. 

A great partner in the Cohesive Strategy, The Nature Conservancy is proving that more private landowners and the public are receptive to controlled burning as a means to create resilient landscapes and protection communities and firefighters. Congratulations!! 


Cultural Burning on the Sierra Nevada for Everyone's Benefit

For thousands of years, California Indians used fire as a tool for managing natural resources. Throughout the state, Native peoples conducted cultural burns on a wide range of plants. Their fire regimes created diverse habitat mosaics that sustained meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The careful application of fire increased fruit and seed production, caused new growth that was better suited for making baskets, and reduced the fuel load that could be burned by naturally occurring wildfires. 

But starting with the Spanish conquest and continuing today in the form of Forest Service and CalFire policies, fire suppression has drastically limited cultural burning. As a result, the forest has become incredibly dense and we are now facing a situation in the Sierra Nevada where drought is causing many trees to die. This massive tree mortality has brought the forest to a tipping point, where large scale wildfires threaten to alter the Sierra forests permanently. 

This video explores how cultural burning is being practiced today and what lessons it holds for the future of the forest.  The scene is an area just south of Yosemite National park where the North Fork Mono Tribe and the Cold Springs Rancheria Tribes are working to bring fire back to the land for everyone's benefit.  

Please take a moment and watch this video and share it with your networks, teachers and communities. 


Wildfire Evolution Forces US Forest Service into New Thinking

Jim Hubbard, Deputy Chief, US Forest Service, Retired.  Photo: Tommy Martino

Jim Hubbard spent 11 years as Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation for the US Forest Service and 20 years as Colorado's State Forester.  He's no stranger to the challenges facing land and fire management agencies. Speaking recently at the annual Mike and Mabelle Hardy Fire Management Lecture in Missoula, Montana, Hubbard discussed some of those challenges and the new thinking that is necessary now to address them. 

“We haven’t defined our performance-based outcomes yet,” Hubbard told the audience at the Lecture. That doesn’t mean picking a number of acres cleared of hazardous fuels or logged each year. It does mean setting out bigger goals for what risks are worth taking, whose interests are at stake, and what actions are even possible. That involves things as basic as having up-to-date maps showing where houses have been built, where old-growth tree stands remain and where forest activities are planned.
“We need to know what areas to protect, what places are less important,” Hubbard said. “If everything is wildland-urban interface, you can’t make suppression decisions. You need to hear from the community, the county commissioners, the sheriff. Because we don’t want to use unnecessary exposure (of firefighters) that won’t get the results we’re after.”

Hubbard referenced “unplanned wildfire management.” That seemingly self-contradictory phrase is also known as "managed wildfire for resource benefit." If the conditions are right, district rangers can take advantage of the wildfire by deciding to monitor it, "herd" it around, and let it accomplish some resource goals.  For example, if a low-intensity wildfire runs through an area slated for a hazardous-fuels reduction burn, that is one less project the district has to pay for.
Nobody wants to appear to gamble with public safety, even though Hubbard pointed out every time someone drives a car, they gamble on avoiding wrecks. Allowing more prescribed burns might mean days of smoke in a city’s airshed during the spring or fall. But it might also mean fewer months of smoke during the summer if those small burns lessen the risk of bigger wildfires.
“If we don’t manage unplanned wildfires, we can’t get ahead of land treatment,” Hubbard said. “You’re going to fight fire a little differently in the future. You have to have buy-in.”
See full article here

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Payson, Arizona Town Council Redeems Its Responsibility for Risk Reduction

Before (top) and after (bottom) Firewise clean up. Photo: Payson Fire Department. 

"All who have a stake in the outcome, from individual property owners to the federal, state, Tribal and local governments, must share the costs and level of effort necessary to redeem responsibilities for reducing risks posed by wildfire," reads the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy (page 57).   

The Town Council in Payson, Arizona is redeeming its responsibility for risk reduction in a move to protect the town from the negative impacts of wildfire. The Council unanimously voted to move forward with adopting a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) code, which will impact both new construction and landscaping of existing homes.   

Three years earlier, the culture of the former Council did not support regulatory options as a proactive approach to dealing with the wildfire readiness of their community.  The culture in Payson is changing however with many individuals engaging in Firewise activities to address the well-known risks of wildfire in Rim County - dry forests, dead fuels, hot summers and the 2nd highest frequency of lightning strikes in the US. 

Payson's Fire Chief David Staub thinks entire neighborhoods are losing out based on the inaction of a few. Neighbors who choose not to reduce hazardous fuels on their property create threats to firefighter safety, which in turn, leads to fire department decisions to skip those streets in favor of more defensible neighborhoods.  "Everyone else on that road is impacted by the choice of some folks," says Chief Staub. 

It's these realities that have led the Town Council to press for a WUI code. Lowering the risk of catastrophic loss from wildfire is not a simple, easy or quick task, but it is worth it. Stay tuned for updates!

Read more about what will be included in the proposed WUI code in the full article here

Managed Wildfires a Mixed Success - Suggests Managers Need to Accept Short-Term Risk for Long-Term Restoration Benefits

Coconino National Forest.  Photo: Tom Brown, USFS
The American Southwest is no stranger to managed fire.  We've highlighted many successes in Arizona and New Mexico in the past few years where unplanned ignitions have given fire managers ripe opportunities to take advantage of "the right conditions" to allow fire to achieve forest restoration goals.  

Scientists at Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute examined how well these “managed wildfires” restore healthy, historic conditions to ponderosa pine forests. Their study focused on ten large burn areas on the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests and found that moderate-severity fires met two-thirds (67%) of the restoration goals (restoring tree density and canopy cover to historic conditions) while low-severity fires were not as effective, yet dominated the burn areas.  Overall, effectiveness of resource objective fires for meeting restoration objectives was 42%.  

Results suggested that effectiveness may be increased by managing for proportionally more moderate burn severity on these landscapes.  For this, managers will be required to accept greater risk in terms of escaped fires and high-severity fire, which, in turn, will necessitate increasing public awareness of the potential benefits and limitations of managing wildfires for restoring ponderosa pine ecosystems.  

The Cohesive Strategy set three overall goals: Resilient Landscapes, Fire Adapted Communities and a Safe, Effective, Risk-Based Wildfire Response. Goal setting was not the end of the strategy however.  It also recognizes that the pathway to achieving those goals, although not easy or simple, must be paved with three necessary assumptions:

  1. Acceptance of increased short-term risk. Significantly reducing fuels across broad landscapes will require expanded use of wildland fire to achieve management objectives. Using fire as a tool carries inherent risks that must be considered in the short-term to achieve longer-term benefits.
  2. Prioritization of investments and resources. Reducing risk will require that existing resources are used more efficiently. This may require a reallocation of resources across agencies, geographical areas or program areas. 
  3. Greater collective investment. Even with greater efficiency and acceptance of short-term risk, current levels of investment may be inadequate to achieve the levels of risk reduction desired. All those who have a stake in the outcome, from individual property owners to federal, state, Tribal and local governments, must share the costs and level of effort necessary to redeem responsibilities for reducing the costs posed by wildfire. 

Read more here. And read the highlights from the study here.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

All Lands, All Hands Approach for Western Governors

Oregon Governor Kate Brown.  Photo: Western Governors Association

Governors from around the West met yesterday in Bend, OR to discuss Western Governors Association's (WGA) National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.  
"Federal public lands account for 60 percent of the total forest lands in Oregon, and we foster strong partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service, local and tribal communities, the forest products industry and conservation interests," Oregon Governor Kate Brown said.
"By taking an 'all-lands, all-hands' approach and working together across jurisdictional boundaries, we can support healthy communities, sustain robust rural economies and preserve our natural resources for future generations," Governor Brown added. 

Watch Governor Brown's speech, as well as a keynote by U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon

Between Two Fires: Lessons Learned in Washington

These homes rebuilt after the 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire and survived the 2016 Highway 10 Fire. Photo: Kittitas County Fire & Rescue #7

In August 2012, the Taylor Bridge Fire along Highway 10 near Cle Elum, Washington burned 23,500 acres, destroying 61 homes and multiple outbuildings. The fire was driven by gusty winds and fueled by sagebrush, grass and trees.  

Four years laters in July 2016, the Highway 10 Fire ignited along the same stretch of road. The fire was wind-blown and initially threatened five homes on a steep slope – homes that had been destroyed by the Taylor Bridge Fire in 2012 and had since been rebuilt.  Firefighters were able to stage structure engines to protect each home, while wildland crews fought the flames. This fire burned 40 acres along Highway 10, no buildings were destroyed, and it was contained in hours rather than days.

In a recent blog post by Russ Hobbes, retired Fire Chief, and Carolyn Berglund, Public Education Officer, at Kittitas County Fire & Rescue #7, tell a compelling story about the lessons learned from the 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire and how their new proactive approach was tested successfully in the 2016 Highway 10 Fire. 

Rebuilt home after the Taylor Bridge Fire using fire resistant materials
and following Firewise principles. Photo KCFR#7
In 2012, fuels on the landscape, building construction and vegetation in the immediate areas surrounding the threatened homes were factors in the loss of structures in the Taylor Bridge Fire.  After being destroyed in that fire, the homes were rebuilt to the standards of Kittitas County’s new Wildland Urban Interface Code using fire resistant materials.  Homeowners also followed Firewise principles around their homes and neighborhoods. The 2016 Highway 10 Fire burned up to and around structures, yet no structures were lost or damaged. 

This is a great demonstration of a county and local residents taking responsibility for preparing themselves for wildland fire. The Cohesive Strategy strongly encourages preparedness activities at the local level by homeowners and neighborhoods as well as the development of local codes and ordinances that set building standards that lessen the risk of loss to homes from wildfire.  

Read full story here.