Friday, January 26, 2018

Summit County Colorado Adopts New Land Use Regs to Reduce Wildfire Risk

Battling the Peak 2 Fire near Breckenridge, CO in July 2017.  Photo: Hugh Carey,

Summit County in Colorado has adopted new land-use regulations intended to reduce wildfire risk and made major updates to its Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).  
"The Peak Two Fire was a sobering reminder of how real the threat of wildfire is in Summit County," Commissioner Dan Gibbs said in a statement, referring to the July wildfire that burned 80 acres near Breckenridge. "We're very fortunate that the fire didn't make its way into our neighborhoods, but we have to be proactive in taking concrete steps to reduce our exposure to those types of risks."
Amendments to the Land Use and Development Code include new requirements for assessing wildfire hazards and potential mitigation measures when updating master plans and as part of any new rezoning, planned unit development or subdivision application.
New landscaping regulations also set requirements for creating defensible space, or areas around a structure thinned of vegetation to create firebreaks.  
"We wanted to ensure that the Countywide Comprehensive Plan, the Basin Master Plans, the Land Use and Development Code and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan all speak the same language and are aligned with one another to support our wildfire mitigation efforts," Summit County Senior Planner Lindsay Hirsh said.
The Cohesive Strategy is an "all hands, all lands" approach which means that stakeholders at all levels can do their part to help reduce risk.  In this case, we applaud the County Commissioners in Summit County to do what they can to help their communities become more resilient and fire-adapted in their fire-prone environment. 
Read the full article here

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Integrating TEK and World Renewal Ceremonies into Fire Adaptation

The late LaVerne Glaze, a Karuk basket weaver, harvesting willow, overlooking the Klamath River. Photo: Frank Lake, USDA Forest Service and Karuk Tribe.

Bill Tripp, Karuk Tribal member and Deputy Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization for the Tribe's Department of Natural Resources shares his experiences in a recent FAC Network blog with using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to identify priorities for land management projects.

The Karuk Tribe's Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and belief systems are constructed and preserved through stories, practices and interactions with the natural world. Rooted in northern California, members of the Karuk Tribe celebrate a number of rituals including World Renewal Ceremonies. These ceremonies are a key part of their community's social fabric. They align the Karuk culture with ecosystem process and function. In their world view, cultural resources have a life and each life deserves consideration when planning projects, including fire adaptation projects.
The Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, a forest restoration partnership that the Karuk Tribe co-leads (and one of the original Cohesive Strategy funded projects), references these ceremonies when identifying which resources and species to prioritize when making land management plans and decisions.
The Partnership began with a narrow focus on five species: willow, the Pacific fisher, the northern spotted owl, Roosevelt elk, and the Pacific giant salamander. Each for the their own reasons, the Partnership considers these habitat and ecosystem needs when prioritizing restoration projects.  
Traditional burning is an important eco-cultural practice for the Karuk Tribe and is a valuable part of the restoration process.  Rather than thinking about "ecosystem services that benefit humans," they prioritize "human services that benefit ecosystems."  In this way, the Partnership can consider the species' habitat, wildfire issues and human usage of the landscape when planning restoration projects.
For more about the five species and their specific roles within the TEK approach to restoration planning, click here

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

There is No "NO-FIRE" Option

Photo by McNair Evans

At the recent Cohesive Strategy meeting in New Mexico, I heard several of our members say the time has come for people to understand that there is no longer a "no-fire" option.  Equally as true, there is no "no-smoke" option either. 

In a recent article by Zach St. George, he shares a detailed account of California's fire history and the sobering reality that as a society we must understand there is a need to return fire to the landscape in order to avoid the catastrophic results of fire and smoke we are experiencing now.  

Holding up the 2017 fire season as a vision of the future, St. George says, many are arguing for a change in tactics in the long war against fire. Full fire suppression is not the answer. 

In suppressing fire, we have only made a trade, swapping more frequent, less dangerous fires for less frequent, more dangerous fire. It's time to trade back. 

Not an easy task however, thanks to expanding population growth into areas once frequented by small, helpful fires. While using prescribed fires to treat landscapes is gaining more support,  smoke from these fires, even if it's less of an impact than wildfire smoke, is still hotly contested by the public and air regulatory agencies.  

Still, there is no "no-smoke" choice either. In support of this reality, the US Forest Service (Region 5) and Sierra Forest Legacy signed an MOU in which they agreed to "increase public education and awareness in support of ecologically sensitive and economically efficient vegetation management activities, including prescribed fire, forest thinning and other fuel treatment projects." Following their lead, 22 other parties joined the memorandum including Cal Fire, the National Park Service, the BLM, the Sierra Club and several regional air quality management boards.  

Mr. St. George notes, "with the aftermath of prescribed fire on one side and fire suppression on the other, it seems like an easy choice...capable of righting many of the wrongs of fire suppression."

An easy choice yes, but implementation of a widespread prescribed fire program will take years. Cal Fire aims to treat 20,000 of its 31 million acres within its responsibility area, and more into the future.  This is a drastic improvement over years of burning only 2-3,000 acres, but it regularly burned 60,000+ acres as recently as the 1980s. Baby steps. 

The Cohesive Strategy is a strong supporter of returning fire to the landscape where possible as part of an all hands, all lands approach to changing the devastating trajectory we are on. 

Read St. George's full article here.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Transparent Communication is NOT an Option

Dave Lasky, now a module lead at Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module.  Photo: Mike Caggiano, Colorado State University.  

In the FAC Net's new blog series, Fantastic Failures, Dave Lasky bravely shares the painful lessons learned from his experiences with pre-fire mitigation efforts and the devastating 2010 Four Mile Canyon Fire on Colorado's Front Range. The lessons are extremely valuable and worth sharing.  

Mr. Lasky details his past efforts as a fire and fuels crew boss and the over 600 acres treated within what became the Four Mile Canyon Fire perimeter. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent to remove hazardous fuels in the area with the intent to reduce fire severity and protect homes. 

The fire burned 6,181 acres and consumed 162 homes. Following the fire Senator Mark Udall commissioned a study to determine if previous fuels treatments had meaningfully prevented structure loss. The study answered that question with a resounding NO - years of work had not significantly reduced structure loss.  In his words, Mr. Lasky was left feeling "about two inches tall."

So what did he learn?

Doing something is NOT better than doing nothing. They cut fewer trees than they should have, just to accomplish "something," hoping that communities would allow them to reenter and accomplish more. Now he is interested in applying limited resources to only those communities that are fully committed. 

It's NOT just about cutting trees in the WUI. In retrospect, Lasky says, "we spent far too much money on fuels reduction and not enough on assisting residents with fire resistant building materials and landscaping." Embers from nearby fire were the cause of structure losses.

Mitigation is an ongoing process, NOT an event. Reducing fuels along roadways proved ineffective without routine maintenance of the grass that grew in the absence of the trees. The fuel breaks did not hold. 

Treatments are NOT complete until prescribed fire is introduced. Cutting trees and leaving slash piles without funding to promptly burn them is not mitigation but simply rearranging the fuels into a potentially more hazardous situation. Theirs created ladders to the tree canopy and in some cases allowed for flaming logs to roll downhill jeopardizing firefighters.

Transparent communication is NOT optional. In an era of climate change and commensurate extreme fire behavior, Lasky says, "we have an ethical responsibility to be more forthcoming with residents about the limits of risk reduction". He compares mitigation now to airbags in a car. "Airbags can save lives but if you drive into a telephone pole at 90 miles an hours, airbags won't do much." 

For more on Mr. Lasky's valuable lessons learned, read the full blog post here.  And if you're interested, the full report on the Four Mile Canyon Fire can be found here

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Wildfires - The Answer

Photo by Matt Howard

Bob Roper, retired Nevada State Forester and retired Ventura County Fire Chief has put his 40+ years of experience on the table in his recent essay: Wildfires - The Answer.  Jim Peterson, the editor of Evergreen Magazine calls it, "a brutally honest assessment of the underlying and still unresolved problems associated with the West's wildfire crisis," and praises Roper saying "he has artfully lanced a festering boil the political classes continue to ignore."

We like it because Chief Roper, a long-time participant in the development and implementation of the Cohesive Strategy, offers a series of plausible actions that can be taken by all levels of government (federal, state and local) in addition to efforts by non-governmental agencies and the public, to make meaningful progress beyond simply calling for another "blue ribbon" study to analyze the problem.

Within the context of the Cohesive Strategy, Roper calls on stakeholders to take actions that will have meaningful impact on the issue including:

  • Revision of EPA standards to allow for more controlled fires,
  • Streamlining of the environmental review process,
  • Development of a firefighting funding source for federal fire agencies that does not rob prevention and mitigation funding,
  • Development and enforcement of building standards and practices in fire-prone areas,
  • Creation and enforcement of defensible space programs,
  • Greater emphasis on personal responsibility,
  • and more.

Read his complete list of actions and full essay here

Monday, October 30, 2017

Forest Service and Arizona Nature Conservancy Partner for Future Forests - A New Approach to Reducing Risk

The Four Forest plan — or 4FRI — was intended to thin 1 million acres over 20 years within a 2.4 million-acre expanse stretching roughly from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico along the Mogollon Rim.

In Arizona, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) was, and still is, a shining example of the Cohesive Strategy in action. Collaborative stakeholder agreements led to NEPA success and an ambitious plan to thin one million acres over 20 years across the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab, and Tonto National Forests. A variety of issues however, have plagued and severely stalled the implementation of the project.  

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the US Forest Service have launched a program called Future Forest to search for ways of thinning forests faster and more profitably. 

The program represents a new approach to an old problem. TNC will invest in the program and work with the Forest Service to thin thousands more acres each year. Increasing efficiency is part of the goal, even it means rewriting thinning and clearing contracts between the Forest Service and loggers. 

The Future Forest program will explore why the original 4FRI contractor has struggled under its contract and look for ways to draft future contracts differently. 

Their plan includes contracting with Campbell Global to thin 20,000 acres of forest in four years using an approach that leaves antiquated processes behind and focuses on what the public values now - a restored acre rather than an individual tree.  

The Future Forest program could increase efficiency by leaving timber on the forest floor for longer to dry it out and lighten truckloads, or by using tablet software to mark trees that loggers shouldn't cut. Patrick Graham, Director of the Arizona Nature Conservancy said he wants to see acres of thinning increase to over 50,000 per year.  

The Cohesive Strategy is supportive of efforts to identify issues and find collaborative solutions that increase the pace and scale of restoring forests and landscapes.  

To read more about the troubled 4FRI project and this new approach, click here 

New Study the First to Map Escape Routes for Firefighters from the Air

Mapped potential escape routes.  Photo: Michael Campbell

Before battling the flames, firefighters identify areas where they can retreat, and designate the best escape routes to get from the fire line to those safety zones. Currently firefighters make these decisions on the ground, using expert knowledge of fire behavior and assessing their ability to traverse a landscape. Recently, a University of Utah-led study has developed a mapping tool that coud one day help fire crews make crucial safety decisions with and eagle's eye view. 

The new study is the first attempt to map escape routes for wildland firefighters from an aerial perspective. The researchers used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to analyze terrain slop, ground surface roughness and vegetation density in a fire-prone region of Utah. The study also addressed how each landscape condition impeded a person's ability to travel. 

The study used volunteers to time themselves walking along paths that the researchers designed to capture a variety of slopes, ground surface roughness, and vegetation densities. Photo: Michael Campbell.

"Firefighters have a great sense for interactions between fire and landscape conditions. We hope to offer them an extra tool using information collected on a broad scale," says lead author Michael Campbell, doctoral candidate in the University of Utah's Department of Geography. 

By plugging in the effect of slope, ground surface roughness and vegetation density on travel rates into a route-finding algorithm, Campbell successfully identified the most efficient routes for thousands of simulations.

Currently, firefighters base their decisions on ground-level information using fire safety protocols such as the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG). These guidelines recommend avoiding steep slopes, dense vegetation and rough ground when designating an escape route.  

"Using LiDAR information, we were able to turn it from these subjective judgement calls into something more robust and quantitative," adds Campbell. 

The Cohesive Strategy supports the use of emerging technology like this that can help make the firefighting effort safer, more efficient and more effective.