Wednesday, February 1, 2017

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.  

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