MISSOULA -- Wildfires and weather share a common problem: We all talk about them, but what can we do about them?
The federal government hopes to answer the wildfire question with a three-year strategy session that’s wrapping up this month. But there’s no guarantee the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy will save an acre of forest. In fact, it might force the nation to decide how much it’s willing to let burn.
“We’ve never done this before, and we’re still trying to work out the details,” former forest supervisor Alan Quan said from his home in Prescott, Ariz. “We’re looking at where are the values we’re protecting? Where are the risks? What would make sense? What areas are best to manage to reduce fire risk to the community? What resources could provide protection?
Quan coordinated the nationwide drafting effort, after Congress’ 2009 FLAME Act got the strategy effort started. On Dec. 15, it enters a last comment period before it becomes a final draft action plan on Feb. 16.
“We’re not down to the level of how many helicopters should we have, but where do we have growth?” Quan said. “Where should these resources be placed?”
The process resembles a city’s efforts to manage its fire department: How many fire stations do we need and where should they be located? Do we need more ladder trucks or haz-mat vehicles? Unfortunately, wildland fire isn’t nearly as well understood as urban fire.
“The scientists aren’t going to say, ‘This is what you need to do,’ ” Quan said. “They’re saying, ‘Tell us what are the questions you want answered.’ And the answers may be so outrageous, it could force another way of thinking.”
The first question: If the country keeps fighting wildfires the way it has been, what will forests look like in 10 or 20 years? The second question: If we don’t like that trend, what would it take to change it?
And the trend looks bad. Last week, Doug Morton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center released results of a new climate model and its implications for wildfire.
The short version of his findings: Extreme fire seasons will become two to four times more frequent in the next 30 or 40 years. Fire seasons like 2012, where 6.17 million acres burned nationwide, may become normal.
That puts even more pressure on deciding what the nation wants to do about fire. Montana has already had five extreme seasons in the past 12 years. As State Forester Bob Harrington puts it, “We’ve already seen the escalation. For maintaining green, forested landscapes, we only have another 10 or 20 years to do anything about it. And Mother Nature is lined up to do something about it if we choose not to.”
State records show Montana has already transformed 35 percent of its forestland by fire or disease in the past 30 years, with the rate of change intensifying in the last 15. Most of the 6 million acres overcome by mountain pine beetles have not burned, but they are likely to.
“It’s probably not going to take another 30 years to affect another 35 percent,” Harrington said. “At the end of another 30 years, 70 percent of our forest will be dead or regenerated and less than 60 years old. They’re going to look different.”
The national strategy suggests three big goals: Restore fire-adapted landscapes. Protect communities. Suppress fire. And it provides three tools: An unprecedented gathering of fire science data. A mapping project to visualize that information throughout the country. And a risk trade-off analysis to make sense of it all.
The data has been piling up for the past three years. The maps have progressed at the same time. The risk analysis should be ready next June.
For Ann Walker at the Western Governors Association, the strategy is a chance to make some practical decisions.
“Everybody has to come to the table,” Walker said. “This is not a partisan issue. We’ve lost lives. We’ve lost homes. We’re not considering wildfire on the same scale as tornados and tsunamis and hurricanes, but we have huge ability to change that path. One key thing we need is to get to a healthy level of active federal forest management.”
One way to do that is to mix more commercial timber cutting into hazardous fuels reduction projects, Walker said. Clearing brush and burning slash doesn’t pay for itself – it must be taxpayer funded. But combining those fire safety projects with sawlog acreage in landscape-scale stewardship contracts could improve the balance sheet.
“We need to do a much higher level of harvesting, and even with the current environmental protections in place we can do that,” Walker said. “There have to be viable commercial timber sales to pay for the rest of the work that needs to be done.”
Improving the market to use slash wood as biomass for airplane fuel would also help, Walker said. So would consolidating the checkerboard ownership of forests that jumbles federal agencies, state governments and private entities in a confused and inefficient management tangle.
Many of those suggestions have found a home in the draft wildfire strategy. They’re also the elements that give environmental advocates like Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan the most heartburn.
For example, the strategy proposes greater use of “categorical exclusions” to speed up large-scale landscape management plans.
“I don’t think this rises to the level of categorical exclusion when we’re talking about big landscapes like this or threatened and endangered species protection,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “Categorical exclusions were for things like painting an outhouse or cleaning a campground. This seems to go beyond that.”
Montgomery said her group was one of several suing the Forest Service for its use of a categorical exclusion to do pre-commercial thinning on 3,600 acres in the Flathead National Forest.
“They didn’t even have maps where the units were so you could find them,” Montgomery said. “If it’s categorically excluded, you wouldn’t find that ever. What if it was in lynx or bull trout habitat? If you’re doing that under the mantra of fire strategy, that’s not good policy.”
Matthew Koehler of the Wild West Institute in Missoula accused the strategy drafters of ignoring calls to put preservation ahead of harvesting.
“I will say that based on the list of people who are part of the Western Community Fire Management Working Group (participants in the strategy’s public review process) there certainly aren’t very many dedicated activists from the forest protection community on the list,” Koehler said in an email. “The list, perhaps with an exception or two, seems more like a group of people who have long since attempted to increase logging of our public lands, decrease citizen oversight and have been critical of most efforts to hold the Forest Service accountable when it comes to law, regulations and science.”
The strategy faces a different kind of challenge in Washington, D.C. As Congress negotiates its way to a new budget, one of the items on the table is a $225 million cut in wildland fire prevention. That cutback would occur as part of the 2013 sequestration if Congress can’t reach a solution by January.
Beyond that, there’s the question of funding all the fuels reduction, community preparedness and research the strategy recommends.
“There are some ways a national strategy translates to solving problems on the ground, but a lot of times they fall short of that,” Harrington said. “It raises the potential for funding for projects. Unfortunately, that’s what it comes down to – getting Congress to reverse funding declines for management of critical landscapes.”
Harrington said places like Seeley Lake are good examples of how a community can plan for its future fire hazards. Especially since the Jocko Lake fire of 2007 singed the town’s edges, residents there have been clearing hazard areas, fireproofing homes and making sure county, state and federal fire agencies know how to work together.
“But some places are still hit-and-miss,” Harrington said. “Some landowners still don’t take the opportunity or understand the need. The Kootenai Creek fire (near Hamilton) this year made people aware of the need for fuels treatment on both private and federal lands.”
In contrast, Harrington has real concerns for the safety of Missoula’s fringes, such as the upper Rattlesnake and Grant Creek neighborhoods and the adjoining forestland.
“You can find a lot of examples there of places that have issues,” Harrington said. “I’m frankly really concerned we’re going to lose the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area to wildfire. It is a pretty special place, and the folks trying to come to agreement on that project couldn’t come to agreement on how to treat the forest along main recreation trails there.”
The strategy may improve those groups’ ability to work together, but it probably won’t change the way an incident commander deploys Hot Shot crews on the next forest fire. It won’t dictate how many aircraft are available for retardant and water drops, but it might clarify how they should be used. And it can’t do anything about how fast the forests are drying out.
“Montana landscapes aren’t resilient,” Harrington said. “There are 6 million acres affected by mountain pine beetle, and that’s a significant forest health issue. Most of our communities aren’t fire adapted. The only place I’d rate us high is efficient and effective wildfire response.”