Increases in wildfire activity are well documented across the western United States. Data illustrates that the number of large fires and “acreage burned annually” have substantially increased in recent years. In the past decade, nearly every western state has experienced a rise in the number of large wildfires when compared to historical averages. Western states have seen an increase in both the length and severity of the annual fire season. Recent data shows an additional 78 days have been added to the western fire season since 1986.The number of acres burned in the U.S. during the 2016-2017 fire season was the second highest since reliable records have been kept. Since official records began, the eight years with the largest area burned by wildfire all occurred within the last 15 years. 2017 represents the most expensive firefighting season on record for the U.S. Forest Service, with over $2 billion spent on fire suppression activity. The 2017 wildfire season was the most destructive season on record in California, with 10,800 structures lost and 46 fatalities. The record number of fatalities and large amount of smoke produced during the 2017 fire season have brought increasing national attention to the issue of wildfire prevention and the potential role of changing climatic conditions. This article explores some of the current tools to prevent the spread of wildfire and proposals to increase their effectiveness. For more information or assistance in the development of strategies and planning around fire issues, please contact Myles Conway.
Rising Temperatures and Large Scale “Mega-fires”
Evidence shows that a number of factors contribute to the continued growth of western wildfires. Warmer and drier weather patterns contribute to longer fire seasons and more “mega-fires.” Warmer temperatures decrease humidity and increase the flammability of the trees and plants that fuel wildfires. Lower moisture levels in vegetation allow fires to burn more rapidly and with increased intensity. A rise in annual temperature also impacts the annual pattern of snowmelt, affecting both the duration and severity of the wildfire season. Climatic changes have created higher spring time temperatures that advance the timing of snowmelt and the annual “green up” of vegetation. Warmer temperatures result in more frequent and severe fires that are far more difficult to control or suppress. Higher temperatures also influence the frequency, magnitude and extent of drought. Frequent droughts induce stress on vegetation, creating increased susceptibility to insects and disease. Higher temperatures can also result in changes in lightning and thunderstorm patterns that increase fire ignition rates.
Record levels of precipitation during the 2016-2017 winter season supported the significant growth and expansion of fire fuels throughout the western states. In southern California, the combination of additional spring vegetation, dry summer weather patterns and the high wind speeds associated with annual Santa Ana wind patterns (with gusts of over 100 mph) resulted in severe fire conditions that could not be controlled by firefighters. The significant smoke and atmospheric particles released from burned areas during the 2016-17 fire season resulted in increased air pollution, creating health concerns and impacting municipal water supplies.
In addition to climatic forces, current fire conditions are exacerbated by over a hundred years of effective fire suppression activities that have led to dense and overgrown forested areas throughout the west. The U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) adopted a strong policy of fire suppression beginning as early as 1920. Fire suppression policies were initially effective in controlling wildfire. Over time, the excessive loading of forest fuels has resulted in larger, hotter and more intensive “stand-replacement” fires that are now far more difficult and costly to control. Federal, state and local land managers have initiated aggressive efforts to treat and control the “over-stocked” forest fuels that facilitate the growth and spread of fire. However, the effectiveness of ongoing fuel treatment programs is severely constrained by the volume of land in need of treatment and the limited financial resources available to complete this labor-intensive work. Fuels treatment activities (including both mechanical clearing and prescribed burns) are further hampered by regulatory challenges and lawsuits, particularly in areas around urban centers where such activities are most needed.
Current Strategy – Fuels Management and Community Planning
Federal, state and local fire managers have long recognized the ongoing need to treat and manage forest fuels in connection with efforts to prevent the growth and spread of wildfire. Planning efforts within the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior (DOI) are governed by the “Cohesive Fuels Treatment Strategy” which has three primary objectives: (1) to develop landscapes across all jurisdictions that are resilient to fire related disturbances; (2) to create fire-adapted communities where human populations and infrastructure can withstand a wildfire without loss of life and property; and (3) to provide for safe and effective wildfire response with all jurisdictions participating to make and implement safe, effective and efficient risk-based wildlife management decisions. This joint strategy recognizes the scope of the overstocked fire-fuels problem, initially estimating that over 180 million acres of federal land were at risk from unusually severe wildfires. Areas across the western U.S. have been provided with a national prioritization for broad scale fuels management activities, focused on particular counties with the highest level of wildfire, fire-adapted natural vegetation and communities located within the wildland landscape.
The construction of homes and buildings on privately owned lands located in or near heavily forested and other wildland areas (commonly referenced as the “Wildland-Urban Interface” or “WUI”) impedes federal wildfire planning efforts. Studies show that wildfire protection costs in developed WUI areas far exceed the cost of controlling fires on undeveloped wildlands. The concentration of limited fire-fighting assets to protect structures in developed WUI areas can divert limited federal funds and resources to the detriment of other fire prone areas. Significant expenditures to protect homes in developed WUI areas can leave federal agencies with inadequate funds to complete much needed fire planning and fuel treatment work. In addition, the presences of private home sites in forested areas creates higher costs for necessary fuels reduction efforts. Fuels treatment programs designated for WUI areas are subject to additional public process and scrutiny. Affected residents often appeal or delay planned fuels treatment work or demand additional screening and buffer areas that can decrease the effectiveness of fire planning efforts. The use of prescribed burning (recognized as one of the most effective fuels treatment strategies) is significantly constrained in developed WUI areas. Residents frequently oppose the use of prescribed burns because of concerns with safety and smoke. When prescribed burns are authorized, additional resources must be expended to prevent the spread of fire into developed areas. These factors result in an overall net increase in the cost of fire fuels mitigation projects.
The development and implementation of “Community Wildfire Protection Plans” (Protection Plans) are the primary tool used to protect fire-prone WUI communities. Under this program, individual WUI communities are required to prepare Protection Plans to address wildfire response, hazard mitigation, community protection and structural protection. The planning process allows WUI communities to clarify and refine specific priorities for the protection of life, property and critical infrastructure. Communities are encouraged to consider the implications of management options on surrounding areas and watersheds. Individual community plans are developed in collaboration and consultation with the federal government and other interested parties. The Protection Plan must identify and prioritize areas for hazardous fuel reduction treatments and recommend the types and methods of treatment that will protect at-risk WUI communities and their critical infrastructure. The Protection Plan process provides local communities with considerable influence over how and where federal agencies implement fuel reduction projects on federal lands, as well as where federal funds are distributed for fire protection on non-federal lands. Plans protect community assets in WUI areas by reducing flammable vegetation, creating fuel breaks between populated and forested areas and upgrading building construction standards.
Thousands of communities around the country have developed and implemented coordinated plans through the Protection Plan process.Research indicates the Protection Plan process has successfully engaged residents and stakeholders to cooperatively address the risk and spread of wildfire. This process permits communities to develop plans that are specific to the needs of an individual community. Evidence demonstrates that collaborative planning efforts have strengthened communications and united private and public stakeholders in partnerships to reduce fire risk.
While the Protection Plan model has been widely accepted and proved beneficial in many instances, WUI communities continue to face escalating fire risks. Evidence demonstrates that large fires have continued to burn into areas that have been treated according to an approved Protection Plan. Significant and continuing fire losses in areas where communities have expended significant financial and planning resources in the Protection Plan process indicate that additional steps are needed.
Trump Administration Efforts
The Trump Administration has taken a series of steps intended to combat the spread of catastrophic fire. Before the 2017 fire season, the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Interior issued a joint memorandum to agency directors, emphasizing operational efficiency, fire fighter safety and the integration of science and technology into the agency decision making processes. In September 2017, Secretary Zinke issued his “Wildland Fire Directive” instructing the Department of Interior to adopt more aggressive practices to prevent and combat the spread of fire through increased fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques. This directive focuses on the accumulation of fire fuels on the public lands and the need for more intensive and targeted fuel treatment strategies. Agency staff are directed to address the threat of fire in all agency programs and to prioritize fuels treatment activities. If staff are not available to address identified fire threats, public land managers are instructed to contract with “capable resource managers in the private sector.” The Zinke memorandum instructs the agency not to accept the growth of fire as the “new normal” and to think differently about how forest fuels reduction activities can be integrated into all agency activities. Federal land managers are instructed to use existing policies more aggressively and to look for opportunities to partner with state and local governments, tribes and private landowners to maximize available resources. This memorandum follows an earlier directive by Secretary Zinke to identify and implement revisions to the agency’s land-use planning and environmental review process. The Trump Administration contends that the frequent delays, appeals and complications associated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process impede or prohibit the federal government from completing the aggressive fire fuels reduction efforts needed to combat the spread of wildfire. As a result, efforts to revise and streamline the NEPA review process are an integral part of the administration’s wildfire prevention strategy. In addition to these efforts, the 2018 budget provides for increases in federal funding for agency fire-fighting efforts, funding both the Forest Service and BLM at 100% of their respective ten-year averages. The increases in funding for fire-fighting allows the federal agencies to preserve funds previously allocated for land and wildfire management activities.
Critics of the Trump Administration argue that such efforts are insufficient to address the growing threat of catastrophic wildfire. Opponents contend that efforts to streamline the NEPA process are intended to defeat environmental protections on the public lands and to increase logging activity for the benefit of the timber industry. They contend the Trump Administration is ignoring the fundamental impact of climate change and that an increased focus on fire fuels reduction activity on federal land is not sufficient to counter the impact of a warming climatic conditions.
Expansion of Current Planning Model
It is widely accepted that aggressive fire fuels treatment is an essential component of any wildfire protection strategy. The outstanding question is whether additional fuels treatment efforts are sufficient to address the increasing threat of catastrophic fires that has resulted from recent climatic conditions. A 2015 study conducted by USDA staff evaluates how the current fire planning process could be modified to address the “mega-fires” that are increasingly threatening homes and communities in the western U.S. The 2015 study identifies a number of significant gaps in the current Protection Planning process and the additional tools and analysis necessary to address the escalating fire risks to WUI areas.
First, the study contends that the planning boundaries currently used in the Protection Plan process are inadequate and should be significantly expanded. Current planning boundaries extend only a few miles from a designated WUI community. The study argues this limited and artificial boundary is not adequate to account for the risk created by mega-fires. Large fires travel over 30 miles through a wide range of land ownerships, jurisdictional boundaries and forest fuels before reaching a designated community boundary. As a result, planning boundaries should be expanded to include all of the lands where fires can be ignited or spread, regardless of ownership and jurisdictional boundaries, designated as the “Fire-shed” in the 2015 study.
Currently, the Protection Plan areas are defined by administrative and political boundaries (fire protection districts, forest boundaries, towns and counties) that are often entirely unrelated to the scope and scale of fire risk. As a result of these artificial boundaries, stakeholders seeking to cooperate and collaborate may not face the same degree or severity of fire risk. The 2015 study argues that Protection Plan boundaries frequently do not identify the specific land managers, landowners and stakeholders that are needed to develop a mitigation plan sufficient to protect a designated WUI area. As a result, the developed plans often fail to prioritize fire mitigation efforts (thinning, fuels reduction, fire breaks) in the specific areas that are most beneficial to limit ongoing fire risks. With significant areas of land in need of fuels reduction and limited available financial resources, it is imperative that future mitigation efforts are targeted in the specific areas that are most beneficial to protect the Fire-shed.
Second, the study contends that computer-based modeling and fire simulations should be used to identify potential ignition and fire transmission sources within the entire Fire-shed area. Advances in risk characterization modeling allow land managers to generate quantitative risk assessments that describe and map the potential risks from larger fires. Computer-based fire simulations can identify the relevant planning area based on the identified risks to a particular community. The 2015 study contends that such fire modeling will result in significantly larger planning areas that are not constrained by ownership patterns or artificial jurisdictional boundaries. The identification of such areas will identify the specific stakeholders that are similarly affected by a large-scale wildfire.
Third, community planning efforts should evaluate both ownership patterns and any legal or operational constraints on mitigation planning within the designated Fire-shed area. The plan should identify areas where mechanical fuel treatments are either prohibited or highly restricted by regulation (including areas of protected lands, wilderness areas and roadless areas). The impact of such restrictions should be considered in the planning process and in the prioritization of future mitigation efforts.
Finally, the study contends community wildfire planning efforts should consider socioeconomic factors. The Protection Plan process currently treats all stakeholders as equal in risk perceptions and ability to mitigate fire risk. In reality, there is a substantial diversity among stakeholders. Planning efforts should consider the risk perceptions of various stakeholders and their financial capacity and willingness to engage in needed mitigation efforts. Limited governmental resources available for wildfire mitigation should be targeted in areas where landowners are unwilling or financially unable to complete such work.
Evidence demonstrates that the frequency and intensity of large scale wildfires continues to increase throughout the western states. While additional fuel reduction efforts are an essential component of any wildfire prevention strategy, the current planning model has not sufficiently addressed the escalating risks created by larger fires. Quantitative risk assessment tools can be used to map and expand the fire risk boundaries that are associated with larger fires. Identifying such boundaries will enable current planning efforts to develop mitigation strategies and to prioritize the limited resources available to combat catastrophic fires.