Firefighters Fine-Tune Forest Management Strategies

Jun 15, 2018  | 7 min  | Ep4343

The Senate Farm Bill contains a Forestry title that pays for, among other things, reducing the fuel that threatens towns, local industry and lives.

Earlier this year, Congress approved the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was designed to prevent the USDA’s Fire Service from having to raid non-fire programs to pay for firefighting.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story.

More than 8,500 firefighters from around the country worked in December of 2017 to battle southern California’s now-infamous Thomas Fire. The blaze devastated nearly 282,000 acres to become the state’s largest wildfire in modern history.

Talbot Hayes, a Forest Service district fire management officer from Alpine, California, traveled 200 miles north to join those battling the massive fire, which ultimately destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses as well as taking two lives. A month later, Hayes returned home and continued his forest-management work to simplify battling wildfires in his assigned district inside the Cleveland National Forest.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “The time to fight tomorrow’s fires is in the winter through prescribed burning and prescribed management fuel strategies.”

The almost-automatic response to wildfires for decades had been to put them out immediately. Greater awareness of the positive and rejuvenating effects of natural fires in forest and prairie regions brought about a shift in strategy to allow fires in more remote areas of the country to burn longer. But, in heavily populated regions where lives and buildings are at risk, Hayes says there are few such opportunities to just let it burn.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “Down here in southern California, that strategy has pretty much stayed the same: We try to suppress all fires, just about 100 percent of all the fires that start due to the values at risk, the amount of people that live down here, the infrastructure in the area….There are other regions, other forest units that have a lot more wilderness, areas farther away from communities and values at risk, and those areas can have slightly different strategies.”

The 2018 fire season is expected to be a tough one as many regions are already tinder dry. New Mexico and Colorado have already faced large catastrophic wildfires that broke out before the traditional start of the fire season.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “We had fire engines sent to Colorado in March this year, which is very uncommon for Colorado to be having fires in March…We are in a dry spell and our local mountains aren’t getting as much snowpack so the vegetation is a lot dryer… All of this contributes to a busier, longer, more devastating fire season.”

According to Hayes, most wildfires in southern California are started by humans, rather than lightning. A spark from a dragging trailer chain or a mower hitting a rock may start a grass fire in the heat of summer.

Jay Eyre, Cleveland National Forest campground host at mile 26 on the Pacific Crest Trail, says hikers need to be aware of fire conditions and comply with fire-prevention rules along the route. Campfires are prohibited outside designated campgrounds, and permits are required to use certain types of camp stoves along the 2,659-mile trail that runs from Mexico to just over the Canadian border.

Jay Eyre, Pacific Crest Trail, trail host volunteer: “They need to stop if there is a forest fire in the area.”

Eyre, a retired school teacher from Montana, says his home state also had a rough fire season last year.

Jay Eyre, Pacific Crest Trail, trail host volunteer: “Last year, there was a big fire in western Montana. A lot of Montana is in high fire danger because of climate change and warmer temperatures and lower snow levels we are seeing. And a few years ago, a huge infest of bark beetles came through so we have a lot of dead and downed trees so there’s more fuel.”

It’s those kind of dead and downed trees, as well as forest undergrowth, that are particularly concerning for Hayes and his crews. Their answer is to cut and mow underbrush, create fire breaks, and use prescribed burns in certain high-risk areas.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “Here on the Cleveland, we try to treat between 4,000 and 5,000 acres every winter through fuel management. Good fires prevent bad fires.”

Community defense breaks are typically 300-foot wide bands that create a barrier between the national forest and communities on its edge. It takes a crew of 20 several days to cut and gather the brush in these defense breaks. But Hayes says it increases the odds for successfully protecting a town if a wildfire reaches the area.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “We try to cut out a lot of vegetation especially the dead and more flammable to reduce the intensity of the fire as it comes into the fuel break area to give us a better chance of actually stopping the fire.”

The locations for prescribed burns are selected based on how much wood and vegetation – aka fuel – is present, as well as how long the area has gone without a fire. The hope is that taking away a portion of the fuel will reduce the intensity of any wildfires that do occur.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “This side of the handline we are standing on has never been treated. It’s never been prescribe burned or thinned in any way and you can see the heavy accumulation of ground fuels. And you can see how devastating a wildfire in the summer would be if it were to start in this area. In this area over here, this was thinned. It was broadcast burned. If there were to be a wildfire start in this area, the fire would be very low intensity. You would be able to get in here and keep the fire smaller.”

The federal government reported it spent a record $2.9 billion on suppressing fires in 2017. And the outlook for the current year is bleak as many regions are expected to become dangerously dry. Firefighters will continue their work to reduce the size of the fires that will inevitably happen this year.

Talbot Hayes, U.S. Forest Service: “It’s not if more fires will happen, but when.”

For Market to Market, I'm Colleen Bradford Krantz.

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