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Wildfire Hysteria

Nameless Range

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My wife is getting her tonsils out and I have work off to take care of her, so I had some time to write up some thoughts I've recently had on wildfire. We recently listened to The Big Burn on audiobook. I wanted her to hear the story and she enjoyed it.

The old "history repeats itself" paradigm has been on my mind lately. In the years following 1910, those opponents of what are today our public lands desperately tried to use the firestorm and loss of life that ensued as an argument against the existence of public lands. They used fallacious arguments, as if only that land had been more heavily managed by industry we could've avoided the Big Burn.

We are seeing it today, and I mean literally the same arguments. Unfortunately even in the age of the internet a Big Burn needn't even occur. The Mainstream Media claims a fire season is extraordinarily bad - even when it isn't - and the populace, those opposed to public ownership of public lands, and even some conservation orgs, seem to be convinced that:

1. We just had a fire season that was out of the ordinary
2. We could actually effect the outcomes of wildfire in a meaningful way.

When in actuality, the only things that will mitigate the amount of money and energy we spend on fire in any meaningful way are:

1.Weather/Climate
2. Where we choose to allow people to build houses.

I figured I'd throw some links and thoughts out there. I'm not a fire scientist, just a guy with some observations.

A. The fire season we just had, and seasons we have had recently, are not out of the ordinary.

You read the paper in Montana and you'd think the sky is falling. "Second worst fire season in a decade!", "Fires are out of control" etc. Nevermind the fact that the last decade is not a good metric for determining fire trends. The fire season we just had in Montana was intense during the month of August, but was not out of the ordinary. Even for the last decade or so.

MontanaFire.png

The same case can be made nationwide when we look at the past century, though it is difficult to quantify due to the fact so much development has occurred in historically forested areas that are no longer forested or even wild. Combine that with the fact that we now suppress many fires before they get out of the gate. It's complicated. Consider though, about 9 million acres burned in the United States this summer. 6 million of that was in Alaska. For context keep in mind that the Big Burn was 3 million acres itself - as much as the entire lower 48 combined this summer. We are not seeing an increase in high-severity fires compared to historical averages.

B. Reducing Wildland Fuels (logging) will probably not reduce the amount of acres burned in a meaningful way

There is a crapload of scientific study out there on this subject, many of the conclusions mixed. There is evidence that reducing fuels can help protect structures when it is performed in proximity to those structures. There is a thought that fuel reduction will make initial attack safer as well, or reduce the potential spread of certain types of fire. The proclamation that logging will reduce wildfire sure seems moot right now though, doesn't it? Two mills just closed in Montana and the expiration of the Softwood Tariff is on it's way. They didn't close due to a lack of timber. You simply cannot mandate the market. Every land manager out there looking at doing a fuels reduction project is now faced with a difficult question:

"Where the hell does the wood go and who the hell is gonna pay for it?"

C. If it's hot and dry, there will be fire in the west

Climate, and more specifically weather in a given season, dictates wildland fire acreage exponentially more than fuels. Whether it is cheat grass, timber, tundra, or chapparal, if it is hot, dry, and the wind is blowing, there will be fire - and acreage will be similar. People can debate whether climate change is human caused, they can even debate whether our "warming" is extraordinary when viewed in geologic time. There is no arguing however, that it is extraordinarily warm in terms of the history of this country right now.

D. As long as people continue to expand into the wildland urban interface (WUI) , we will continue to spend more money and energy on fire.

Growth plans are viewed as tools of communism in the west, and those same county commissioners who approved minor subdivision x on the south slope of Mountain Y are those same bastards whining about fire, its costs, and the management of timber. Over and Over again. The USDA released this last month. Basically, fires near houses are expensive, more frequent, and dangerous for firefighters. Development in the WUI is one of the chief drivers of the increase in wildland firefighting costs.



I'm not opposed to logging or more active management. Though, Americans need to accept that it will be expensive and will not solve the problem of fire in the west. The arguments out there don't jive with the facts. Go to the American Land Council's twitter or Facebook, and you'll see the exact same argument against public lands we saw in 1910. The same goes for legislation, newspaper headlines, and clickbait. I watched my own governor nod his head last week while these arguments were parroted by an anti-public lands bureaucrat in Washington DC. Bugged the chit out of me. Hysteria sells, and it seems that for some, Wildland Hysteria is becoming a cash-cow, and I am concerned about what will happen when a Our Own Big Burn occurs. What will the hysteria be like then?
 

Fire_9

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I will only comment on D. Everyone wants to have a house in the woods but very few people think about 'fireproofing' their house. If you have lots of vegetation around your house, it is going to burn to the ground. It is amazing what a few lawn sprinklers and green grass will do to a fire. I helped fight the fires in eastern Montana in 2012 and was amazed at some of the houses that made it through. The ones that made it through had maintained yards and the ones that didn't were tucked away in the trees.
 

Joe Hulburt

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The reason I don't watch any news programs or read most of the crap on the internet news. It's all blown way out of proportion to attempt to get some attention. The sky is falling!!!!!!

Every year around August it's going to be hot and dry and some stuff is going to burn. It's been that way for thousands of years and it's not going to change. Each year the hysteria gets more grandiose.
 

double_a85

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I will only comment on D. Everyone wants to have a house in the woods but very few people think about 'fireproofing' their house. If you have lots of vegetation around your house, it is going to burn to the ground. It is amazing what a few lawn sprinklers and green grass will do to a fire. I helped fight the fires in eastern Montana in 2012 and was amazed at some of the houses that made it through. The ones that made it through had maintained yards and the ones that didn't were tucked away in the trees.

Couldn't agree more--- Lived through the Dahl Fire in the Bull Mountains in 2012. In our neighborhood, only 3 of 15 homes were left standing. One of the first things we did when we moved there was cut all the trees around the structures to have a good defensible area. Only reason the house was still standing, even if the heat liquefied the vinyl siding.
 

sbhooper

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I will only comment on D. Everyone wants to have a house in the woods but very few people think about 'fireproofing' their house. If you have lots of vegetation around your house, it is going to burn to the ground. It is amazing what a few lawn sprinklers and green grass will do to a fire. I helped fight the fires in eastern Montana in 2012 and was amazed at some of the houses that made it through. The ones that made it through had maintained yards and the ones that didn't were tucked away in the trees.

People think they have to be able to touch a pine tree from their deck and it bites them every time nature takes over. My cousin's place was untouched by the fire a few years back in Black Forest, northwest of Colorado Springs, because he had the area cleared as it should have been..
 

Ben Lamb

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You are correct. It is the crisis model of fundraising/political activism. It's practiced on both sides of the natural resource debate. Whether you are suing to stop any kind of timber project, etc or whether you want to steal land belonging to every American, there is money and power to be had in promoting bad ideas that tug at heartstrings.

And we gobble it up. It's easier to share a meme than to actually read legislation or think for yourself. We see it on facebook, twitter, hell, even here. How many people have actually read the Resilient Forest Act that 2/3 of our delegation is promoting? How many truly understand that the legislation takes the right to seek redress against your government away in favor of expedited projects that may or may not make money or have any beneficial influence on forest management? How many know that the frustration that leads to such bills and actions stems from the ridiculous sue and settle mentality that has tried to stop good projects like Colt Summit or Tenmile Creek?

As always, the truth lies in the middle. Until we find a meaningful way to address the culture of sue and settle as well as crater any support the anti-public land crowd has, we have little ability to engage in meaningful dialog on how to best manage public lands. Even the recent BLM plans released to help protect sage grouse are being threatened by both sides of the aisle. For some, they don't do enough, for others, it's a "massive land grab." The reality is that for once, a holistic approach is being looked at to manage ecosystems rather than further enhance fragmentation for political expediency. Are those plans perfect? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Are they a product of politics as well as science? You bet. That's how management works. Are they worth implementing and then correcting course if needed - yes.



I'm not opposed to logging or more active management. Though, Americans need to accept that it will be expensive and will not solve the problem of fire in the west. The arguments out there don't jive with the facts. Go to the American Land Council's twitter or Facebook, and you'll see the exact same argument against public lands we saw in 1910. The same goes for legislation, newspaper headlines, and clickbait. I watched my own governor nod his head last week while these arguments were parroted by an anti-public lands bureaucrat in Washington DC. Bugged the chit out of me. Hysteria sells, and it seems that for some, Wildland Hysteria is becoming a cash-cow, and I am concerned about what will happen when a Our Own Big Burn occurs. What will the hysteria be like then?

It will be as it always was, in 1910, in DeVoto's time, under Watt and now, with the snake-oil salesmen in D.C. and Utah.

Great post.
 

sweetnectar

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I've wondered how much air pollution and heavy metals are released into the air from a forest fire vs what the power plant in Coalstrip Montana puts out.
 

BigHornRam

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I've wondered how much air pollution and heavy metals are released into the air from a forest fire vs what the power plant in Coalstrip Montana puts out.

The hysteria over electricity produced by coal fired plants is much greater than the wildfire hysteria, so I will go out on a limb and say Coalstrip puts out much more pollutants.;)
 

Fire_9

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The Regional Haze act was going to be put into place so the views in our national parks would not be obstructed by the pollution from Colstrip. Anyone remember how clear the skies were when the fires were burning in Washington this summer? You are right about the hysteria over coal power...
 

Sytes

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Good post Nameless. Nice addition, Ben. A good read w/o the mud slinging... though those are entertaining, it takes a bit of smearing the mud to get some quality from them...
 

BigHornRam

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Nameless,

Have you ever visited the Lubrecht State Forest thinning demonstation site? Here are 2 low elevation, ponderosa pine test plots adjacent to each other. One had a treatment of thinning and controlled burn. The other is the control plot.

CCI10182015 (3).jpg

CCI10182015 (4).jpg

Which one would be more likely to have a crown fire? Which one is healthier? Which one grows more grass for elk to forage?

Instead of getting upset with Bullock, you should be pushing for more projects like this on National Forest lands in Montana. Accomplish that and issue of Federal lands going to the state will go away.
 

Nameless Range

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BHR,

I am familiar with Lubrecht, and wandered that area a fair amount unsuccessfully looking for elk when I lived in Bonner. As I'm sure you know, there is a lot of nuance when it comes to fire. Pointing to a specific location as if it proves something doesn't really work. I remember anti-logging contingents pointing to the fact that Plum Creek lands, which had been logged heavily, had no problem going up in flames during the Lolo Complex a few years ago. They will also point to the fact that heavily logged Canadian landscapes went scorched earth this summer. As if either scenarios prove forest treatments/logging don't effect wildfire. Pointing to individual landscapes and making sweeping statements about management and wildfire is not how science works. Same goes for two pictures. Maybe next August on a windy day we should burn Lubrecht to the ground? I wonder what, if anything, we'd learn.

As to Crown Fires, from a Congressional Research Service study in 2012:

It should also be recognized that, as long as biomass, drought, lightning, and high winds exist,catastrophic wildfires will occur. Only about 1% of wildfires become conflagrations, but which fires will “blow up” into crown wildfires is unpredictable. It seems likely that management practices and policies, including fuel treatments, affect the probability of such events. However, past experiences with wildfires are of limited value for building predictive models, and research on fire behavior under various circumstances is difficult, at best. Thus, predictive tools for fire protection and control are often based on expert opinion and anecdotes, rather than on research evidence.

Which is one of the points I was trying to make. In fact, I would wager that certain treatments do affect the likelihood of crown fires occurring. As I wrote in the OP, there are conflicting studies as to the efficacy of treatment as it relates to fire probability and behavior.(I'll let interested parties Google to their heart's content) The crux of the issue being what I bolded in the quote above. It is the point I was trying to drive home because we are led to believe by the media and politicians that the opposite is true and that we can prevent catastrophic fire in a meaningful way. We cannot.

As I said earlier, I'm not opposed to treatment. That said, as I also said earlier, if it is hot, dry, and the wind is blowing, we have little reason to believe either of the photos you posted would be resistant to fire in a meaningful way in terms of acreage or the money we would spend fighting fires. In fact depending on post-treatment vegetation and topography, both could be equally as deadly. Either way, how would you propose we get our National Forests to look like photo 1? The industry is in the can and land managers can barely give forest products away. I asked a question earlier: Where does the wood go and who is going to pay for it?

So, we have forests that seem unhealthy to some. A conclusion which depends on one's definition of "unhealthy". The fact is high severity fire has historically been a natural part of forest ecology, and was the destiny of "healthy" and "unhealthy" forests alike. Forest ecology is also cyclical and/or dynamic, often in timescales unsatisfying to the average human life expectancy. I don't think there are easy answers, and I am not sure the complex answers are even feasible or ultimately desirable.

On a personal note, the forest in photo 1 sure looks cleaner doesn't it? It also looks tame and European and unnatural. To me, photo 1 is a state park and photo 2 is where I would find a bull elk hiding from hunters. Then again, I rarely find bull elk. :D Just my opinion.
 

RobG

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In addition to what Nameless said, I do believe the overgrown ponderosa forest is the textbook examples of what happens when you suppress wildfire. I wonder a lot about our firefighting philosophy. It seems that we spend a ton of money fighting fires that are uncontrollable, then about the time the fires start burning with low enough intensity to do some good they put them out. This just depletes the funding for the Forest Service and gives the Jeniffer Fielders of the world an excuse to log the areas. Win-win for certain ideologies.
 

Pinecricker

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This situation reminds me a lot of the issue of building in the flood plain. If you build there, you should be 100% ready to accept the long term risk. Too many people that live in fire prone areas (or flood plains or hurricane prone areas) seem to be clueless of risk, yet are quick to affix blame when their house gets torched or flushed down the river, etc. It is completely absurd, and I have a hard time mustering much empathy for such decisions. Ignore the risk, pay the consequences.

Another concept that seems completely naive is that it is some how possible to completely manage all public lands for fire risk. As if we have the resources and money to turn the entirety of the millions of acres of BLM, Forest Service, and state lands in this country into some kind of neatly manicured, park-like setting, carpeted in green lawns, with trees in neat rows (Though, I am sure the US Forest Service would love to attempt such a goal). Fire is part of the equation, it would seem more prudent to accept that fact and to plan development accordingly, rather than waste zillions of public dollars to mitigate risk for a handful of people that are either too dumb or too stubborn to acknowledge risk in the first place.

Perhaps fire is nature's defense mechanism against encroachment and socially destructive the gentrification it is bringing to the Western US. If you want to reduce risk to people from fire, maybe its time to consider whether or not there are just too many people in places where they don't belong in the first place? Flame away :)
 

BigHornRam

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Nameless

Your OP came across to me as a litany of excuses for the Forest Service to do nothing. Are you aware that the State has allocated 1 million $ to help the Forest Service get the most urgent projects through all the red tape and lawsuits? Crazy! Bullock thinks we need to manage our National Forests better. The Elk Foundation CEO thinks we need to manage our National Forest better. Why don't you?

BTW the "European" forest photo is much more in line with what ponderosa pine forests looked like, pre white man.

Here's a neat Youtube clip on Primm Meadows which is in the same vicinity of Lubrecht.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k35DpJ9bYCA
 

BigHornRam

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So it looks like a few of you watched the Primm Meadow film.........hope you liked it and learned from it. You can spend your time whining about how everything is all screwed up, or you can spend your time doing things to help make things better.

Here is a list of books by Steve Arno dealing with western forestry issues

http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&ke...vptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_3tjc6nhkbm_b.

I've read Ponderosa, and Mimicking Nature's Fire. Both very educational books on the subject.
 

Nameless Range

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BHR,

The OP is a list of facts in contradiction with assertions often parroted by the media and others. Please feel free to dispute them with facts/studies of your own. Also, please explain how the Forest Service is going to pay for your desired treatments. Be specific.

Your OP came across to me as a litany of excuses for the Forest Service to do nothing. Are you aware that the State has allocated 1 million $ to help the Forest Service get the most urgent projects through all the red tape and lawsuits? Crazy! Bullock thinks we need to manage our National Forests better. The Elk Foundation CEO thinks we need to manage our National Forest better. Why don't you?

Do you think 1 million dollars is a significant amount of money in terms of the work you believe needs to be done? A very conservative estimate on mitigation projects in proximity to homes would be $500 dollars per acre. I'll let you do the math.

In the meantime I assume you'll be writing your congressman asking him to increase the amount of funding the Forest Service and other public land agencies are allocated.:rolleyes:
 

BigHornRam

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Nameless,

1 million dollars is a significant amount of money to spend to have the state do office work that Forest Service should already be doing. Money would be better spent on the ground. Cutting out the lawsuits would also free up money to be spent on the ground. FS could be more efficient, room for improvement there. Sportsman's organizations can help fund desired treatments. WSF kicked in dollars to help fund a controlled burn and fuel reduction treatment, in Skalkaho bighorn sheep habitat.,

Lubrecht State forest manages it's land with revenue from it's land. They don't get any funding from the state. Is that too much to ask from the Forest Service? Probably, but a least it could fund a portion of the work.
 
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