Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

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dave54
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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Thu May 30, 2019 10:25 am

That article does a good job of highlighting the difficulties of more burning. It is easy to say "burn more". Being able to burn more will require compromises from adjacent landowners and other stakeholders -- compromises they do not wish to make. As one now-retired fire manager told me "Sure, I can burn more. Just repeal the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, NEPA, Endangered Species Act..." Lassen National Forest did an analysis several years ago, and found between allowable burn days under air quality rules, and favorable weather conditions for a burn, they averaged 18 days per year when burning was allowed and they had suitable weather. Exempting controlled burns from clean air rules is not a good solution. That does not keep the air clean. It only makes dirty air legal. Basically the same as granting waivers to coal burning power plants.

Letting natural ignitions burn also has complications. Some areas have resource or other values that need protection. Private lands, critical watersheds, infrastructure, endangered species habitat et al will need to be excluded from any 'let burn' area. By the time you remove all those areas there is not a lot left, and much of that will be small non-contiguous parcels. The article discussed the Sugar Fire that started in May. You have to assess not only the fire effects now, but also what will be size and affects before the end of the fire season. That fire would most likely burn and keep spreading for another six months before Fall rains extinguished it. Can you predict the humidity, wind speed, and direction for every day for the next six months? I did my grad work on modeling that very topic (Predicting a Fall fire-ending storm event in a Wilderness Area where there are no past weather records to model from?), and you can only give probabilities. A fire starting in September is a lot less of a problem -- only a few weeks to worry about. The same fire in May or June has not yet faced the peak season before the seasonal fire danger tapers off. Some of you may remember the old TV series West Wing, where a sub plot in an episode revolved around a fire in Montana that was burning in a Wilderness. When the Fall rains did not start expected, it kept burning into October, then November, threatening a critical cutthroat trout fisheries, and became real controversial. That was based on a real fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. When the fire still burned into November and threatening even the local Sierra Club chapter was calling for suppression action. Fortunately, the rain finally started and quelled the issue.
It only works for natural ignitions anyway. Allowing human caused wildfires to burn opens a giant legal can of worms. It would be a license to arson.

The article mentioned several managers are now purchasing Professional Liability Insurance. It is a sad commentary on the entire issue. The same people that clamor for more burning, and the same magazines and newspapers that rail for more burning, will be the first ones to scream for rolling heads when an escape occurs.

The article frequently mentions Ingalsbee. He is basically an ignorant idiot. and I will say that to publicly to his face. The '10AM Policy' ended in the 1970s and has not been in effect officially or unofficially for decades. The tired old "100 years of fire suppression" mantra is also in error. Despite the 1915 fire policy (which was the best available science at that time, and supported by academia and the sierra club), it only became effective in the 1930s with the advent of the CCCs. Fires pretty much burned as they always did throughout the 1920s due to a lack of technology and manpower. The policy waned in the 1960s, the 10AM policy went away in the 70s, and the 1988 Yellowstone Fires initiated a major policy shift to suppression actions will be commensurate with resource values at risk and using more indirect attack. So the full aggressive fire suppression era really only lasted 40-50 years.


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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by rightstar76 » Thu May 30, 2019 2:50 pm

Dave54, I enjoyed reading your informative post. Being able to discuss these issues is what makes HST special.

I am going to do some research on Ingalsbee as I am not that familiar with his theories. It seems like managed burning whether it be "let it burn" or prescribed is very risky and has all sorts of costs which may outweigh any benefits. I will have to have to read more about this. One thing I've noticed is that managed burns don't seem to be having much effect on lessening the intensity of fires in the Sierra Nevada.

Is that something your research has shown?

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Thu May 30, 2019 3:50 pm

The first day of the Camp Fire burned through an area that last burned in 2008. The brush was only 10 years old. The driver of the fire behavior on that fire was the wind, not fuels. Under the conditions of that day, high winds, single digit humidities, low fuel moistures, it was a 'perfect storm' of fire conditions. A 99th percentile day for the Energy Release Component (ERC, a measure of fire intensity). One of the most Extreme Fire Danger days ever recorded for the area. Under those conditions a manicured city park with a green lawn would have burned. No amount of fuels treatment will stop a fire under those conditions. We must accept when a fire starts under those conditions it is going to rip, no matter how much pro-active fuels treatment we do in advance. The other 98% of the time fuels treatment does work.

chad hansen likes to claim we cannot log our way to fire proofing our forests. He claims he is a fire ecologist and anti-logging, so I expect him to say that, and he is partially right. We also cannot burn our way into a desired future condition. The Bee article explains why. There is too much area to burn, with too many other complicating factors to have burning (whether prescribed fire or natural ignitions) as the only tool in the toolbox. Can't be done, and anyone who things we can burn our way out of this mess is delusional. Some logging will be needed. Probably most of the treatment will be mechanical.
Tactics have changed over the years. The default strategy now is when a fire escapes initial attack and become large, an assessment is made. If the fire is in a remote area with no critical values threatened, the firefighting strategy is often to back off to main ridges and let the fire burn to you. This is cheaper and safer, but burns more acres. Some of the larger fires last summer got that large because that is exactly what they did. When it ran up into the National Forest, the FS just backed off and let large areas burn. Have to be careful doing that though -- federal law prohibits using emergency fire fighting funds to accomplish resource management goals. So you have to justify the indirect attack other than saying "it needed burning".
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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by rightstar76 » Tue Jun 11, 2019 2:12 pm

From the Jordan Fire:
The fire is approximately 150 acres and burning in the 2002 McNally fire footprint...This is a full suppression fire response...Being in the old fire scar makes direct firefighting tactics difficult due to the amount of standing dead trees, dead and down logs, and thick decadent brush.
https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6384/

7 year old article about the McNally Fire:
But ecosystem manager Anderson said the logging was necessary for safety reasons. First, some trees near the road were in danger of eventually collapsing onto the road, he said. Second, burned trees make a future fire more dangerous because they can hold the fire for a long time, he said.

For example, the McNally Fire burned in an area that had been destroyed by a wildfire in the 1970s. The fire held there for two weeks, cooking the soil. The area was too dangerous for firefighters to go into, he said.

"I sat on a ridge and watched it go from downed log to downed log and hold there," Anderson said.
https://www.bakersfield.com/news/a-deca ... c4a59.html

Dave54, what are your thoughts about this? It seems like a losing battle with no easy solutions.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Tue Jun 11, 2019 7:14 pm

Yep.

Standing dead trees create a marked increase in future fire behavior, and alters tactics.

Crews do not direct attack in snag patches. Crews are fully empowered to disengage from snag patches. Back off and let them burn. Not worth getting someone killed to save acres and bushes.

Several areas near me where high intensity fires burned across mixed ownerships -- National Forest and private timberlands. The FS did not do any salvage and replanting. The burn is a snag patch with thick brush understory and deeply eroded gullies and rills. The adjacent private timberlands were salvage logged and replanted. They are now early seral forests with growing trees and a healthy mix of wildlife. The soils are stable with grasses, forbs and some shrubs in the understory. The boundary between the two sites are a straight property line and the difference is night and day.

To be fair, you can make an argument the area in totality now has a mix of vegetation types, diversity on a landscape scale. But the private lands are not all recovered either. There are small areas where it was too steep, too rocky, or other reason making salvaging impractical. Those areas were left to recover on their own. So the private lands are still more biodiverse than the National Forest.
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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by gdurkee » Wed Jun 12, 2019 4:14 pm

OK. Once again, we have to kinda move away from wildfires as "forest" fires. In California, most are brush/oak/grassland fires that may burn into conifer (what we think of as forest). The majority of fuel burned in the large Sierra fires (> 50,000 acres) is not conifer. The objection to prescribed fire as being too difficult because of air pollution standards is valid. It's worth pointing out, though, that NPS Yosemite and Sequoia Kings burn large acreage every year, and have been doing so since the late 60s, within these restrictions. As well, they've easily been able to work within any sensitive species restrictions (of which there are very few). The Stanislaus NF also seems to be increasing acreage of prescribed burns and "let burns," though only at semi-high elevations (> 6,500').

As far as air pollution goes (and that's unquestionably a serious concern) the trade off is almost certain pollution days as a result of intense and unstoppable wildfires vs. burning within certain well defined parameters. This is an area that needs a lot more research. I suspect there are mitigations that reduce the smoke &/or keep it away from dense urban areas. NPS has become pretty good about this and gotten in a lot of burn days. In any event, setting the alternative as " Exempting controlled burns from clean air rules.." is not what's contemplated by anything I've read. It may be necessary to squeeze in a few more days in the spring, but a proposal shouldn't be framed as one extreme or another. The point is, while prescribed fire isn't the only answer to fuel reduction and community protection, it's a critical and underused tool.

Most of what we're talking about now, though, is community fire protection. One tool is prescribed fire. Others are mechanical clearance of land both around communities and structures; fire breaks; zoning; and building codes. It's not either or. Each comes with costs (ecological, health, and dollars), benefits, and political choices. But a conversation is needed and fair consideration of the costs and benefits of all tools. The current plan isn't working... .
A fire starting in September is a lot less of a problem -- only a few weeks to worry about.
While this may have been semi-true a decade ago, climate change has been pushing the hot summer season at both ends. The Camp Fire started November 8. The Tubbs & Sonoma complex on October 8. It's true that the Camp Fire, for instance, had major winds and low humidity, but that, too, is becoming more common. Such extreme events are predicted by climate change models.

I may have misunderstood the comments on the effect of full suppression (or not) on Sierra forests. I suppose we can quibble over whether it's, in fact, 100 years but whatever, it's been enough to have significantly changed species composition and density of Sierra forests (and probably foothill species, but I know less about that). One theory on why these fires go forever is when we had fire as an integral part of the landscape (both lightning and native american caused), we had a so-called mosaic of vegetation -- open meadows, new growth, open forests without undergrowth and "ladder fuels." This is fairly well established by pre-1900 photos. So a fire burning, even if intense in some areas, would not be in others. Now, with huge areas of forest consisting of contiguous dense fuels with no break, there's nothing to stop the intensity of fires when driven by extreme weather conditions.

[Closing in on an end, really!] Good paper, though maybe a bit long, on history of Sierra forests (and, again, it's not forest fires, it's wildfires) but since we're talking forests: Dry forests and wildland fires of the inland Northwest USA: Contrasting the landscape ecology of the pre-settlement and modem eras https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals ... urg002.pdf

Part of the conclusion is worth reading:
Dry forests of the present-day no longer appear or function as they once did. Current patterns of forest structure and composition do not resemble even recent historical conditions, neither do they represent what we would expect to see under or more natural or characteristic disturbance regimes and the current climate. There is little evidence that current patterns are sustainable and this has important ecological consequences.

Large landscapes are increasingly homogeneous in their composition and structure, and the regional landscape is set up for severe, large fire and insect disturbance events. …
Hokay. A very good and civil conversation going here... .

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Wed Jun 12, 2019 6:18 pm

I used September as an example. When I did my grad work in the 1990s I determined the mean date for the first fire-ending event in the Lassen Park/Caribou Wilderness area was Sept 20 (first storm with sufficient moisture to stop all future spread of a wildfire), and the mean date for the first permanent snow cover was Nov 11. Those obviously are no longer valid dates. I'll let others recalculate with current weather data. (side note -- my thesis was not published although my advisor asked if I wanted to submit it for journal publication. I declined due to other things going on in my life. Since then, though, my thesis has been cited twice in peer-reviewed and published professional journal articles. My small claim to fame.)

In 1972, the Forest Service instituted a 'let burn' policy in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. All ignitions are evaluated on whether to suppress or not, and since then about half have been suppressed immediately. In 2002 a fire started late in the season (early October IIRC), and it was in an area where it normally would have been suppressed. Due to the lateness of the season it was allowed to burn. That particular year Fall came late to the northern Rockies, and the expected rains did not begin on time. The fire continued spreading. And spreading. The rains did not come, and it kept spreading, into an adjacent drainage that was a popular destination. The political pressure kept mounting. The FS stuck to the policy and refused to send in suppression crews. The local Sierra Club chapter was now involved, and they wanted it stopped. The pressure made it all the way to the White House, which demurred making it an issue. The situation finally resolved itself in November when the winter weather arrived. If this sounds familiar, it was made into a subplot on an episode of The West Wing television series. Side note -- IIRC 2002 was the last year control burn plus let burn acres exceeded suppressed fire acres. Has not happened since.

The term 'let burn' is a misnomer. It is not ignored. There are people on scene monitoring the fire and as long as it does not threaten any area of value it is left alone. Sometimes action is taken on a portion of the fire edge with the remainder allowed to continue, or if fire conditions elsewhere start causing problems, the fire may be totally suppressed.

True on the change over time. George Gruell , a wildlife biologist, published a book comparing historical photographs with a current one from the same spot.
https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Sierra-Neva ... 0878424466

Alan Taylor (geographer) did similar with tree cohort analysis, Bob Olsen, a fire manager, used written records (diaries, journals) of the first settlers, and Tom Bonnicksen (ecologist) used forest growth software to estimate pre-settlement conditions. Four researchers, from four different professional backgrounds using different methods, all reached the same conclusion -- The Sierra Nevada has a lot more trees than it ever did before (and in many areas, a lot more old growth). Most of the Sierra was open meadows, balds, and low brushfields with old growth a minority component.

In the early part of the 20th century, the FS wanted to know where to place fire lookout towers for maximum coverage, so they hired dozens of photographers to haul all their (heavy and bulky) cameras to mountaintops all over the west. They took thousands of 360 degree panoramic photos from hundreds of mountain peaks. From these the FS determined where to place the towers. Most of the photos are long gone, but a few years ago, Flathead NF in Montana was remodeling an old storage building and found boxes of these long lost photos. A treasure chest of historical gold. Since the same mountainsides and valleys were photographed many several different angles, they could use computer graphic software to create a 3d representation of then versus now. The results were illuminating. Like the Sierra Nevada, they found relatively little old growth in the pre- pictures, and a lot more now. Plus the old growth had changed. Old growth in pine forests was historically single layer, open understory (park-like stands). Very little was dense triple canopy old growth. The first is relatively fire resistant, the second is highly fire susceptible. Now the situation is reversed -- most of the current old growth is dense closed stands with a heavy understory, and it burns really well. These stands cannot be control burned back into a desired condition. The stand would be destroyed. In so many areas now, mechanical treatment is necessary before a control burn can be safely initiated. Climate change means a completely destroyed forest may never recover back into a healthy forest without human intervention.
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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by gdurkee » Fri Jun 14, 2019 9:40 am

More fire stuff? Sure. Here's a good PBS Newshour segment on prescribed fire. What I found interesting was how well established it now is in the southeast. When I was in college (late 60s/early 70s), my adviser professor was one of several pioneering fire ecologists and he talked about using fire there (as well, of course, as in the west). According to the PBS segment, it's now well established and very common in the SE. We were routinely burning in Sequoia Kings and Yosemite, and the NPS established excellent fire programs but it has not (pardon me) caught on as a routine approach to fuel reduction and habitat restoration elsewhere in the west as it apparently has in the SE.

One point the segment makes is such fires have become routine there and people see fire in low level and mostly non-threatening applications. In the west, we only see large and destructive fires. NPS does put out educational materials and rangers at viewpoints during burns, but those reach relatively few people. Public perception is skewed as a result.

Anyway, here's the segment: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/with- ... a-solution
These stands cannot be control burned back into a desired condition. The stand would be destroyed
I disagree with this. It's definitely more difficult but has been done often. The burns on Redwood Mountain in Kings -- dense understory of white fir and shrubs -- and other Giant Sequoia Groves. Also the dense white fir near the Kings entrance. This takes many years, multiple fires and, obviously, the first burn needs to be done carefully. There is loss of some mature non-sequoia (and many of these burns have been done to restore the pre-European fire regime favoring giant sequoia), but those overstory losses are part of reestablishing a forest mosaic of both species composition and fuel reduction.

Also interesting, if you look at current imagery of the conifer stands east of the Camp fire, you see a mosaic of dead & surviving trees. The more open areas, though, burned extremely hot and with very high mortality (much of it was brush after the 2008 fire). The theory I've heard (and I've seen no follow up) is that the denser forest reduced the extreme wind speeds creating a hot, but not totally destructive fire within those stands. I've noticed the same pattern on the recent Tuolumne Donnell fire and older Rim fires. Both burned uncontrolled for a long time and fairly hot but, even then, forest mortality was within the 20% - 70% cited by the Dry Forest paper of pre-european mixed-severity fires, creating a classic mosaic pattern.

I guess one of the reasons I'm staying on this important topic is because we need a more widespread and serious discussion on better ways to protect communities of the Sierra (and elsewhere). Prescribed fire is being applied more widely by CalFire and even the USFS. In my experience, it can be an extremely useful tool and under a wider set of fuel loads than is commonly understood. Because of the problems inherent in prescribed fire (smoke, closed areas, fire getting away from the intended area) we need to understand the trade-offs and choose the costs we're willing to assume for the various methods.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by Heyduke#2 » Thu Jun 20, 2019 7:45 am

In my opinion, after working in USFS, NPS and BLM, as a firefighter and forestry technician for nearly 20 years, the problem of forest and range management is a political one. Far “right” beliefs that stem from most, not all, cattle owners who have grazing allotments on USFS and/or BLM land don’t appreciate the concept of natual lightning fires which help rejuvenate the land, because it threatens their pastures. And the logging community that doesn’t want their timber to be threatened. Then there’s the far “left” that objects to many planned controlled burns and, or fuel reduction projects because of potential habitat disturbance or threatened species issues. These ideas get brought to court and are tied up for lengths of time, which prohibits forest and range workers from doing necessary work. In short, if we brought back cogeneration plants and used over grown trees and vegetation as their fuel, with the idea of regaining the “pre-European” type of forest stands and ranges, it would benefit our economy and make a healthier environment.

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Re: Everyone's thoughts on what's really causing fires

Post by dave54 » Thu Jun 20, 2019 8:23 am

Agree cogen plants would be part of the solution.
Unfortunately, cogen plants all over the West are shutting down (or already shut down) due to emission regulations and not enough market for the power.
After years of operation, the plant in my town shut down for the above reasons, plus the cost of hauling chips longer and longer distances.
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