Viewpoint: Work on the community, not the forest
A new paper, "Wildlands-urban fire disasters aren't a wildfire problem," published in PNAS, challenges traditional approaches to wildfire management strategies.
The researchers note that most of the large blazes that destroyed homes, including Lahaina, Hawaii, Talent and Phoenix, Oregon, the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, California, and the Marshal Fire that charred Louisville, Colorado, were urban conflagrations.
All of these were human ignition blazes that occurred during extreme wind events.
The authors argue that focusing on "fuel reductions" in wildlands managed by federal agencies has little effect on the fires that destroy homes.
Despite these facts, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 both direct funding towards logging (thinning) and prescribed burning as the preventative means of precluding urban fires.
In 2022, the US Forest Service released the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which aims to "treat" 20 million acres of US Forest Service land and 30 million acres of other federal, tribal, state, and privately owned land." This is an area only slightly smaller than the 51 million acres that make up the state of Minnesota.
This emphasis on "treating" forests and other wildlands ignores the fact that most wildfires are human ignitions on private lands.
Worse for taxpayers and communities potentially threatened by wildfire is the old paradigm of reducing fuels, is based upon a climate that no longer exists. Climate change is accelerating or enhancing all the factors that drive large wildfires—namely drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds. You can't use 1930s 10 AM wildfire strategies to deal with 2023 climate conditions.
In addition, the vast majority of prescribed burns or thinning/logging projects never encounter a blaze when they might be effective, but we get all the negatives from fuel reduction projects like disruption of wildlife, spread of weeds from soil disturbance, loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem, loss of carbon storage, loss of snags and down woody debris essential for many wildlife species.
Moreover, a recent study estimated that up to 10 times as much carbon is released by logging as natural disturbances (like wildfire). For instance, 66% of the carbon losses across the West were due to logging, while only 15% was due to wildfire. Thus, logging contributes more climate warming CO2 than wildfires.
This paper's authors argue that federal, state, and community fire strategies should focus on the home and work outward. A good overview of this concept can be found in this Environment Now paper.
Preparing for the inevitable wildfires by reducing the flammability of individual homes and their surroundings can interfere with wildfire spread. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in numerous studies, the most effective strategy for precluding urban wildfires isn't trying to reduce the flammability of forests but focusing on an area of no more than 100 feet surrounding homes and communities.
Despite this well-established fact, I have repeatedly gone on "show me" tours with the Forest Service, where they are logging/thinning forests miles from communities, which provides almost no effect on the reduction of urban wildfires.
How do you reduce the flammability of communities? You install flame-resistant roofing materials, screen vents, clean gutters of flammable materials, and keep wooden fences and other burnable materials away from homes. Just putting a five-foot gravel perimeter around home foundations has been highly effective at reducing home fires.
As the authors of this paper conclude, "We have to live with wildfire, but we don't have to live with wildfire in our communities."
George Wuerthner has published numerous books on environmental and ecological issues including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy