By Brett French
If there’s a plant-based poster child for wildland fire in the subalpine forests of Yellowstone National Park, it would be the cone of the lodgepole pine tree.
“All of these forests evolved with fire after the last glacial retreat,” said Roy Renkin, a vegetation specialist for Yellowstone National Park. “Different species have evolved different mechanisms to deal with fire.”
The Douglas fir has thick bark meant to resist low-intensity fires. Fireweed spends a lot of time spreading its roots out so it can sprout after fires remove competition. And the lodgepole pine’s specially devised cones will open to release seeds only when heated to 104 to 122 degrees.
“This green forest over here looked like that black forest many times,” he explained.
Renkin is one of the few people still on staff at Yellowstone who was around when the 1988 fires swept across roughly one-third of the park, charring more than 793,000 acres. Since then, he’s been witness to the rebirth of the park’s vegetation following what many at the time thought would be a legacy of scorched earth and a slow rebound.
“You guys will be lucky to have a meadow there in 100 years,” let alone a forest, he remembers one group of “ologists” concluding after visiting a heavily burn site. Thirty years later some of the trees that repopulated the area are 25 feet tall. Elk sedge that took root has grown “as big as basketballs.”
by Tony Schick
The West is in the midst of another intense fire season. Fires in California and Oregon have claimed lives and homes and burned up farmland.
As part of EarthFix’s ongoing series on wildfire, reporter Tony Schick spoke with interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about what her agency is doing to reform fire management and reverse the fire problem.
Christiansen discussed her agency’s approach to wildfire management and what she’s doing to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. Below are some of her responses on these issues, edited for length and clarity.
As EarthFix reported, the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires, decades after recognizing the danger in that practice. Wildland fire agencies currently spend millions fighting relatively low-risk fires that could actually help protect communities if allowed to burn a bigger footprint. Researchers within the Forest Service are trying to push wildland fire management toward more data-driven decisions that consider the long-term tradeoffs of fire suppression. Asked what she’s doing to implement that throughout the agency, Christiansen said she was trying to build more acumen for risk management and reset the agency’s thinking.
“We are successful at extinguishing 98 percent of all fires. But there’s 2 percent that, I call them hurricane fires. We don’t ask public safety officials to stop a hurricane. We ask them to get people out of harm’s way, to provide assistance to mitigate, create resilience, etc. Well that’s the situation we are in. But we are asking many of our responders to take aggressive action when there is zero probability of success.
“So our reset is about thinking about (the) probability of success, and just the first line — all fire is bad and we must stop it. Why are we exposing responders, not doing our work to get people out of harm’s way, spending all kinds of public funds, when the probability of success is zero to very low. That’s the first level of the reset.”
For those who had not witnessed the blast-furnace heat and the eye-stinging smoke of a wildfire along with the mass destruction of timber, homes, businesses and wildlife, last week was a learning experience.
Nearly every corner of the West was on fire. From Arizona to Washington state and from California to Montana, 65 active fires were burning 2.83 million acres as of late last week. Those numbers include only the fires that were 10,000 acres or larger. The average size of those fires was 43,556 acres
By Peter Aleshire
Fire season looms.
Every high country community quivers on the cusp.
So the U.S. Forest Service will on Thursday hold a meeting on its plan to use thinning projects and controlled burns across a million acres of Rim Country to dramatically reduce both tree densities and wildfire risk.
One little problem: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) the plan envisions has fallen years behind schedule and is struggling to make a dent on the hundreds of thousands of acres of projects already approved.
The Forest Service awarded the first 4FRI contract five years ago for an initial 300,000 acres out of a total of 2.6 million eventually targeted. The Forest Service shifted the contract from Pioneer Forest Products to Good Earth AZ after a year, with no projects completed. So far, Good Earth has completed thinning projects on about 8,500 acres out of the 60,000 called for in the original schedule. Good Earth has said it plans to thin 30,000 acres annually, but so far has had trouble lining up enough trucks and capacity at small-wood sawmills to come anywhere near that pace.
by Peter Aleshire
That’s what you want.
Whether it comes to bark beetles, forest fires, migrating birds, elk or deer — what you want are forests with patches thick with trees, open areas and hillsides burned decades ago.
This conclusion has emerged from a series of recent studies on bark beetles and tree densities.
The studies support the underlying logic of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), an ambitious effort to use a reinvented, small-tree logging industry to thin the forest and diversify the landscape.
The project has lagged far behind the schedule needed to thin the first installment of 300,000 acres, mostly because the 4FRI contractor Good Earth has struggled to build up the infrastructure needed to thin 30,000 to 50,000 acres annually.
However, recent research validates the underlying blueprint for 4FRI, which would dramatically lower tree densities in the ponderosa pine forests, while creating a landscape with denser patches separated by a wide-open, thinned forest.
By Desmond O’Boyle
The Forests to Faucets partnership originally began in 2010 as a response to a series of wildfires, namely the 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman wildfires. Since its inception, the partnership’s goals have grown to not only reduce catastrophic wildfires, but to also restore forests impacted by reservoirs, erosion and beetle devastation. On Monday, Feb 27, Forests to Faucets was granted a $33 million extension to continue its ongoing projects.
Lawrence Lujan is the regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the organizations involved in the partnership. He says the specific strategies will be identified in a 5-year plan.
“Some of the tools in the toolbox include, thinning, prescribed fire, replanting trees, especially in areas that have been impacted by previous fires,” said Lujan. “We’ll be decommissioning roads, taking actions to minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.”
Locations for forest restoration and wildfire fuels reduction projects include Dillon, Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon, Cheesman and Williams Fork reservoirs. The partnership anticipates treating more than 40,000 acres of land.
By Dr. Joseph Roise, professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Services, North Carolina State University
Wildfires have devastated Western North Carolina in the past few months, only recently having been quelled by the work of hundreds of firefighters and well-timed rainfall. These disasters, which are often caused by humans but sometimes occur naturally, for instance those caused by a lightning strike, can have lasting implications ranging from the endangerment of flora, fauna, and human lives to the crippling of local economies that rely on tourism, to the devastating effects of erosion on newly exposed soils often resulting in floods and through loss of timber for industry and consumers. Despite the often-unpredictable path of these fires, much can be done to help prevent them. Through proactive sustainable management and maintenance of forests, foresters and partnerships between private landowners and the forestry industry play a crucial role to help reduce the risk of wildfires.Partnerships between private landowners and the forestry industry play a crucial role to help reduce the risk of wildfires
By KATIERA WINFREY
Climate scientists credit a new satellite mapping system with helping firefighters battle wildfires, and they say the new system helps better connect fire agencies across the state.
A lot of the fire-spotting happens at the National Weather Service.
The fire-mapping system has proven to be most helpful in rural areas where wildfires popped up recently.
By Melissa Sevigny
The U.S. Forest Service allowed fire to burn more than 73,500 acres in northern Arizona last year. New research examines how well these “managed wildfires” restore healthy, historical conditions to ponderosa pine forests.
Scientists with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute examined 10 large burned areas on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. Ecologist David Huffman said managers allowed these areas to burn during the last decade to meet multiple restoration goals.
“Wildfire is difficult to control and manage for precise effects — sort of a blunt tool,” he said. “So we need to understand what it’s doing out there in terms of changing forest structure.”
The study found moderate-severity fires met two-thirds of the restoration goals. This was the only type of fire that restored tree density and canopy cover to historical conditions.
A study of Front Range forests burned by wildfires between 1996 and 2003 shows they are not regenerating as well as expected and large portions may become grasslands or shrub lands in coming years.
The paper, published in the journal Ecosphere by former doctoral student Monica Rother and geography professor Thomas Veblen, examined the sites of six low-elevation ponderosa pine forest fires which collectively burned 162,000 acres along the Colorado Front Range between 1996 and 2003. Eight to 15 years after the fires, the researchers expected – based on historical patterns – to see young trees cropping up across the landscape. Instead, 59 percent of plots surveyed showed no conifer seedlings at all and 83 percent showed a very low density of seedlings. Although it is possible that more seedlings will appear in upcoming years, future warming and associated drought may hinder significant further recovery.
“It is alarming, but we were not surprised by the results given what you see when you hike through these areas,” said Rother, who earned her doctorate from CU Boulder in 2015 and works as a fire ecologist at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida.