Suppression strategy fueling more destructive wildfires — study

By Phil Taylor | 05/08/2015 01:07 PM EDT

“Excessively risk averse” federal firefighting has caused Western wildfires that escape initial containment to become far more destructive to neighboring communities, Forest Service researchers say in a new study.

"Excessively risk averse" federal firefighting has caused Western wildfires that escape initial containment to become far more destructive to neighboring communities, Forest Service researchers say in a new study.

The service also faces pressure from homeowners and politicians to smother almost every blaze, allowing trees and brush to grow unchecked and raising the stakes for the next blaze, according to the study, published last month in the journal Forest Ecosystems.

Authors David Calkin, Matthew Thompson and Mark Finney of the service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station said the self-perpetuating cycle favors short-term gains and creates longer-term risks.


"Despite a wealth of scientific research that demonstrates the limitations of the current management paradigm, pressure to maintain the existing system are well entrenched and driven by the existing social systems that have evolved under our current management practice," they wrote.

The study identified "positive feedback loops," in which wildfire suppression sows bigger and costlier future blazes, increasing risks for homeowners and leaving taxpayers on the hook.

Breaking that pattern will require shared sacrifices by land management agencies and forest communities, targeted removal of excess fuels, and a willingness to let more fires burn as nature intended, the study says.

"For transformation to succeed, it will require increased recognition of the consequences associated with the current paradigm, social acceptance of alternative fire management strategies, and alteration of the culture of public agencies charged with wildfire suppression," the study says.

The research comes as the cost of federal wildfire efforts soars and members of Congress seek long-term solutions.

Some legislation would allow wildfires to be fought using disaster funds, a proposal aimed at preventing "fire borrowing" and safeguarding programs that make forests more resilient. Other proposals call for streamlining environmental laws to expedite the removal of hazardous fuels.

The new study grabbed the attention of Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is crafting a bill to bolster hazardous fuels work and promote more efficient wildfire spending (E&E Daily, May 6).

"The report made it clear that if we are ever going to get ahead of the problem, the Forest Service needs to respond to wildfires in a fundamentally different way," Cantwell said at a hearing Tuesday.

"The report bluntly states that maintaining the status quo will actually increase wildfires, increase the losses we suffer from wildfires and significantly affect the Forest Service’s ability to meet its core mission."

Encouraging ‘most extreme’ fires

The Forest Service has built an arsenal to defend against wildfire, replete with air tankers, smoke jumpers, satellite detection, computer dispatching and nationwide coordination, the study notes.

Yet wildfires are becoming larger and more expensive, with greater damage to watersheds and communities, calling into question the success of the government’s "suppression-centric" strategy, study authors note.

From 2011 to 2014, the federal government spent more than $1.5 billion annually suppressing large fires. Most of today’s suppression costs are in the West, where fire exclusion has been favored over letting fires burn.

The consequence: Instead of staying low to the ground, wildfires in California rise to the tree canopy, causing major crown fires such as the 257,314-acre Rim Fire in 2013 and the 97,717-acre King Fire in 2014.

"Now, after more than a century of aggressive suppression the wildfire paradox is fully realized in most western forests," the study notes. "Reduced wildfire on the landscape has led to increased fuel loading and continuity on most forested landscapes in the western US."

Past fire suppression has changed fire behavior to "only the most extreme," the researchers said. The cost of suppressing those fires — $24 billion from 2000 to 2013, in today’s dollars — has forced the Forest Service to pull back the percentage of its budget spent on forest resilience, which can reduce wildfire threats.

The Forest Service in many cases has good reason to squelch fires, as they threaten homes, power lines, water supplies and other critical human assets, but there is evidence that the current response regimen is "excessively risk averse," the study concluded.

A 2013 study by Calkin found that, all else being equal, fire managers tend to choose the most expensive wildfire suppression strategies when considering potential harm to homes, the environment and firefighter safety.

Public perception is at play, too, the researchers noted. They cited a 2011 study by the Forest Service’s Geoffrey Donovan that found the cost of managing a wildfire generally increases with the seniority of the congressional representative whose district it affects and the amount of media exposure.

Despite efforts to defend homes, the human cost of wildfires continues to rise as more homes are built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Wildfire-related insured losses in the United States from 2002 to 2011 totaled $7.9 billion, a $6.2 billion increase over the previous decade, the Calkin study notes.

Some federal wildfire managers estimate that defense of private property accounts for between 50 and 95 percent of the cost of wildfire suppression, according to a 2006 report from the Agriculture Department’s inspector general.

While the Forest Service has focused on reducing hazardous fuels in the WUI, the fate of homes is primarily determined by the space within 100 to 200 feet of the property, including the materials used to build the home, the Calkin study said.

"Prioritizing public investments on fuel reduction efforts and wildfire suppression in and around the WUI reduces the true cost of housing location decisions thus incentivizing development in high wildfire hazard areas and need for increased future investment," the study says.

While mechanical fuel treatments can help tame wildfires, they are too costly and cumbersome to permit to address the scale of needed restoration, the study warned.

"Unless the scale of fuels funding were dramatically increased along with relief from conflicting environmental regulations, it is unlikely that the scale of fuel modification will be accelerated to reduce the wildfire hazard in the short term."

Possible solutions

Part of the solution is allow more fires to burn naturally or to set more prescribed burns, the study said. Such efforts are far more common in Southeastern national forests, which account for just 10 percent of the Forest Service land base but accounted for 70 percent of its prescribed burn area from 2007 to 2012.

So far in the West, managing wildfire for beneficial purposes has not been well-demonstrated outside of large wilderness areas, the study noted.

"Recognition that fire exclusion is neither desirable nor possible in many regions of the country is an essential and will be a critical component of any effort to transform wildfire management," the study concludes.

Chris Mehl, of the research group Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., said the study is "certainly on target."

A recent paper by Headwaters Executive Director Ray Rasker came to similar conclusions about the drivers of wildfire costs, identifying what Mehl called the three "W’s": wood, WUI and weather.

"These three combined mean there’s more and more pressure on agencies to actively suppress fire, which then adds to the reinforcing cycle; meaning higher and higher costs and risks to life and property," Mehl said in an email.

Until now, the United States has focused on treating forests, suppressing wildfires and educating property owners in the WUI, Mehl said. But new incentives are needed to curb home construction in the forest, he said.

"It’s time to expand and change the incentives around the WUI portion of this issue to help improve land use planning to direct homebuilding away from fire-prone lands, and for local governments to bear more of the proportion of fire-related costs (since they approve the development)," Mehl said.

"Federal agencies should help this process by rewarding good planning, developing accurate fire risk maps, rating community efforts, and allocating funds to help communities reduce wildfire risk to private structures/property."