FUELS MANAGEMENT FOR WILDFIRE PREVENTION

BY CHRIS Mc LOONE

Our ecosystem has taken care of treating wildfire fuels for centuries all by itself. Wildfires are naturally occurring events. Forests burn, regenerate, burn, regenerate, and so on. As people have moved into the wildland interface, building structures along the way, this natural process has been interrupted. Fires occur, and people put them out so their homes aren’t destroyed. The resultant buildup of natural fuels for wildfires has led to very significant fires.

“In the West, fire plays a natural role in managing the fuels,” says Paul Hefner, wildfire specialist and U.S. Forest Service retiree. “What it did was keep the brush down, the tree limbs up-more or less an open stand that from the firefighters’ standpoint [made it] very easy to be successful in suppression of wildfires. Fuels have been allowed to grow and thicken due to the success of fire suppression. Firefighters are not successful in suppressing now because of this situation.”

Joe Stutler, forester, Deschutes County, Oregon, adds, “I think the notion of fuels management came squarely to face in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of the occurrence of structural protection in the wildland. There was a lot of timber sale going on, so you didn’t have the buildup of fuels in most areas. As structures began moving into the wildland, people started thinking about treating fuels.” According to Stutler, two things occurred: Houses moved in, so large burns were disallowed; and areas that were timbered, for a variety of reasons, had natural fuel buildup.

Federal agencies and local-state agencies called what was happening fire suppression, but, according to Stutler, it was fire exclusion, “because fire was unable to assume and resume its role in the ecosystem.”

Timber sales created residues that don’t go with the log truck. Examples include branches, needles, and tree stumps. These residues, combined with natural vegetation that has continued to accumulate, now present significant fire hazards in and of themselves.

“We need to do something to emulate the natural fire that historically cleaned things up,” says Tim Sexton, fire use program manager with the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center. “Now we’ve entered the 21st century, and we have an enormous fire load. It took 100 years of fire suppression to get to where we are today. It will take a long time to get it resolved. It can’t be done overnight.”

Federal, local-state agencies, and private contractors have assumed the task of taking on fuels management. Collaboration among these agencies is critical to the successful treatment of fuels for the prevention of wildfires.

Fuels Management Initiatives

Before discussing how federal and local-state partnerships work with fuels management, it’s important to understand three current initiatives directly relating to fuels management: the National Fire Plan, the Healthy Forests Initiative, and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

National Fire Plan

The fuels management task is a complex one, politically, locally, and functionally. “The federal government decided to look closer at fuels after 2000 so the firefighter can become more successful in containing these fires so they don’t get so enormously large,” says Hefner. States are funding the fuels management mission. There are different methods within each state government for accomplishing fuels (all the work involved with fuels management from analyzing the issue to finishing the work). Several western states have forestry departments that suppress fire and accomplish fuels. Some states have a planning mission and a contracting role. Then local entities have their own methods. In the West, for example, some counties have the capability to assess, plan, and accomplish. They have the money and the capability. Other counties have limited capabilities to even plan. So at the local level, the functional capabilities may not be there, though the responsibility is.

Federally, there are five primary agencies for wildland fire, each with different jurisdictional responsibilities. “The actual problem is the public doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries,” says Hefner. “Expectations from the public to perform are high, but the capabilities of the various departments can’t handle the task at hand due to the enormity.”

Enter the National Fire Plan (NFP). “After the 2000 fire season, which was an expensive, devastating season for many local areas, Congress got involved and created the NFP with us and gave us more resources for suppression and fuels management-eliminating significant levels of fuels that would create catastrophic fires,” says Sexton. The plan’s intent is “actively responding to severe wildland fires and their impacts to communities while ensuring sufficient firefighting capacity for the future.” Among the key points the NFP addresses is hazardous fuels reduction (http://www.fireplan.gov/overview/whatis.html). According to Stutler, the NFP calls for federal agencies and their state partners to put together a fire plan with a 10-year strategy. The fire plan has two components: a comprehensive strategy and an implementation plan. “Basically it embraces the notion that if we’re going to stop large fires and prevent houses from burning, we have to treat the fuels across the landscape,” he says.

The NFP’s long-term hazardous fuels reduction program aims to reduce hazardous fuels that have accumulated over time in the country’s forests and rangelands. These fuels include dry brush and trees that increase the likelihood of unusually large fires. These treatments are designed to “reduce the risks of catastrophic wildland fire to people, communities, and natural resources while restoring forest and rangeland ecosystems to closely match their historical structure, function, diversity, and dynamics,” (http://www.fireplan.gov/ overview/whatis.html). According to the NFP’s Web site, these treatments accomplish these goals by removing or modifying wildland fuels to reduce the potential for severe wildland fire behavior, lessen the post-fire damage, and limit the spread or proliferation of invasive species and diseases. People are moving into and building in the wildland/urban interface areas. So treatments are focused on these areas with increased frequency.

Although the NFP placed more resources at the disposal of federal agencies, merely providing monetary assistance isn’t going to solve the fuels problem. “You have this money available to you. Then how do you get it done? You have to collaborate. You have to work with all your local jurisdictions. Where is your biggest problem? Where can we do the best work for each individual agency?” asks Hefner. Adds Sexton, “Partnering with local communities is the most effective way to address the problem. The only way to solve the problem is by working together.”

Besides the NFP, the Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act have equipped land managers with additional tools to achieve long-term objectives in reducing hazardous fuels and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems.

Healthy Forests Initiative

2002 was another bad year for wildland firefighters. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and New Mexico each had their largest timber fires in a century. In October 2003, fires occurred in Southern California that destroyed 3,700 homes and burned 750,000 acres. The Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI) came to be in August 2002. Its objective is to reduce the risks severe wildfires pose to people, communities, and the environment. According to the HFI Web site, this initiative helps improve the condition of public lands, increases firefighter safety, and conserves landscape attributes. The HFI contends that removing hazardous fuels is the answer and helps make that happen by reducing unneeded paperwork and processes to shorten the time between when a hazardous fuels project is identified and is actually implemented. The HFI “basically said that in addition to the National Fire Plan, we really need to treat fuels in and around the wildland urban interface,” says Stutler. According to the HFI Web site, these goals are being accomplished through administrative reforms and legislative action. One example of legislative action is the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) described below.

An example of administrative reform is work the HFI did regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to Hefner, working to comply with NEPA often yields no action. “NEPA can take up to two years of planning on the federal side and data gathering. In many cases, it results in no action.” For a given project, a federal land manager complies with NEPA in one of three ways. Complex projects or those likely to have significant impact on the human environment require the preparation of an environmental impact statement. An action where preliminary analysis shows similar projects were done in the past that did not have a significant impact can be excused from further examination for NEPA purposes. When a manager is unsure of likely impacts, preparation of an environmental assessment that will result in finding that either an environmental impact statement is needed or the project will not have a significant impact is required.

According to the HFI, when Congress passed the NEPA, it envisioned environmental assessments that would be short, concise documents. During the ensuing years, these assessments often became 100-page documents taking months to prepare. In 2002, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, under which NEPA falls, required that environmental assessments be concise documents, 10-15 pages long. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service now use streamlined assessments.

Regulatory processes also received some tweaking. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior developed Categorical Exclusions for certain kinds of fuels treatments and rehabilitation actions meeting conditions tied to project size, location, treatment method, and compliance with existing land and resource management plans and other environmental laws. They also mandated that fuels projects be identified via collaborative processes involving state, local, and tribal partners.

Healthy Forests Restoration Act

President George W. Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) in December 2003. It contains provisions to speed the hazardous fuels reduction and forest restoration projects on specific types of federal land that are at risk of wildland fire. “The gist of it is that about $750 million is set aside per year for local communities to identify fuels priorities on land adjacent to federal lands,” says Stutler. “If communities do that, federal and state agencies can put together environmental documents using those priority areas as a single alternative for treatment.” This community involvement is part of the HFRA, which requires collaboration between federal agencies and local communities, particularly when Community Wildfire Protection Plans are prepared. “Local communities are undertaking what are called Community Wildfire Protection Plans, and those plans will establish a priority for that local community and what it will do to manage the hazard. As they are developed, they will help federal agencies help the communities to manage the overall threat to a local community,” Sexton says.

Sometimes collaboration is no easy task. “The intent is for agencies to all work together for the common good,” says Hef-ner. “There are some roadblocks inherent to this that cause the agencies [to be less efficient].” Hefner cites agency cultures, different planning regulations, different funding mechanisms, and different abilities to use the monies by the agencies as some of these roadblocks. “These relationships do exist,” says Hefner, “but the fact that we gave them different planning regulations and different funding streams makes it harder to be efficient.”

As hard as it might be to collaborate, Hefner and Sexton agree that local involvement is key. “It all depends on where you are. If the public is involved and expectations are high, the agencies will be successful.” Sexton adds, “Another important issue is working with local communities in a collaborative manner to leverage what they’re doing with what we’re doing to create a more effective suite of treatments in those communities. We want to work with them to treat fuels adjacent to the local communities.”

Municipal Fire Department Involvement

When considering partnerships between federal and local-state agencies, it is important not to forget the role municipal fire departments play in carrying out fuels management. Often, the roles these departments play are fire prevention and code enforcement, but not always. The extent that a fire department participates is commensurate with the risk in its area. Sexton states, “It varies by particular jurisdiction. Some places do not have codes to enforce.” He adds that departments in places like Southern California are very active in fuels management. They review home construction and approve the placement of structures and vegetation. He cited the success during the 2003 fires in Southern California of not losing any structures and attributes this to the aggressive work of the municipal fire department. Some fire departments obtain funds through their state forestry, and those funds are then transferred to a variety of programs to go to local communities to reduce fuels. Other departments can perform fuels management themselves if land is adjacent to federal land.

Stutler cites examples from his area. “Two of the larger communities that we have in this huge county-one is the City of Bend-[have] a city ordinance that deals with vacant lots. If you don’t clean them up, the fire department does and you get a bill,” he says. Another city in that county is putting together the same sort of package. “We average over 400 wildfires per year here,” he continues. “We typically have large fires going on for months or weeks. We’re the fastest growing area in the Pacific Northwest. For us to not enact codes and ordinances would be almost criminal.” He goes on to compare his community with one where the workload isn’t as great. “Let’s take a place that doesn’t have that kind of workload. You’re not going to find those kinds of ordinances on the books. It may be in a fire area where you’re going to see a large fire only every 400 or 500 years.” In these instances, the municipal fire departments aren’t empowered to do as much regarding fuels management.

Hefner addresses the risk vs. frequency factor. “A lot of it depends on the setting of that municipal department. Does that municipal department have a wildland urban interface threat?” he asks. “A huge percentage of them have the threat, but how often does the threat occur? If it occurs often, then it is pretty high on the radar screen, and they’ll be involved with this on the proactive side by doing fuel management activities.” In this case, the municipal department, according to Hefner, would work on fuels management from a code enforcement standpoint and, as Sexton stated, might go out and get grants for fuels management activities.

Fuels Management Methods

Hefner, Sexton, and Stutler agree that the buildup of fuels is the result of efforts directed at putting out every fire that has occurred in recent years. “Houses moved in so you couldn’t allow large burns,” says Stutler. “Areas that were timbered, because of a variety of reasons, had natural fuel buildup.” As noted, Stutler says what resulted was called fire suppression but was actually fire exclusion “because fire was unable to assume and resume its role in the ecosystem.” The resultant initiatives developed after the realization that there was too much fuel have made it easier to manage fuels to prevent wildfires. But what are the methods?

Far and away, the least expensive and most effective is prescribed fire. “You can treat large areas relatively easily with relatively low risk with prescribed fire,” says Sexton. There are many things to worry about though, he cautions. “Smoke management is one. There are varying levels of tolerance to smoke in communities.” That means sometimes this option isn’t available. It is used more often in areas remote from communities.

The second most common tool for fuels management, according to Sexton, is thinning with chainsaws close to communities. “By removing small-diameter trees and brush, it removes some of the live fuel that allows fires to move into communities,” he says. “It is important to do thinning in a buffer area around communities to prevent a ground fire from slamming into a community.”

Stutler adds, “There are a hundred ways to mechanically treat fuel including hand crews with chainsaws or tools and a disk behind a bulldozer or tractor if it’s not too high or thick.” A feller buncher is a tracked or rubber piece of equipment that goes into an individual tree, clips the tree off at the base, holds if upright, moves it, and puts it on a deck. “One of the traditional methods is timber sales. Whether it’s government land, state land, or private land, there’s value to the timber that’s there,” adds Stutler.

Wildland fire use is another prospect. “Wildland fire use is a significant part of a program that will provide a much larger portion of fuels management use,” says Sexton. Natural ignitions used to achieve hazard fuel reduction allow fire to take on its natural role to regulate insects and disease, cycling of nutrients, and keeping forests open and healthy. In the past, wildfire use was confined to wilderness areas. But in the past five years, it’s been allowed in nonwilderness areas to a limited extent. Sexton sees this increasing in five to 10 years to allow hazard fuel reduction across large landscapes.

Public Education is Key

One of the factors contributing to the buildup of fuels is development in the urban interface. In some cases, people are actually adding fuels in an attempt to maintain their privacy. “The biggest fuels problems aren’t isolated to federal jurisdiction,” states Stutler. “The fact of the matter is when you build houses in the urban interface, those houses become more flammable than the fuels. The only way we’ll be successful is if the federal, state, and local agencies work together to treat fuels.” He adds that there is a continuing, growing population in the urban interface that has little to no awareness of the responsibility involved with living in the wildland interface. “Keeping up with the education on why it is a responsibility to do what they need to do to keep their houses from burning down-that’s the continuing thing,” he says. Sexton agrees: “Partnering with local communities is the most effective way to address the problems. It’s a must to do this. We know we’re more successful in some places than others. Some places don’t believe it will happen to them. The only way to solve the problem is by working together.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE is Fire Engineering’s Web editor. A 12-year veteran of the fire service, he is a second lieutenant in the Weldon Fire Company in Glenside, Pennsylvania.


With direct respect to removing hazardous fuels, HFRA:

x2022; Provides authority for expedited vegetation treatments on certain types of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that: (a) are at risk of wildland fire; (b) have experienced windthrow, blowdown, or ice-storm damage; (c) are currently experiencing disease or insect epidemics; or (d) are at imminent risk of such epidemics because of conditions on adjacent land.

• Provides expedited environmental analysis of HFRA projects.

• Provides administrative review before decisions are issued on proposed HFRA projects on Forest Service lands.

• Contains requirements governing the maintenance and restoration of old-growth forest stands when the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management carry out HFRA projects in such stands.

• Requires HFRA projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land to maximize retention of larger trees in areas other than old-growth stands, consistent with the objective of restoring fire-resilient stands and protecting “at-risk” communities and federal lands.

• Requires collaboration between federal agencies and local communities, particularly when Community Wildfire Protection Plans are prepared.

• Requires using at least 50 percent of the dollars allocated to HFRA projects to protect areas adjacent to communities at risk of wildland fire.

• Requires performance to be monitored when agencies conduct hazardous fuel reduction projects and encourages multiparty monitoring that includes communities and other diverse stakeholders (including interested citizens and Tribes).

• Encourages courts to expedite judicial review of legal challenges to HFRA projects.

• Directs that when courts consider a request for an injunction on an HFRA-authorized project, they balance the short and long-term environmental effects of undertaking the project against the effects of taking no action.

Source: http://www.healthyforests.gov/initiative/legislation.html

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