Fire management faulted in Calif. disaster
By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter
Originally Published: Friday, October 13, 2017 at E&E: Greenwire
The widespread damage from wildfires in California's wine country could have been avoided with better fire management policies, researchers say.
A more consistent and thoughtful approach to defensible space around homes would reduce wildfire threats and is a better long-term approach than thinning forests far away from populated areas, said Alexandra Syphard, a senior research scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute.
Syphard, speaking yesterday at a forum sponsored by critics of the timber industry, said policymakers should stick to a "from the house out" strategy to protecting homes and businesses, and not rely on management of wildland areas to control fires.
Defensible space is the area around a home where brush and trees are thinned to slow a fire's spread.
But the problem isn't just a shortage of defensible space but rather an excess of space, Syphard said.
That's because clearing too much vegetation, too far from a house, has no benefit and can make the problem worse if landowners plant exotic grasses that are prone to burn, she said. An area up to 60 feet from homes is usually enough, Syphard said, well short of the 100 to 300 feet California law requires in fire-prone areas.
"They're taking defensible space to the extreme," Syphard said.
Syphard spoke at the forum sponsored by the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, a research organization openly critical of federal policies that encourage forest thinning and other types of active management to reduce wildfires. Breaking with federal policymakers and many forest scientists, the researchers say their work indicates that increased logging won't reduce wildfire risk and might make it worse.
That debate is playing out as Congress mulls legislation to relax environmental laws to allow quicker clearing of dead or diseased trees in national forests at risk of fire (E&E Daily, Sept. 28).
While the wine country fires are in a different type of landscape from fires burning in other parts of the West — wine country is rolling, with grasslands interspersed with trees — the need for a better home protection strategy is the same, researchers said. Laws aren't enforced well everywhere, added Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and director of the John Muir Project.
Researchers also made a distinction between fires in grassland areas — where suppression and prevention is a better strategy — and forests, which have adapted to fires over centuries.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends three concentric zones of defensible space around homes — one out to 30 feet, and others depending on fire hazard severity zones. Vegetation can be cleared less aggressively in outer zones, FEMA said in a fact sheet on its website.
In Congress, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and other lawmakers have introduced legislation to make FEMA funding available for "fire wise" home projects in areas affected by wildfire. That work could help reduce the risk from subsequent fire, they said (E&E Daily, Oct. 12).
While Hanson and fellow researchers advocate for accepting wildfire as part of nature, "ignoring it would be a mistake," said Mark Whitmore, a Cornell University cooperative extension associate who is from Washington state and conducted forestry research in the area of California affected by the fires.
Fuel loads need to be reduced in forests, Whitmore said, to make up for decades in which forest policy encouraged putting fires out as soon as they start. That was a flawed approach that ignored fire's natural role in the ecosystem, but it persists in some people's minds, Whitmore told E&E News.
"A lot of people live by that — they see fire, they think, 'Bad,'" Whitmore said.
All sides agree that this year's fire season has been extreme. More than 8 million acres of forest has burned, including more than 2 million acres of Forest Service land, according to the agency. The Forest Service, assisting with the California fires, spends more than half its annual budget on wildfires.
Fire season has expanded from five months to seven or more, scientists say, driven by a trend toward hotter, drier weather.
Scientists generally blame climate change for the increase in fires, but that aspect of the issue is clouded in politics. Republicans in Congress say fires are worsening carbon emissions by throwing smoke into the air and destroying the forests' ability to sequester carbon.
Science doesn't support that view, said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., speaking at yesterday's event.
What looks like smoke rising from wildfires is largely water vapor, DellaSala said. And while forest thinning works well in some places, he said, in Oregon, logging is responsible for more carbon emissions than wildfire.
"If we're really concerned about emissions, we're looking in the wrong place," he said.