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Marcia Armstrong, Siskiyou County Supervisor, Ridin' Point 7/3/08

Wildfire suppression v. fuel reduction

The skies were tinted with thick yellow smoke outside as a group gathered inside to discuss the benefits of an aggressive fuel reduction policy rather than spending millions on fire reduction. It is just July and we are already burning. The President has declared much of California to be a national disaster area. According to CalFire reports, as of July 2 the public had already spent $4,473,065 to fight the Siskiyou Complex alone. 10,000 acres of old growth forest have already been burned there and the fire is zero percent contained. The report goes on to list page after page of the millions of acres consumed, millions of dollars spent and thousands of firefighters deployed.       

Gary Nakamura, Area Forestry Specialist for the University of California Extension in Redding, is used to talking to landowners in the WUI (“Woo-ee” or Wildland Urban Interface) about “fuel treatments” to help protect their homes from loss in a wildfire. He made a presentation on how fire behaves. Fire needs oxygen, fuel and heat to burn. Wildfire is influence by topography, weather and fuel when it burns. Fire fighters try to influence the fire intensity, rate of spread and the creation of fire brands when they “suppress” a burning wildfire.

Fuel is the factor most easily influenced before a fire. Creating a “defensible space” around homes will bring an intense fast moving fire to the ground where fire suppression can then try and contain it. Thinning of trees and trimming and removal of “ladder fuels” keeps fire from climbing into the crowns. Removal of surface fuels by hand or prescribed burns will reduce the fuels that spread a fire. Residents can also build with “fire-safe” materials to withstand low intensity fires and ignition from fire brands. Our Countywide fire safe council  http://www.firesafesiskiyou.org/Public/HomePage and local coalition of Scott Valley Fire Safe Councils has more information.  http://www.californiaresourcecenter.org/home.php

Carl Skinner from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station gave a presentation on managing fire and fuels at the broader landscape level. His research has examined the historic rate and intensity of wildfires. In some areas, the natural frequency of fires is as much as every 15 years. Stands of forests that survive that frequency commonly have low surface fuel load, limited ladder fuels and high and sufficiently spaced crowns. Areas also seem to burn historically in blocks delineated by where they are on the slope, natural features like ridges and watercourses and in what direction (aspect) they face. This allows planners to strategize where and what treatments would be most effective to bring the condition of the forest back to what they think it would have been like in a natural fire regime, (where fire hasn’t been continually suppressed.) It also allows them to better protect important resources (water source, historic, cultural, recreational and wildlife,) and to get the biggest bang for their buck. Large scale considerations are: landscape structure; fuel conditions; expected fire behavior; and values at risk.

Skinner went over the results of the Cone Fire moving through the various experimental fuel treatments at the Blacks Mountain Experimental Forest and at the Butte Valley Adaptive Management Area. See also the Klamath National Forest Eddy LSR project in the Salmon River for application of landscape principles http://www.eddylsrproject.com/

Dr. P.J. Daugherty has expertise in Ecological Economics. He pointed out that a basic principle of economics is that you pick the option with the greatest return for the least costs. With the increasing intensity of ecosystem scale fires in the West, he questions whether it is a rational social choice to pour more and more money into suppression and less and less into management and fuel reduction. He pointed out that the U.S. Forest Service budget is around $5.5 billion and now one in every four dollars is being spent on fire suppression.

On the national scale, the simple cost of annual fire suppression and immediate rehabilitation for erosion compared to the costs of hazard reduction over a 40 year time horizon does not pencil out. There is a large initial cost of fuel reduction up front, but this tapers off into less costly maintenance. From 1993-2002, the average annual acreage burned was 443,307 acres. Assuming a suppression cost of $377 per acre plus $22 per acre for suppression costs annually over a 10-15 year time, one could treat 30% of the forest at $200 per acre and $50 for subsequent maintenance. (From 1995-2004, average fire suppression costs rose to $662 per acre, so one could spend considerably more per acre on treatment over a larger number of acres and still break even.)  In addition, this does not include any offset from the value of wood fiber or the values of water quality, habitat, recreation and cultural resources being protected. (In the Klamath, this is complicated by the added costs of steep slopes and the cost of the environmental review process on fuel reduction projects which is currently running at an average of $200 per acre.)    

Dr. Dougherty concluded that the current public policy favoring fire suppression over fuels treatment is not rational.

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