Research Aims at Reducing the Fire Backlog in the Sierra Nevada
Author: Wendy Fulks, Bill Tripp, Darren Borgias
Last week, members of the FAC Net and Fire Learning Network “Community of Practice for Using Fire” (CPUF) heard about some compelling fire and forest management research that is being conducted in Region 5 of the Forest Service.
Feasible Forest and Fire Management Options in the Sierra Nevada?
Malcolm North presented his findings related to the fire deficit in the Sierra Nevada, and the combined need for mechanical treatments, prescribed fire and wildfire for reducing that deficit.
North explained how he concluded that the annual fire deficit is 400,000-450,000 acres, and that the fire “debt,” or backlog, is much larger. North described how his recommendation–that the Forest Service treat forests and then maintain them with prescribed fire or managed wildfire—was met with skepticism about the practicality of the large-scale use of managed fire.
As a result, North and his colleagues conducted another study in which they factored in access issues (including distance from roads and slope), legal constraints, and sensitive species and areas to show that only 44 percent of the productive forests managed by the Forest Service in the Sierra Nevada is available to mechanical treatment.
He pointed out that while the direct benefit of mechanical thinning in decreasing the deficit is limited in many locations, such work could establish ‘anchors’ for facilitating and expanding fire use.
Revising Forest Plans to Improve Decisions During Wildfires
Phil Bowden is investigating ways to improve planning for and response to wildfires in the Sierra Nevada by assessing fire risk to high-value natural resources and built assets and then zoning for a range of responses. When information such as this is added to forest land and resource management plans, polygon-based objectives can be integrated into the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS). His approach will be used in the revision of Inyo, Sierra and Sequoia National Forest Plans.
Bowden explained the risk model he’s working with to assign areas to four zones: community wildfire protection, general wildfire protection, wildfire restoration and wildfire maintenance. The hope is to help fire managers find better opportunities to integrate fires managed for resource benefit.
The ensuing discussion focused on the potential to enrich Bowden’s work (and other related efforts) with community wildfire protection plan priorities or other local information sources. Such a process would better inform the public about fire management and could give communities a stronger voice in determining how wildfires that affect them are managed. Through engagement in this process, the values identified by local communities can guide decisions about how to manage wildfires.
In Ashland, Oregon, city government and business leaders, residents and the federal land management agencies have met with researchers from Portland State and Michigan State University to discuss their mental models of the issues around using fire, both prescribed fire and natural ignitions managed for resource benefit. In a spring workshop the groups will look at the similarities, differences, connections and gaps among their models to begin identifying opportunities to strengthen their collaborative capacity and work on the barriers to using fire. Overcoming issues of smoke, political pressures and trust around using fire will benefit from relationship-building and dialogue.