Sep 19, 2019
Risks and Rewards: Managing Wildfire for Resource Objectives in Northern New Mexico
By: Emily Jane Davis Zander Evans, Mike Caggiano, Heidi Huber-Stearns
Type: Research Synthesis
On July 13th, lightning ignited the Francisquito fire on the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. Forest Service incident decision makers described their management of this fire as follows:
“After taking into consideration the fire’s location, the fuels it is burning in, considerable green-up in the forest, and current and predicted precipitation, the Carson National Forest decided to manage this fire to achieve multiple resource benefits. The forest’s first priority is always firefighter and public safety. Allowing the fire to naturally thin the forest and take out the weaker, more diseased trees will improve forest health, range land and wildlife habitat.”
Millions of acres of fire-adapted forests and thousands of homes are at high risk from unnaturally severe wildfires. To help address this, some managers like those on the Francisquito fire are taking advantage of the potential positive impacts of wildfires at appropriate intensities and severities. For the US Forest Service, federal fire policy issued in 2009 allows for part or all of a naturally ignited wildfire on federal land to be “managed for resource objectives.” This means that incident decision makers may choose strategies other than full suppression when they judge that conditions will likely cause a wildfire to function like a prescribed fire: burning through the understory of a fire-adapted forest and consuming fuel without killing the overstory. In the past, this practice was called wildland fire use.
The same policy that enables management of naturally ignited fires also recognizes that “risks must be balanced with the potential benefits on an individual incident basis.” It isn’t hard to imagine some of those risks, and research has already examined the barriers to this approach. With any wildfire, Forest Service managers develop their strategies based on the risk context, which includes how and where the wildfire started, firefighter safety, public safety, involved or proximate ownerships, land management plans and resource availability. These factors drive incident management decisions, but are there other enabling conditions that may make it more feasible to manage fire for resource objectives?
This seemed like a good question for our team of curious social scientists. Together, we have been interested in understanding how agencies, partners, and landowners might co-manage wildfire risks, particularly by acting collectively and at larger landscape scales. We wanted to dig deeper into identifying enabling conditions. To explore this, we first hit the ground in northern New Mexico in fall 2018 for a case study. We chose this region for the number of organizations and initiatives focused on restoring forest health and fire resiliency. Through 20 interviews with Forest Service managers and their partners, we found specific characteristics that had helped them manage natural ignitions over the past few years:
- Setting the stage with environmental analysis: Analysis of planned forest management projects required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can help managers prepare to oversee a naturally ignited wildfire. If a wildfire naturally ignites in an area that has already undergone NEPA analysis, then managers and decision makers have information about how fire may affect those resources, which can aid their incident decision making. During NEPA analysis, there are also opportunities to plan for prescribed fire and the possibility of natural ignitions, offering a foundation for using those approaches in the future.
- Imagining the possibilities with pre-season and spatially explicit planning: Land managers and stakeholders can work together before fire season to identify shared values and priorities, and inform where natural ignitions might be possibly managed for resource benefits. One example of a recent formalized process for doing this is the determination of potential operational delineations, or PODs. This process, which has taken place on the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests in New Mexico, combines local knowledge, spatial analysis and fire modeling. The resulting information, such as spatial data uploaded into wildfire decision support tools or printed planning maps, can guide specific options for wildfire response. The collaborative process of developing POD maps can improve shared understanding and support for these options once a fire occurs. This particularly offers an opportunity for interaction across resource disciplines within the Forest Service.
- Creating a net of support: In fire-adapted forests, there are no risk-free options. Not utilizing prescribed fire or managing fire for multiple objectives may often appear less risky in the short term, but carries a risk that the next wildfire will be more severe. Partners can create a more supportive environment for taking calculated risks and getting “good fire” on the ground to benefit communities and forests in the long run. Partnerships such as the Rio Grande Water Fund, which have developed in part due to New Mexico’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, have woven a net of support by creating a shared sense of the need for forest restoration and returning fire to the landscape. These partners increasingly recognize that managing natural ignitions may help accomplish these goals at meaningful scales.
- Paving the way with prescribed fire: Some practitioners in northern New Mexico see prescribed fire as a necessary step toward other future fire management options, and as a tool that can make future fires in the same area easier to manage. The inherent uncertainty in when, where, and how wildfires occur can limit opportunities to manage natural ignitions for resource objectives. With prescribed fire, some of this uncertainty is reduced. Applying fire through a planned event supported by sufficient resources allows agencies, partners and landowners to familiarize themselves with fire behavior, observe fire effects and improve coordination of fire management resources. Northern New Mexico managers and partners are applying prescribed fire to increasingly larger acreages. They are also investing in capacity building through efforts such as the All Hands, All Lands Burn Team, which provides insured and qualified burn bosses and personnel.
Of course, limits remain to managing natural ignitions for resource objectives, and they are not always under managers’ control. For example, more suitable environmental conditions for managing fire in northern New Mexico may occur during the monsoon season, when fire seasons peak in other areas of the country and fire resources are assigned elsewhere. Fires may also start in areas where potential impacts to community safety and adjacent jurisdictions make full suppression necessary. Despite this substantial uncertainty in when and where a natural ignition may occur, managers and partners like those in northern New Mexico may find that the ingredients we’ve described can build their latent capacity to be ready when the opportunity arises.
Funding for this research was provided by Joint Fire Science Program (Project # 17-1-06-6)
Emily Jane Davis is a co-associate director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program, a bi-institutional partnership between the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at University of Oregon and the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. She is also an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University.
Zander Evans is the executive director at the Forest Stewards Guild where he directs and conducts research to support on-the-ground implementation of ecological forestry.
Mike Caggiano is a research associate at Colorado Forest Restoration Institute where he works on facilitating cross jurisdictional fire management and firefighter training, supporting prescribed fire applications and investigating the social and organizational constructs that impact our ability to manage fire in Wildland Urban Interface areas.
Heidi Huber-Stearns is an assistant research professor at the University of Oregon, focusing on natural resource policy and governance, director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon and co-associate director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program.
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