Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wildfire, Forest Management and Home Loss: Living in Flammable Places

As sure as the fire season will come, so will the blame be laid. Before the smoke even clears from  fires raging in New Mexico and Colorado people will want to hold someone accountable. So the finger pointing begins.

We all mourn the loss of homes and especially life and are wishing the best for the communities of Ruidoso, NM, Colorado Springs, CO and Ft. Collins, CO this year.

WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are already taking the blame for the Little Bear Fire in NM. As painful as it is, we tolerate this every year just as regularly as the monsoon rains put out the fires. That blame is often shared with the U.S. Forest Service. Thinning or logging the forests seems to be the most often cited solution to the wildfires. But no amount of logging can change the weather.

We are now witnessing, we hope, a paradigm shift in how people live in fire-prone landscapes, just as we did in the 70s with floodplains. We live in highly flammable forests that we simply cannot fireproof. But we can fireproof homes and structures.

Thinning and logging far into the back country wildlands may or may not have any effect on saving communities in the wildland urban interface (WUI). But with changing climate and recurring droughts of biblical proportion, its a safe bet that expensive thinning and logging will not make a difference under these extreme conditions. In fact, it could make the the fire hazard even worse.

When people build and live in the "fire plain"  who's responsibility is it to protect them? Should taxpayers use the federal treasury for expensive thinning of public forests far from home in an unproven attempt to change fire behavior? Or should homeowners be required to to treat their own landscapes and build with fire resistant materials? A practice known as firewise.

Insurers are taking notice and so should county policy makers examine their building codes. A study by Headwaters Economics shows the potential for more development in fire prone landscapes in the west and what this could cost in fuel management and fire suppression.

There are reasonable voices sometimes drowned out by the finger pointing. Peter Goodman is one and Evelyn Madrid Erhard is another. But others continue to want to lay blame and capitalize politically on the suffering that comes with fire season, including New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and U.S. Representative Steve Pearce.

But we can rise above the politics of fear and be rational about forest management.Western forests have burned since time immemorial and this natural process is scary. But we do not have a wildfire problem as much as a people in flammable landscapes problem. Yes, there are forest types where the science has shown we should be taking action such as mechanical thinning and prescribed burning to save those forest and their wildlife, but there are also many thousands of square miles of forests that don't need these treatments. Rather than throw scarce tax dollars at those forests, we need to be precise and take actions we know are effective like the firewise program.

In the meantime we are wishing the best for those suffering now at the hands of Mother Nature.


  1. Interesting blog, pointing out that the loss of 242 homes was the fault of the homeowners for building in fire-prone areas (the lots had trees and grass). However, I found not a word about your stopping the Bonito Lake thinning project that would have reduced fuels and allowed control. Nor did I see any mention of "green" opposition to salvaging fire-killed timber to protect snag forest habitat, as at Lake Tahoe, thus making control impossible. You'll want to correct these omissions in a later blog.

  2. Mr. McConnell assumes that thinning or logging far from homes has some effect on fire control and structure loss. The science demonstrates that this is not always true and often untrue under extreme conditions under which these fires are burning (examples are the Four Mile Canyon and Hayman fires in CO). Mr. McConnell likes to use anecdotal photographs to try to demonstrate his false assumptions.

    Mr. McConnell is correct that Guardians availed ourselves of the fundamental American democratic process (i.e NEPA) to question the wisdom of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on thinning and logging large trees far from homes. The Forest Service regional office agreed and the Lincoln NF was free to continue the project as soon as it fixed its analysis and signed a decision. Sadly, this did not happen before this fire ignited.

    As for snag habitat, Mr. McConnell needs to catch up with the most recent science on the so-called re-burn hypothesis.

  3. Pre-settlement conditions were 30-40 trees per acre in Lincoln County NM. Now we have 300+ per acre, and this is what you call NATURAL? Thinning DOES work to slow and suppress wildfire. I have examples of it in my own back yard. Would you like to see it?? Have you ever even seen the Lincoln National Forest, or do you sit in your office in Washington or Oregon and use tax payer dollars to stop every thinning program that comes along? I don't know how you sleep at night. Mind your own business and let those of us who live in the forest decide what is best for our communities and natural environment.

  4. WildEarth Guardians is based in New Mexico and does not use taxpayer dollars in its forest advocacy. Guardians does receive some state and federal money for its on-the-ground ecosystem restoration projects as can be seen here:

    Thinning forests, depending on how it is accomplished has mixed effectiveness as does prescribed burning, but under the very worst conditions which are becoming more common (e.g. drought, early snow melt, high winds, low relative humidity) all bets are off. So, it makes a lot of sense to spend limited resources strategically where it will count.