Jerry Williams On Megafires

What exactly are megafires? Why do they happen? Can they be prevented? When is the next one going to occur and where?

Those questions and similar ones were explored at the annual meeting of the Inland Empire chapter of the Society of American Foresters last month in Wallace, Idaho.

Perhaps no one has more insight into megafires than Jerry T. Williams, retired U.S. Forest Service, former Director, USFS Fire & Aviation (the highest ranking fire officer in the country). He presented a paper entitled The 1910 Fires A Century Later: Could They Happen Again?. Selected excerpts and a link to the full text are [here].

Some background: in 1910 a firestorm swept across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In just 48 hours 3 million acres were burned, 85 people killed, and five towns destroyed in a sparsely populated region.

Dr. Stephen J. Pyne wrote the scholarly history of the harrowing tale in Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, 2001 Viking Press [here]. Jim Petersen, co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation gave a fine lecture on the topic [here]. Bruce Vincent, Tom Boatner, yours truly [here], and many others have weighed in on the likelihood of another “category five” firestorm in the Northern Rockies.

This year, the 100-year anniversary of The Big Blowup, has seen quite a few memorial events and seminars. The Inland Empire SAF meeting may have been the most notable of those, and Jerry Williams’ paper the most perceptive commentary yet on whether such a megafire could happen again.

His very expert conclusion is yes, yes indeed.

Mr. Williams bases his conclusion in part on the findings of the Mega-Fire Project, a study of nine megafires that occurred across the United States between 1998 and 2007: Volusia-Flagler Complex (205,786 acres, Florida 1998); Valley Complex (212,030 acres, Montana 2000); Hayman Fire (137,760 acres, Colorado 2002); Rodeo-Chedeski Fire (468,638 acres, Arizona 2002); Biscuit Fire (499,965 acres, Oregon 2002); Ponil Complex (92,522 acres, New Mexico 2002); Georgia Bay Complex/Bugaboo (561,000 acres, Georgia and Florida 2007); Boise National Forest portion of the Cascade Complex (302,376 acres, Idaho 2007).

He raises some key issues, many of which we have discussed at length here at SOS Forests, but which are worthy of reconsideration:

* Virtually all of the mega-fires evaluated in this assessment occurred in predominantly dense, late-successional forests. At the landscape-scale, these forests had remained largely un-disturbed for a long time.

* Although mega-fires burned across a wide variety of habitat types and fire regimes, a significant portion of the overall mega-fire acreage studied in this assessment occurred in shorter interval fire-dependent ecosystems, much altered from their historic condition…

* On many mega-fire landscapes, the forest conditions that fueled these severe, high-intensity wildfires were often reflected in governing land-use objectives. On public lands, they were called-for in Land and Resource Management Plans. …

* In virtually every case, the values that were being managed for were lost or severely compromised, as a result of the mega-fire’s impacts. …

The forests most likely to generate catastrophic, uncontrollable firestorms are “late-successional”. That’s a euphemism for formerly open, park-like forests, historically maintained by anthropogenic fire, that have become overgrown with dense thickets of second-growth in the absence of human tending.

The former indigenous residents did not want to be burned up in megafires. That kind of thing cramped their style and bummed their trip. So the First Residents managed landscapes with frequent, seasonal, light burning fires which consumed grasses, brush, and small trees and kept forests open. Megafire destruction that could have wiped out their communities and resources were thus avoided.

In the absence of human tending, or more precisely, in the presence of ridiculous set-asides based on a-historical, junk science notions of forest development, biomass (fuel) loadings have built up to catastrophic levels — and megafires are the direct result.

In virtually every case, the “values” that were being managed for, the ostensible reasons the “late successional” forests were set aside and locked up for, were exactly the values DESTROYED by the megafires.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The hoot-n-puffers who marched in the streets and set fire to public buildings in their hysterical, non-negotiable demands to lock up our priceless heritage forests actually achieved the exact opposite of their stated goal — they did not “protect” forests, they destroyed them.

Unctuous politicians, so anxious to please the most radical elements in society, set up our forests to burn in megafires that turn vast tracts into scorched earth moonscapes reminiscent of Vietnam and other napalmed war zones, all the while patting themselves on the back for their environmental sensitivity.

Another interesting point made by Mr. Williams:

* A general absence of landscape-scale diversity commonly described altered conditions. …

* In the absence of periodic under-burning, fire-intolerant species encroached further down the temperature-moisture gradient onto the warmer, drier sites.

* The “melding” of transition zones between fire regimes has changed landscape-scale fire behavior. In these areas, recent wildfires are sweeping entire landscapes with high-intensity fire behavior. Wildfires that may have exhibited low- or mixed-severity fire behavior over much of the landscape one-hundred years ago, exhibit severe, stand replacement burning over most of the landscape today. …

* Because mega-fires are burning at stand replacement intensities across a wide mix of altered fire regimes over such extensive areas, many of today’s mega-fires may be setting the stage for the next generation’s mega-fire. …

To paraphrase, the entire landscape is at risk. The fuel accumulations are contiguous. Megafires get mega because there are no fuel breaks to fragment them into controllable pieces.

All the hue and cry by the braindead, forest-science-challenged folks to halt the “fragmentation” of forests has lead to continuous, contiguous biomass accumulations that cause, promote, and propagate fires so that said fires go mega — i.e. travel across landscapes in firestorm fashion until hundreds of thousands of acres are burned in a matter of hours.

Braindead hue and cry has consequences, you know, and they aren’t good ones.

Furthermore, megafires breed more megafires because they homogenize landscapes. One megafire leads to the next megafire.

When the Silver Fire burned 100,000 acres in 1987 in Southwest Oregon, people thought they had witnessed Armageddon. There was a certain finality to the Silver Fire; it was the Fire To End All Fires.

Until 2002, that is, when the exact same ground burned in the 500,000 acre Biscuit Fire. Was that one the Fire To End All Fires? Surely not! After another 15 years of fine fuel bio-production, the exact same ground will burn again in the next even larger megafire. We can be assured that will happen because the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has not done one damned thing to treat the continuity of the fuels, and what’s worse, they have formally adopted Let It Burn as their guiding fire policy!

Mr. Williams wrote:

In 1910, the dry forest types in much of the region were still open, still resilient, and still exhibited low- to moderate-fire behavior potential when they burned. In a way, these 1910 stand conditions in the ponderosa pine type may have been a “buffer,” now lost. In 1910, when wildfires “roared out of the mountains” onto the warmer, drier sites, they ran into forests that were less hazardous. Pushed by high winds, they swept through the understory, but they burned at lower intensities and passed quickly. Afterwards the forest and most of its values were left largely intact. In a more open condition, it was still possible to save lives and homes. Today, tightly compressed multi-storied stands, choked with upwards of 1,000 trees per acre and packing heavy fuels, dominate these same sites. Insect infestations and standing dead only add to the problem. When these forests burn today, they burn intensely and not much comes through it. …

The future really isn’t what it used to be. In the past, a “benevolent” climate cycle, open dry forest types, a diverse, “mosaic-like” landscape in the backcountry, and a relatively low and dispersed population were some insurance against all but the most angry disasters. Today, though, across broad reaches of the Intermountain West, where drought, deteriorated forest conditions, and landscape homogeneity have all come to a head, the magnitude of a potential disaster may be much greater than we imagine. …

In other words, the situation is worse than we thought. Worse than some of us thought, at any rate. The anti-stewardship mentality has set up whole regions for catastrophic firestorms.

No Touch, Let It Burn, Watch It Rot policies are killing our forests on a landscape scale and threatening private lands, homes, towns, and lives far removed from the unmanaged Federal lands.

Sue-happy enviro groups are not only monkey wrenching forest health treatments in remote areas, they are setting up whole regions for megafire firestorm disasters of Biblical proportions.

I don’t know Mr. Williams personally. I cannot say if it disturbs him to watch his former agencies (USFS, NIFC, WFLC) play kissy face with eco-terrorists. It disturbs me. It ought to disturb all of us when our Federal land management agencies are meeting in secret with self-avowed Marxist-anarchists whose stated goals include regional megafire destruction, for the tacit purpose of upping the Revolution.

Let us try to be a little more adult about this, shall we? Let’s see what we can do to prevent megafires by restoring forested landscapes to their former open, park-like, and fire-resilient conditions. That would benefit wildlife, watersheds, heritage, and public health and safety by reducing the likelihood of regional firestorms that sweep across whole states in matter of hours, killing everything in their paths.

Maybe Federal land management agencies can dialog with folks who do not want them to curl up and die. It might actually be pleasant for functionaries to meet with people who are pro-stewardship instead of pro-holocaust.

But enough of my opinions. Mr. Williams certainly understands the meat of the megafire issue:

* After-action assessments (post-wildfire reviews) generally focused on operational performance. They rarely linked land management plans and practices to wildfire outcomes. So long as administrators confine their focus on corrective actions to fire operations, Fire Management will be confronted with a problem that they, alone, cannot solve.

* In several plans, it appeared that “no-action” was often perceived as having no consequence. Although project-level environmental assessments addressed - at length - the social, economic, and biological impacts of various treatment alternatives, little or no such rigor was applied to the “no-action” option. …

* Many of the laws that govern the management of fire-prone ecosystems reflect an inherent bias. Mitigation treatments, which might reduce wildfire risk, “compete” against other values that may, temporarily, be degraded. In many cases, these proposed treatments simply cannot get past the short-term risks involved regardless of long-term benefit. On the other hand, wildfires (even those that may eventually result from “no-action”) get a “pass.” …

It is not clear that the development of forest plans can “beat the train to the crossing.” Nor is it clear that a plan’s life will enable long-term mitigation strategies at meaningful scales.

The problem is a lack of will and intention to mitigate the megafire hazard with landscape-scale forest restoration.

Fire management is a subset of land management. Fire is not a valuable resource; it is a destroyer of valuable resources. The key to controlling fire is to manage the land in a pro-active way in order to save resources from destruction and degradation.

Mr. Williams notes:

In some fire-prone forests, the best “hedge” against the mega-fire threat may be a more diverse landscape. In the dry types, the best insurance against loss may be more open, more resilient forest conditions. In these solutions, though, it seems that we are systemically immobilized. Our own doctrine and many of the perceptions that surround firefighting capabilities simply will not acknowledge that we cannot, somehow, close that one-percent. Many of our land management laws, policies, and plans are at odds with the thinning, prescribed burning, and selective cutting needed to mitigate the mega-fire threat. Markets that might help are going away. And policy strategies that might use high-intensity wildfires to clean up the fuels and solve the problem are not always consistent with the ecologies involved. In many places, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

Why should we work to reconcile these dilemmas? Why should we take this on? Some will argue that all of this is too costly, too contentious, and much too complicated to confront. Some will find comfort in the facts that, after all, federal fire protection budgets have never been higher, cooperation between partners has never been stronger, and technological advances have never been greater. Some, against a growing body of evidence, will deny the problem and insist that a few more firefighters, a little better cooperation, or a new technology can somehow fix all of this.

In my judgment, the mega-fire threat will not be fixed on the fireline.

Dittos to all that.

I recommend that the fire community read Mr. Williams paper very carefully, with a sense of urgency, and that his words be taken very seriously. He knows what he’s talking about.

It is high time that the fire community rejoins the land management community and works to prevent megafires through scientific and sensitive landscape-scale forest restoration.

Forest restoration means active management to bring back historical cultural landscapes, historical forest development pathways, and traditional ecological stewardship to achieve historical resiliency to fire and insects and to preclude and prevent a-historical catastrophic fires that decimate and destroy myriad resource values [here].

Fire resiliency and the reduction of catastrophic fires

Modern fires, especially those in dense thickets that are no longer managed by frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fires, cause total tree mortality. No trees survive the infrequent holocausts, and so no trees attain old-growth status. In fact, modern fires routinely kill old-growth trees that withstood multiple fires in bygone eras. Modern fires, burning in dense, build-up fuel conditions, are severe and often convert heritage forests to more or less permanent brush fields.

By restoring thicket forests to their historical norm of open, park-like conditions, and in addition by restoring historical anthropogenic fire regimes, forests can be saved from catastrophic incineration and conversion to brush.

Forest restoration also seeks to restore, maintain, and perpetuate the historical patterns of prairies (meadows), and savannas (woodlands) that existed prior to Euro-American occupation. Those landscape features aid in control of wildfires and thus reduce the potential for catastrophic megafires. — Mike Dubrasich. 2010. The Benefits of Forest Restoration. W.I.S.E. White Paper 2010-2. Western Institute for Study of the Environment.

If we do not undertake landscape-scale forest restoration, and sooner rather than later, we will suffer ever more frequent, ever larger, and ever more destructive megafires.

7 Jun 2010, 2:51pm
by Larry H.

I’ve always thought we should put more efforts into analyzing the “no-action alternative”. At least, when a project DOES go to court, the Forest Service would have the “best science available” that is also site-specific and timely, collaborated with Agency “ologists”. The judge(s) could then more accurately weigh the options and intents.

7 Jun 2010, 3:35pm
by Al

Excellent commentary.

And now the situation is further complicated by the mantra that we should try to use temperate forests to sequester carbon for significant lengths of time…



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