Wednesday, 17 October 2018
A Perspective on Wildfire
October 17, 2018
Fire is natural. It has always been part of forest ecosystems, particularly in the western United States. However, our over-stocked forests are burning at an unnatural rate and intensity due to decades of fire suppression and fuel loading. Climate change is also making wildfires more likely.
In the West, few topics get conversation going like wildfires. Opinions abound, but in fact, the science of wildfires is well established, offering a reasonably clear picture of how we got here and what we can expect in the years and decades ahead in western forests.
Sarah Billig, FSC US board member and director of stewardship for Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Companies, put it this way: “Historically the forests of California averaged somewhere around 50 trees per acre. Due to fire suppression policies, many forests in the state now have 300-400 trees per acre. After a 5-year drought, the state now has 129 million dead trees. Had these forests been managed to historic stocking levels, many of these trees might still be alive. When today’s forests burn, the result is catastrophic loss of habitat which is also the source of much of the state’s water.”
Because wildfires can take such a heavy toll – of lives, health, livelihoods, and forests – it’s no wonder opinions run strong. But much is known about wildfires and how climate change is impacting them:
- Wildfires are increasing, and the fire season is getting longer.
- Climate change is increasing wildfire risk.
- More land is at risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Clearly action is needed. Sadly, government investment (along with human nature) tends to emphasize putting wildfires out, rather than preventing them.
What can we do to mitigate the worst impacts of wildfire, while also recognizing the role they play in forest ecosystems? That is the question at the center of much debate. A few ideas rise to the surface:
- We need to invest more in forest restoration, including thinning and prescribed burns in over-stocked forest stands. Much of this work is pre-commercial, meaning it costs money. The notion that thinning and restoration can pay for itself – whether through salvage logging of burned areas or harvest of over-stocked stands – is likely to be faulty.
- We should carefully consider allowing some wildfires to burn, especially when they are away from homes and people.
- As homeowners continue to build in the “wildland-urban interface” (also known as “forest”), we need to explore incentives and regulations that promote Firewise communities.
So, what can FSC do to help?
Sarah Billig offers a few additional ideas: “FSC can play a role in multiple ways. First, FSC can work to integrate more fire resiliency and risk reduction techniques into the forest management standards. Second, FSC can be an advocate for appropriate fuels management and finding better ways to provide landowners access to those risk reduction tools. Finally, we can encourage everyone who cares about forests to get involved locally and to work on reducing risk in their own backyard by maintaining defensible space around their home.”