2017: The Year on Fire

Amazingly, a large wildfire is still burning in California as the year nears its end. Supposedly the largest California wildfire in recorded history, the Thomas fire has burned nearly 300,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes and other structures.

A firefighter looks at the Thomas Fire on Christmas day.

While the Thomas fire is not quite 100 percent contained, any additional acres it burns will not much change the year’s total of 9.6 million acres burned, which is almost 50 percent more than the previous ten-year average of 6.5 million acres. The extent of burning in California (more than 1.2 million acres) and the Pacific Northwest (more than 1.0 million acres) fueled controversies over public land management in general.

For example, Representative Greg Walden (who just happens to represent the Antiplanner’s part of Oregon) blamed fires on environmentalists, suggesting that more logging and fuel treatments would have led to “healthier forests” that were more resistant to fire. Noting that an acre of fuel treatment costs only a fifth as much as the Forest Service spends on fire suppression, per acre burned, Walden says, “It’s five times more expensive to fight fire than it is to do the fuels treatment to reduce the impact of fire.”

But that’s false logic, partly because you don’t know in advance which acres are going to burn in any given year. Less than 1 percent of forests burn in a typical year, so you might have to treat a hundred times as many acres as might burn, which would end up being twenty times the cost of fire suppression. Another problem is that the federal government, and the Forest Service in particular, spends way too much money on fire suppression, so a comparison of fire suppression with fuel treatments costs isn’t valid. Finally, even the best fuel treatments don’t make lands immune to fire, particularly in hot, droughty years.

Forest Service researcher Mark Finney supports the idea of fuel treatments, but he disagrees that logging makes an effective treatment. Logging typically removes the large pieces of wood that are difficult to ignite, leaving behind the fine pieces that are easy to burn. Thus, it can make areas more fire prone, not less.

Finney admits that fuel treatments are ineffective if only applied to small areas. But you do start to see effects, he says, when 20 to 40 percent of an area is treated. Do the math: if fire suppression costs five times as much as fuel treatments, and you have to treat twenty times as many acres for treatments to be effective, you still end up spending at least four times as much on treatments as on suppression.

The real question is why we need to spend so much money on either suppression or treatments. Fires are a natural part of the forests; always have been and always will be. The story that a century of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up to unnatural levels is just another ego-trip on the part of the Forest Service; the truth is that its fire suppression efforts were never effective enough to produce that result.

As the Antiplanner has noted frequently, if protection of homes and other structures is the goal, treating the land right around the structures is both necessary and sufficient to protect those buildings. It is necessary because fuel treatments elsewhere are no guarantee that fire brands flying through the air won’t ignite new fires as much as a mile away. It is sufficient because, even if fires burn out of control 150 feet away, they won’t be hot enough to ignite a wooden structure (with a non-flammable roof) through radiant heat alone.

While 2017 was an above-average fire year, more acres burned in 2006 and 2015. Still, that makes 2017 the third-worst year since 1960. Why was it so bad? In a word, drought, and in particular, late-summer drought. Although California’s drought officially ended in 2016, there was still plenty of dry wood in the forests, and the rapid growth of grasses in response to spring rains quickly dried out at the end of the summer, creating severe fire dangers.

Are the recent droughts evidence of global warming? Probably not, as the United States had worse droughts in the 1930s and 1950s than any recent decade. However, charts being used by climate-change skeptics to show that fires were many times worse in the 1930s are wrong.

The Antiplanner examined these historic data, that were once posted on the National Interagency Fire Center‘s web site, in a 2002 report and indeed found raw Forest Service data showing hundreds of millions of acres burned in the 1930s. However, a close look at the data revealed that, in the 1930s, the Forest Service was opposed to prescribed burning and insisted on counting all prescribed fires as wildfires. Deducting the prescribed fires would probably still leave more acres burned in the 1930s as in recent years, but an accurate count of real wildfire acres from those years is impossible today. After I published this report, the Fire Center took the pre-1960 data off of its web site as unreliable.

I am not an expert on climate change, but I can say that fires are going to be bad in droughty years no matter what the cause of the drought and no matter what you do to prevent them. Some fuel treatments might be worthwhile as fire breaks on the boundaries of public and private lands, but protecting homes and other structures should be the responsibility of the structure owners, not the wildfire agencies. If Congress is really concerned about saving money on wildfire suppression, it should turn federal wildfire programs over to the states, which are much more efficient than the Forest Service.

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6 thoughts on “2017: The Year on Fire

  1. Sandy Teal

    Environmentalists like to say that “naturally” there were more frequent but less intense fires. So then more acres burned equals more “natural” fire regime, right?

    The reason why “logging” is part of fire treatments is because harvesting logs pays for the treatment, instead of wanting to do more treatment and whining about not having funding for it.

    So what is the goal? Fires are going to burn in these ecosystems, and humans are going to light more fires than naturally would occur no matter what. Controlled burns don’t do much because of the extreme fear that they might escape and people will be blamed, so they are only lit under the most strict of restrictions.

    Protecting structures makes sense, except when someone owns one acre and then wants the ten surrounding acres treated to protect “their building”.

    One answer to some problems is to identify treatments and then make them instantly approved the next time we need “shovel ready projects” for the federal government to throw money at. Much more productive than Cash for Clunkers was.

  2. Frank

    “Environmentalists like to say that ‘naturally’ there were more frequent but less intense fires. So then more acres burned equals more ‘natural’ fire regime, right?”

    No. This is a classic Sandy straw man with a scare quote around “naturally” and “environmentalists” used (instead of ecologists) pejoratively.

    What fire ecologists have discovered through scientific observation and research is that in *some* ecosystems, there were more frequent and less intense fires. This includes ponderosa pine forests.

    However, fire ecologists have also discovered through scientific observation and research is that in *some* ecosystems, such as chaparral, historically have had less frequent (50-100+ years), higher intensity fires.

    “The reason why ‘logging’ is part of fire treatments is because harvesting logs pays for the treatment”

    No, it doesn’t. (Also, another scare quote.) Logging in some ecosystems increases surface fuels and the risk of higher intensity wildfire.

  3. LazyReader

    Jadav Payeng planted an entire forest, 1,300 acres all by himself on a dry, hot sandbar no one said would grow anything…..
    It’s not just climate change responsible for these catastrophic fires; it’s California’s land use practices. Jennifer Marlon, a scientist at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and colleagues, looked at charcoal accumulation in sedimentary rocks, among other data, to understand the impact of fires in the West over the past 3,000 years. The “lowest levels” of Western fires occurred in the 20th century and between 1400 and 1700, while prominent peaks in forest fires” took place between 950 and 1250 and during the 1800s, the paper found. The researchers add that the 21st century rate of burning “is not unusual” based on patterns over the past 3,000 years. based on this data, To sum it up; We’re in a fire deficit.

    California’s water usage has also exacerbated the fire problem. For the last 120 years, the big cities and agriculture business have pulled water from the Colorado river, Sierra Nevada mountains and sub surface wells and springs which have been tapped to accommodate domestic water consumption so LA County residents and suburbanites can have jungle plants in a xeric climate. Combine a drastic reduction in the natural ground water, the replacement of native vegetation with weedy, invasives (and sometimes oil rich plants like Eucalyptus) is a recipe for disaster. So the subsurface water has been depleted; California’s forests have lost significant ground water; soil moisture has heavily declined.

    Las Vegas has also resorted to paying people to augment their property landscapes for water conservation. Las Vegas has resorted to paying residents to trade their fescue for cacti. California also knew for decades the consequences of water crisis and did little to replenish their supplies, desalination plants, they’ve only built one this decade while they’ve had 50 on the drawing boards….drawing boards is where they’ll stay. Israel manages to run facilities thy produce fresh water at 40 cents per cubic meter or over 6 gallons of water for a penny. Nuclear power uses ocean water as it’s coolant……they can desalinate millions of gallons of water per day using only the waste heat. While desalination is more expensive than improving conservation the fact is WE Cant conserve your way out of a drought that by the looks of it appears to be perpetual.

  4. Sandy Teal

    “Some people” found that in “some places” that “some fires” did “something” at least “some” of the time. Thus proving very very very very very close to nothing. But thanks for playing “something” on a blog comment page.

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