Fire Mitigation Work In Western US Misplaced, Says New Study

Only 11 per cent of federal efforts have been near homes or offices-

This won’t come as any surprise to those of us who have watched the BLM and Forest Service conduct preemptive (“prescriptive”) burns and vegetation thinnings. Most of the fire reduction work I see is deep in the forest land, although often fairly near some kind of road.

Those monies spent might have some benefit for wildlife habitat or livestock, but not where people live. When asked, the Forest Service may point to a single home or two, or second home, deep in the woodland or steppe, but it isn’t the city or town.

One of the major reasons, however, is that 70 per cent of fire prone lands with homes are not within a mile-and-a-half of federal land. This puts a physical legal limit on the federal government’s ability to affect the high-risk zone. The study points to a need to be able to “treat” next to or near the homes to have an effect.

This raises a question if it shouldn’t be a private person, or a local government’s responsibility to thin the land next to the homes they choose to build in the fire zone, and which the city or county allowed to be developed for residential purposes there. RM

Fire Mitigation Work In Western US Misplaced, Says New Study. Science Daily



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  1. DB Avatar

    I’m puzzled why mitigation money wasn’t funneled through the FS state and private forestry division where it could be spent on pvt land. The FS once gave money to state foresters to help small woodland owners with planning, thinning, planting etc. It would seem this fuels mitigation money could have been more appropriately used like that. It’s a good question though whether this is a federal responsibilty and whethr or not such mitigation/protection would only encourage further development of pvt land in the urban interface.

  2. timbertiger Avatar

    After reading the paper, the headlines and conclusions being touted as its results are nowhere near as exciting as the vague suppositions actually posed in the paper. This paper is just a lot of smoke and mirrors – one of those that seemed to have a pre-set conclusion in mind and made sure to get the “right” data to back that up.

    The authors define the WUI as a combination of interface (high-density residential areas of 97 people/square km) and intermix (low-density residences – >0.06 units/ha), and the WUI2.5 (WUI + 2.5 km buffer – the community protection zone). By this definition (as stated in a cited reference), the WUI comprises only 2% of the area with “wildland vegetation” in the West.

    They did find that when the management objective was WUI/Defensible Space, 80% of the area treated was within 0-2.5 km of the WUI. Of treated areas >10 km from the WUI, only 41% of the area had the same objective.

    From the paper: “Because ~70% of wildland vegetation in the WUI2.5 across the West is privately owned, the ability of federal agencies to implement fire-risk reduction treatments near and within communities is significantly limited and may explain the positive relationship between distance from WUI and area treated. This discrepancy between landownership patterns and the need for fire mitigation presents a vexing problem for federal land-managerscharged with reducing fire risk within the mostly privately owned WUI.”

    The authors used revealed they used NFPORS data from 2004 to 2008. They took the lat/long reported for the treatment and built a circle out from that point to represent the area treated (regardless of the actual shape of the treatment unit), then compared that to their WUI definitions in GIS.

    They express surprise that during that time only 11% of all projects were in WUI because HFRA specified at least 50% should be in WUI. HFRA became law at the end of 2003. Only projects implemented under HFRA were subject to that 50% goal. Given the planning requirements and timeframes in today’s FS, it’s unlikely many HFRA projects were even implemented until 2006 or later.

    NFPORS is the repository for just about all fuels-related treatments including regular old-fashioned timber sales. That’s why so many activities were outside WUI. The authors also pointed out that there were often multiple objectives for treatments, with 60% of the areas treated listing 5-12 objectives per treatment. NFPORS apparently indicated that 80% of all treatments had “fuel reduction” as part of the goals, which indicates federal agencies were working on the issue of fuel reduction long before HFRA. The authors chose to disregard that particular objective because its a “nonspecific term” and therefore not “discriminating.” Seems to me if you are seriously looking at implementation of the National Fire Plan, you ought to look at fuel reduction.

    The authors also pointed out that there were often multiple objectives for treatments, with 60% of the areas treated listing 5-12 objectives per treatment. They did not report results for “fuel reduction” since it’s a “nonspecific term”, but it was recorded for 80% of the area treated and therefore, was not “discriminating.”

    From the paper: “Fire mitigation treatments located far from the WUI may play an important role in protecting timber resources and rare or threatened species or ecosystems from high-severity fire, but their effectiveness in direct community protection requires more systematic evaluation. In contrast, there is strong evidence that the potential for a home to burn is relatively independent of distant wildand-fire behavior. Empirical, modeling, and post-mortem studies have shown that ignitability of building materials and the abundance and arrangement of wildland fuels in the immediate surroundings (<50 m) of a house best predict its potential to burn (14). Thus, fire-proofing houses and their immediate surroundings should provide the most direct and effective wildfire protection of homes and communities in the WUI."

    The "strong evidence" referred to is one Cohen paper from 2000 – "Preventing disaster – Home ignitability in the wildland-urban interface." Neatly sidestepping how well home ignitions are prevented when the fire doesn't get close to them in the first place:

    From the paper: "The extent to which past fuels-reduction treatments actually mitigated subsequent fire severity was beyond the scope of our investigation. A number of studies have shown that mechanical thinning with slash removal and prescribed fire can reduce subsequent (within a few years) wildfire severity in stands with historical low-severity fire regimes (15-20). However, similar fuel treatments may be less effective in ecosystems where historical and current fire regimes are characterized by high-severity fires that are driven by extreme weather (21, 22), although treatment size and arrangement remain important factors to evaluate (23)."

    Then a paragraph later:

    "Far from the WUI, however, fuels treatments should be implemented only where substantial benefits to watershed protection, biodiversity, or restoration of degraded forests can be demonstrated."

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thanks for taking the time to analyze this paper and give it a critique.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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