Fire and Fuels: We Need a Public Lands Policy Debate

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Cal Poly Seminar: Changing Fire Management and Policy
San Luis Obispo , CA
— March 6, 2006

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Forums like this give us a chance to discuss one of the most critical threats facing public land managers today: fire and fuels. Of course, fire has always been a challenge, going back to the beginnings of the Forest Service a century ago. But the nature of the threat has changed over time, and in response our thinking has evolved.

Today, I’d like to give you my thoughts on where we’ve been and where we are today. Then I’d like to go into some of the implications this has for our future policy options.

The Evolution of Fire Management: The Upside

In a sense, fire management in the United States is a huge success story: We’ve gotten really, really good at incident response.

A century ago, the Big Blowup was a wakeup call for fire managers. Until then, we were pretty ineffective at managing backcountry fires. Then, in 1910, a huge fire complex covering millions of acres roared out of the backcountry in Idaho and Montana . Dozens of firefighters and others were killed. We realized that it was finally time to bring backcountry fires under control.

That set the stage for decades of fire control policy. In the 1930s, through the Civilian Conservation Corps, we finally got enough boots on the ground to make the policy effective. The postwar Smokey campaign gave us much better fire prevention. Through research and development as well as surplus military hardware, we also gained a technological edge in firefighting following World War II.

In the 1970s and 80s, we began developing today’s Incident Command System, which has given us a tremendous capacity for all-incident response. We’ve had repeated successes, most recently on the Gulf Coast last year. Other agencies are now asking the wildland fire community for training and guidance in ICS. As a nation, we have what is probably the most effective fire management organization in the world.

Of course, we’ve had periodic setbacks, like Mann Gulch and, more recently, South Canyon , Thirtymile, and Cramer. But we learned from each setback, and we’ve steadily improved our doctrines, training, techniques, and technologies to make firefighting safer and more effective. We are now to the point where we suppress 98 or 99 percent of the fires we fight during initial attack. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment.

The Downside

And yet … that one or two percent of the fires that escape initial attack have become more severe and dangerous than ever before. That gets to the downside of the story: As good as we’ve gotten at fire suppression, we’re not even close to having the fire situation under control. In fact, for the last 15 or 20 years, things seem to have gotten worse.

Fire season severity has been on the rise at least since the Yellowstone Fires of 1988, and the fires of 2000 were another wakeup call. I’ve seen lots of fires in my career, going back to my time as a groundpounder with CDF in the 1960s, but I’ve never seen fire behavior like we had on the Bitterroot in 2000.

Since then, five states have had their biggest fires in history—Biscuit, Hayman, Rodeo-Chediski, the Ponil in New Mexico , and Cedar during the California fire siege of 2003. We now have megafires, going way beyond large fires, and they constitute a whole new challenge. They pose enormous threats to communities and ecosystems alike.

So we seem to be in a quandary. On the one hand, the United States has maybe the biggest, best equipped, best trained, most effective fire management organization in history. The CDF here in California is a great example. Yet, on the other hand, we face a huge and growing threat from fire and fuels. There’s an obvious disconnect.

Big Picture: Demographic Change

To understand that disconnect, you need to see the bigger picture. You have to understand the state of the nation’s forests and grasslands as a whole. There are three concerns in particular that I see converging to give us the problems we face today.

First, our population is changing, and so are patterns of development. In the last hundred years, we have more than tripled our population to about 300 million, and it just keeps on growing. By the turn of the next century, we are projected to have 571 million Americans. All those folks need places to live, and the tendency has been for our urban areas to spread into the surrounding countryside, in many cases right up to the boundaries of public lands. Fifty years ago, we often had rural buffers of farms and ranches between forests and communities—open spaces where fires were easier to control. Now those open spaces are often gone.

There’s also been a shift in social desires and expectations. Fifty years ago, it was pretty rare for people to have summer homes in the woods or to build a home on the margins of a national forest. Now it’s quite common all over the country. Public lands have become retirement magnets, and many of our fastest growing counties have national forests in them. People come for the amenities—for a sense of naturalness, clean water and air, opportunities for recreation and to see wildlife—things that make for a high quality of life.

Americans want it all—recreation opportunities, access, clean water, wildlife, and scenery, plus inexpensive two-by-fours and printer paper. People expect the government to protect them from fires, yet they don’t want any changes in the landscape. They want that perfect house secluded in the woods or surrounded by chaparral, yet the fact that those landscapes naturally burn—that they have to burn periodically to stay healthy—that fact is often lost on people.

When you take the demographic trends—communities crowding up against public lands that are covered with fire-adapted vegetation—and couple it with the social trend—homeowners who expect fire protection but who want to live in dense woods and don’t like the idea of managing the woods or removing vegetation—you get a truly explosive situation. So that’s one concern—the dilemma we face in the WUI.

Fuels and Forest Health

My second concern has to do with the fuels and forest health situation. Many of our landscapes have radically changed over the last century. You can see it just about everywhere you go, but I’ll take just one example—the Southwest.

Fifty or a hundred years ago, fires on the order of Rodeo-Chediski were unheard of in the Southwest. You might have fires spreading out over big areas, but they were low to the ground. They limited regeneration, so most landscapes stayed pretty open. In ponderosa pine, you’d have only a few dozen trees per acre, mostly those big old pumpkin-barked yellow pines.

Then livestock grazing really took off. We finally got it under control on national forest land, but by then a lot of the fine fuels were gone—the fuels that carried those low fires every few years. There was also high-grading, which removed the biggest trees and changed the vegetation dynamics in these woodlands. In the 1910s and 1970s, we got pulses of wet weather. Coupled with the high-grading and loss of fine fuels, that produced an enormous recruitment of trees. Finally, we had a policy of fire exclusion throughout most of the 20 th century.

Now, instead of the old open ponderosa pine woodlands, we have forests that are very dense, with thickets of little trees under the big ponderosa pines that are left. There might be hundreds or thousands of trees per acre, and the climate has turned much drier in recent years. So the trees are under stress from competition for water. We’ve seen huge insect outbreaks—in 2002, we had about a million acres of beetle-killed woodland in Arizona alone. And for the first time in history, we’re also seeing fires on the order of Rodeo-Chediski.

The Southwest is just one example. We’ve seen similar sorts of changes just about everywhere in the West in the last hundred years. We’ve also seen analogous changes in the South, where we’re getting huge insect outbreaks and growing fire danger. It’s really all over.

So those are my first and second concerns—an explosive fuels and forest health situation compounded by explosive demographic trends and social dynamics in the WUI.

Climate Change

My third concern also has to do with changes in the landscape, but I think it deserves a separate discussion. There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve sort of tiptoed around for the last few years, and I think it’s time to discuss it. It’s climate change.

I don’t think there’s much doubt anymore that this is a very serious long-term threat, both regionally and globally. It has huge implications for fire management. Part of it has to do with climatic fluctuations that are quite normal, like those pulses of wet weather I talked about. We’re now experiencing a drier period in many parts of the West, and that’s normal, too.

We need to adjust to those regional climatic cycles, but we also need to think beyond them. What does it mean when temperatures in many parts of the West have risen by up to 6 degrees in the last hundred years, with much of that increase coming in just the last few decades?

Forest Service researchers have been exploring that question since 1989 under the Renewable Resources Planning Act. We know that even if a balance between carbon emissions and carbon sinks were restored in the next few decades, the ship has already left the harbor. There are already impacts, and there will be more.

Under most research scenarios, woody growth will increase in the West because there will be more precipitation. That could offset some of the regional drying we’re now experiencing out West, but summers will also be hotter. Hotter weather coupled with more fuels could mean even more severe fire seasons than we’ve had so far.

Research scenarios are more mixed for the East. Under a worst-case scenario, we will see much drier conditions in the South. Under this scenario, southern forest types in many places will convert to savanna or even grassland. Obviously, this would mean huge changes to fire regimes.

Climate change is also shifting disturbance regimes for insects and disease. Rising temperatures in Canada have produced massive outbreaks of mountain pine beetle in lodgepole pine for the first time in history. Tens of millions of acres are affected. In the past, the beetle has been killed back by winter cold, but not anymore.

Similarly, Alaska has had massive spruce bark beetle outbreaks on the Kenai Peninsula, with more than 2 million acres of mortality. As conditions change in Canada and Alaska, forest pests from the West might well cross the Rockies and travel around a boreal forest arc, for the first time reaching forests in the East.

In the Rockies, mountain pine beetle is now reaching into high-elevation whitebark pine forests that are not well adapted to it. That threatens critical habitat for grizzly. We can expect to see many more ecological disruptions of this sort.

So climate change is the third development we are seeing that should be of great concern to fire managers. Coupled with social and demographic developments, plus fuel buildups and declining forest health, it means tough times ahead, no matter how good our fire organization is.

Policy Implications

So that’s where I think we are today: We have a tremendously effective fire organization, but also a tremendously complex and dangerous fire and fuels situation. So the question is, where should our focus be?

I don’t think we can keep doing what we’ve done in the past—focus mainly on building our fire organization. Getting more and better resources is obviously important, but we’ve spent the last century doing exactly that, yet the problems we face today are, if anything, bigger than ever before. Throwing more resources at them isn’t the answer.

I believe that our focus should be on addressing the state of the nation’s forests and grasslands. As land managers, there are some things we can do, and we’ve started doing them. With respect to fuels and forest health, we are working to restore forested landscapes through collaborative community-based stewardship. We now treat more fuels than ever before. In 2004, for example, the Forest Service alone treated almost three times as many acres as we did ten years before.

We can also begin to address climate change. Unless we do something, the changes we are already seeing will only contribute to more fires and forest mortality, further adding emissions and reducing sinks. It can become a vicious cycle, but there are things we can do to help break that cycle.

Too often, the focus is on emissions alone, and we overlook the opportunities we have by virtue of the fact that oceans and forests are the two biggest carbon sinks. As forest managers, there’s a lot we can do to offset the imbalance between emissions and sinks if we can build the capacity of forests to sequester and store carbon.

However, many of the factors behind our current fire management dilemmas are beyond our control, particularly when it comes to demographics and social expectations. To address all of these issues in their full complexity and interconnectedness, we need a larger public lands policy debate. At the Forest Service, we are trying to create a larger forum for such a dialogue.

At a Crossroads

In closing, we’ve come a long way in the last hundred years. From very humble beginnings, we turned our interagency fire organization into a tremendous outfit with a terrific all-incident response capacity. We can all be very proud of that. I know I am.

And yet … the challenges we face today are probably greater than ever before, due to three converging concerns: changes in demographics and social expectations; changes in fuels and forest health; and changes in climate.

We find ourselves at a crossroads. In the past, our focus has been on getting more resources—on building our fire organization. That approach alone hasn’t worked. We’ve gotten very, very good, but it hasn’t been enough.

We need another approach. We need to address the root causes of the problems we face in all their social, economic, and ecological complexity. For that, we need a public lands policy debate. I would ask you to work with us to make it happen.