Mitigation or Misguided? (Revised)
The US Forest Service has issued a final project Decision in Boulder County for fire mitigation, “forest restoration,” and watershed protection (Forsythe II Project). They are cutting patches of forest using both clearcuts and aggressive thinning. Will these cuts actually help, or is this activity misguided? The USFS would have us believe that they know what they are doing and we should trust them to manage our forests, but should we?
While the USFS has been making these types of cuts for years, there is little evidence to indicate that they work, for either fire mitigation, or forest “health”. The “new” plan would cut trees to “restore” the forest to a historical fire regime that did not exist at this altitude. It proposes the paradox of cutting the trees that hold the soil in place to prevent erosion in the watershed. The unfortunate result of this new mitigation may be more flooding! Fire is, of course, an ever present danger. Everyone wants to prevent major fires from taking out forest and homes.
Mark Finney, a USFS fire scientist and one of the authors of the Fourmile Canyon Fire Findings, says, “We can’t suppress our way out of it. We can’t cut our way out of it. We can only burn our way out of it, one way or the other.” He favors the use of prescribed fire.
Evidence from the Fourmile Canyon Fire, the Hayman Fire, and 80 years of forest research shows that small patch cuts are not only ineffective in stopping high intensity fires, they may actually increase the risk of severe fires.* To be effective a cut has to be large enough and continuous enough to prevent fire from flowing around the cut and in effect widening the path of the fire. It has to be in the right place with regards to the fire and the prevailing winds, which is difficult to predict. It has to be maintained free of surface fuels that will carry the fire. Although it may seem that thinning the large trees will reduce the fuel load, in fact, the large trees are the most resistant to fire; it is the surface and ladder fuels (bushes, small trees) that will speed the fire’s travel and carry it up into the tree tops. Some thinning of crown (tree top) density may help, but there is a fine line between enough and too much, as thinning the forest opens it up to sunlight, which encourages the growth of grasses, bushes, and small trees. It also tends to dry out the soil and allows wind speeds to increase in the openings. All of this can increase the risk of severe fire behavior.
If a wind-driven, high-intensity, crown fire is approaching, it has been shown that patch cuts do nothing to stop the fire and may speed it up in places. This type of fire can throw firebrands two miles in advance of the fire. Wind-driven grass and brush fires can also consume houses in their path. The best protection for homes is to mitigate fire danger around the home in 30′ and 200′ zones. Boulder County has programs to help with this. Keep the surface fuels low, keep combustible materials away from the house, and use fire resistant materials for construction. This will do more to save your home in the event of a wildfire, than the other ‘mitigation’ efforts being proposed by the Forest Service right now. More emphasis should be placed on these proven methods, on educating people about preventing forest fires, and on restricting camp fires and other ignition sources in the wildland-urban interface, rather than cutting down the forest in order to save it.
We are not the only creatures inhabiting the forest. These patch cuts fail in their stated purpose of mitigating fire danger and, at the same time, are detrimental with regards to wildlife habitat lost, recreational areas scarred, and peaceful buffers around homes gone. We can work together to prevent forest fires and protect homes, but it is time to put a stop to projects that spend large amounts of taxpayer money only to destroy habitat and, paradoxically, put us all at greater risk of fire.
*Read more about The Science.