Saturday, October 31, 2015

Eli Buds In

So various bunnies have been wondering why the areas burnt in US forest fires decreased sharply starting in the 1930s

There have been various doubts expressed about this data, but the data looks ok when cross checked against the Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (should be on everybunny's bookshelf.  Ms Rabett made Eli's day years ago when it appeared under the carrot bush).  

Turns out that the answer is pretty simple
National forest management from 1900 up to the Second World War was mostly custodial in nature. An early focus was to establish the boundaries of the national forests and to prevent, or respond to, unauthorized uses (such as illegal timber felling, unauthorized mining, agricultural encroachment).

Another main focus of Forest Service efforts was reducing uncontrolled wildfires that were common prior to the 1930s. Curtailing the 8 to 20 million hectares that consistently burned annually, mostly on private lands, was considered a prerequisite for the long-term management of forests and grasslands — both public and private.

The focus of these efforts was on protecting all lands from wildfire, regardless of their ownership; but systematic control became effective only during the 1930s, when large public employment programmes were established. By the 1960s, the area burned by wildfire had declined by 90 percent compared to the 1930s (Figure 2). This was accomplished through highly successful federal, state and private landowner cooperation. Within the Forest Service, the State and Private Forestry Division was responsible for this coordination.
The government did it.  More to the point, New Deal public employment programs such as the Civilian Construction Corp provided the manpower to better manage the national and state forests and fight the fires.  Then everybody saw that this was a good thing and got together to manage the problem.

Government works


Ken Fabian said...

The question arises whether fire management that has a goal of preventing and extinquishing fires is best practice. The Australian experience is that often it is not. More frequent low intensity fires can reduce the likelihood and damage from extreme wildfires and because of variations in plant communities a mosaic of fires of varying frequencies and intensities can be necessary to avoid biodiversity loss. Forests that can survive more frequent low intensity fire can be drasitically altered and even killed by extreme wildfire.

Brian said...

What Ken says also applies to fires in the western US. Government works as Eli says but the fire suppression was generally a mistake. The more appropriate government intervention would have been setting more low intensity prescribed fires.

They're trying to set prescribed fires now but people don't like the "intentional" smoke and haze so these programs encounter a lot of opposition. Then a massive wildfire comes along and we see what real smoke and haze is about. Along with dead firefighters.

John Garland said...

Besides the political differences you point out, there is also a huge difference out there in the environments of then versus now. For example, in Northern Minnesota, which had some vast fires in the early 20th century, the woods were essentially one large slashings pile left over from the massive logging operations. That massive fires could get started in such conditions is unsurprising.

EliRabett said...

There are huge differences between uncontrolled burning (before 1930), total fire surpression (Smokey the Bear policy) and active forest management with controlled burns and cleaning up after cutting (today, at least sometimes, somewheres).

Mal Adapted said...

I presume the bunnies are aware that fire has been a factor in the evolution of ecosystems since the Paleozoic. Over large areas, forests and grasslands were maintained for millennia by periodic "uncontrolled" fire started by lightning, and by indigenous people once they arrived onto the land. The ponderosa-pine forests of the American Intermountain West, for example owe their existence to fire that burned through the ground layer every 5 to 20 years, killing most tree seedlings, with the occasional lucky pine surviving long enough to develop fire-resistant bark and raise its foliage above the height of the flames. The result was an open forest of large, long-lived trees, with a ground layer dominated by grasses and forbs.

The advent of fire suppression, along with over-grazing by livestock, has allowed ponderosa-pine forests to become filled with woody fuels, providing an easy pathway into the canopy. When fires ignite, they easily become highly destructive crown fires. And ignition is inevitable, especially during recent droughts when the moisture content of living trees has dropped below that of kiln-dried lumber. Fire under such conditions can be impossible to control. The outcome has been the conversion of forest to shrub- and grasslands over hundreds of thousands of acres.

Sure, active forest management as Eli describes is coming into fashion, but it's expensive, and the funds allocated by managers for "fuel treatment" get used up in futile efforts to control wildfires. That means far too few acres are being treated before they burn up. Under AGW, all that burned acreage may or may not return to forest.

From the forests' POV, forest management has pretty much been an unmitigated disaster.

Russell Seitz said...

" active forest management as Eli describes is coming into fashion, but it's expensive,"

Really ?

Palaeolithic indian nations with nothing more than a wampum economy conducted burns for milennia not just to create happy hunting grounds , but manage and rotate squash and corn fields.

Mal Adapted said...

Russell, if only modern forest management agencies were allowed to do it the way the Indians did 8^(!

Ken Fabian said...

It's a complicated issue and, like climate change, deferring to experts has to be important. Fire management looks likely to be an increasingly costly burden in a warming world. A lot of varying interests intersect at local and regional level and the result can be a stalemate that results in inadequate hazard reduction activities. Areas that were sparsely populated get developed for housing and that, with the roads and other infrastructure can get built without fire management as a big consideration. Existing ways of doing things get lost, such as regular burning of grasslands by traditional owners or livestock producers being abandoned as land ownership and use changes. Management for biological diversity is different than for livestock or risk reduction to homes and infrastructure.

In the presence of regulation, insurance and litigation (these tend to develop feedback loops in the presence of things going wrong) and inadequate systems (equipment, manpower, skills, planning, funding) the default action tends towards inaction. Heavy fines can be incurred (or being sued) for intentional burning, even for best of intentions, that escapes containment and containment can rarely be certain, because weather is uncertain. People move to an area and don't have the knowledge or skills or even necessarily the awareness of risks and how to effectively minimise them. It can seem safer and temporarily be safer (and be cheaper) to not do hazard reduction burning but that can increase the risk longer term.

What climate change can make different is going to vary a lot too and at local scale, day to day isn't going to be entirely predictable, although broad trends are going to be apparent. Drier conditions in hot weather seem a reasonable prediction even if rainfall is another related factor; if it warmer it will get drier and be easier to set ablaze and harder to stop when it does. Wind is a big factor. Can we predict changes to windiness? Then there are less obvious factors - dew is a natural fire retardant and can be a consideration in cool weather hazard management. Warmer overnight conditions can result in large areas not getting dew and fires that would be slowed and even expected in the past to self extinguish can move faster and not go out during the cool of night - more equipment, manpower, cost to ensure they are contained?

No simple proscriptions seem possible but I do expect an increasing burden of costs from climate change. If it gets 4 to 6 degrees C above 20th century? Things like this lead me to conclude that leaving off early climate change mitigation is not an inviting option.

Aaron said...

Does anyone really think that the new Federal Budget contains enough money allocated to wild fire suppression to support full suppression of all of next summer's wild fires without again raiding other budget allocations?

Even if El Nino soaks California, all that water will increase fuel loads in areas adjacent to structures and infrastructure.

The policy was: "We will defend structures and infrastructure from wild fire". People depended on that and put structures and infrastructure in areas likely to experience wild fire. (Even Tea Party founding members!) Thus, the perimeter of areas that now must be defended from wild fire has skyrocketed, and cost has followed. The alternative is to enforce effective fire breaks (maintained by the owner of the structure/infrastructure) around all structures and infrastructure.

Brian said...

Aaron, another alternative is to let areas burn, especially if the fire started naturally. The Forest Service in particular is too ready to fight fires. A lot of the damage from wildfires is actually caused by backfires lit by firefighters - those backfires work by destroying absolutely everything in the path of an advancing wildfire. A relatively benign, moderate wildfire that's approaching infrastructure will be stopped by a destructive backfire.

They should fight fires for ecological reasons or to evacuate people, but not to defend infrastructure unless cost/benefit works out.

Russell Seitz said...

Eli, , we don't want to see you pilloried by Naoimi as an Advertising Denier !

Smokey the Bear , like the Climate Reality project, is an advertising gimmick, not Civics in Action.

The National Forestry Service confesses to the inconvenient history thus :

Smokey Bear was born on August 9, 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be the symbol for their joint effort to promote forest fire prevention.

Artist Albert Staehle was asked to paint the first poster of Smokey Bear. It depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and saying “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” Smokey Bear soon became very popular as his image appeared on a variety of forest fire prevention materials. In 1947, his slogan became the familiar “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”