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Sat., Aug. 9, 2014

Guest opinion: Preventive measures can reduce size of wildfires

Remember the TV commercial for Fram oil filters? A mechanic disassembling an automobile engine looks up and says, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, paying a little bit every so often to replace the engine oil and filter avoids the high cost of an engine overhaul later.

As with engines, forests require maintenance. The American West is indeed paying for our lack of action earlier, as not enough preventive maintenance on federal forests is flaring up in large-scale wildfires. Although more than 98 percent of all wildfires are effectively controlled while they are small, the few that get away are becoming bigger and having more severe effects. For example, the Carlton Complex fire in Central Washington has burned more than 400 square miles, destroyed more than 150 homes, and cost (so far) more than $20 million as crews attempt to get it under control.

Drought, climate change and the impact of insects and disease have been and will continue to add to an increasingly unsustainable situation.

A primary cause of the increased magnitude and intensity of wildfire is the unnatural overstocked conditions on our lands. Overly aggressive wildfire suppression activities coupled with more recent reductions in active forest management on public lands have increased the volume of fuels that lead to large fires and subsequent loss of a range of goods and services. According to the Society of American Foresters, the trend toward larger wildfires can be reversed by stepping up the pace and scale of management activities, especially hazardous fuels treatments, to restore fire-adapted forest landscapes.

On federal lands in Washington where active management can be used, approximately one acre of every three needs restoration treatment. In Idaho, approximately one acre of every four in the state needs treatment.

The primary mechanism to avoid large wildfires is hazardous fuel reduction, a form of vegetation management that also maintains or improves forest health conditions. Expenditures for wildfire suppression, necessary as they are, far exceed expenditures for vegetation management. Worse, in big fire years, vegetation management projects on public lands are canceled in order to provide additional firefighting funds. The high level of suppression expenditures is not sustainable, and vegetation management activities are falling further behind what is needed to improve the problems associated with large wildfires.

A recent report from Northern Arizona University highlights the role and effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments in reducing the severity and costs of wildland fire with a few simple points:

• In many forest ecosystems, restoration treatments can reduce fire severity and tree mortality in the face of wildfire, and also increase carbon storage over the long term.

• Fuel reduction treatments applied at a larger scale will be more likely to modify subsequent fire behavior, thus decreasing the size and suppression costs of future wildfires.

• Fuel treatments applied only near human communities will result in areas of unchanged crown fire potential across the untreated landscape, leaving forests vulnerable to large, severe and expensive landscape-scale fires that will persist without restoration treatments.

We have a choice. Pay a little now to reduce hazardous fuels, or pay a lot more later to battle big wildfires. Vegetation management is, after all, a triple win. Not only is future wildfire behavior modified, thereby protecting wildlife habitat as well as air and water quality, but we can use the removed material to make useful products, including energy (the University of Idaho, for example, heats its Moscow campus with wood residues from local sawmills), and the management activities put people to work in our rural communities.

By contacting your legislators and urging preventive maintenance on federal lands, you can help land managers get the budgets they need to help protect firefighters and our communities by reducing fuel loads so that landscapes are more resilient to fire.

Jay O’Laughlin, Ph.D., is a professor of forestry and policy sciences at the University of Idaho.

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