PROTECTING HOMES AND NATIVE FORESTS FROM WILDFIRE
PROTECTING HOMES AND NATIVE FORESTS FROM WILDFIRE:
Challenges and Opportunities
Since the early 2000s, wildfires have been getting larger, faster moving, and more destructive to homes, infrastructure, and forestlands. This is partly due to climate change and partly due to the legacy of the wholesale conversion of native forests to highly flammable tree farms. There is a general agreement that we need to address this situation as a nation, but there is little consensus on remedies, especially when it comes to forest management.
In the wake of the 2020 climate-driven wildfires that charred millions of acres in the West, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that a major effort is needed to increase the resilience of homes and neighborhoods to this growing threat. More controversial, however, is the idea that public forests should be “managed” to decrease wildfire risk and “restored” to more historic, fire-tolerant conditions. Unfortunately, “restoration” means different things to different interests. But with billions of dollars likely headed our way from infrastructure bills now moving through Congress, we, as a society, need to forge a common understanding of this term to make sure that those taxpayer dollars are spent effectively.
Assuming that congress can actually function in this hyper-partisan political climate, conservationists need a strong voice as to how federal dollars we will potentially receive should be spent to protect homes, neighborhoods and forests from climate-driven changes in wildfire behavior. In the following paragraphs, I will lay out funding priorities for which there is broad agreement and some that are more controversial.
Building Codes: When wildfires burn, the air they heat rises by convection and carries hot embers out ahead of them, sometimes for miles depending on the amount of wind driving them. This was particularly true during the 2020 Oregon wildfires that were driven by 40-50 mph winds coming uncharacteristically from the east. Research over the last several years has shown that homes are far more likely to be ignited by these embers than by the heat of an approaching ground fire. Houses catch fire when embers land on wood shake roofs, needles and twigs in uncleaned gutters, flammable shrubs, firewood piles (especially against structures), or wood chip/bark mulch directly adjacent to structures. Fire associated winds can also cause embers to be sucked into unscreened attic vents or other openings in the building’s envelope. There are many images of burned homes associated with the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, CA with unburned green trees nearby.
But many houses that were built in Paradise after a 2008 building code update survived. A comprehensive review of Oregon’s building codes for homes in the fire-prone wildland urban interface (a.k.a. the WUI) needs to be funded, and updates should be made based on the most recent research. In the meantime, there are many excellent websites with tips on how to harden your home against wildfire including this one from CAL FIRE. Grants or low-interest loans should be made available from infrastructure funds to help homeowners increase their home’s fire resistance.
Hardening Powerlines: High-voltage powerlines suspended from towers present a grave risk of fire ignition and have been the cause of many catastrophic fires in the last two decades including the Camp Fire and most of the 2020 Oregon fires. Incredibly, the Dixie fire, now the largest fire in California’s recorded history, was started by the same PG&E powerline that started the Camp Fire, and the Archie Creek Fire was started by the same PP&L powerline that started the Williams Creek Fire that burned 8,395 acres in 2008 and cost over $14M to control.
It has long been known that high winds, especially during hot weather that causes powerlines to sag, can blow those lines into nearby vegetation and/or can arc when trees blow down on them. Power companies have now adopted policies to shut down lines when high winds approach, but that means irate customers (some who rely on that power for medical equipment) and loss of income. Too often, these companies err on the side of customers and profits and keep the lines live, or turn them back on before linemen have thoroughly checked them for downed trees (as reportedly was the case with the Archie Creek and other 2020 fires).
Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is very likely that burying these lines, or capping them with concrete where that is not possible, would have been far less expensive for these giant corporations than the cost of payouts from the myriad of lawsuits their negligence spawned. Hardening these lines against wildfire should fit anyone’s definition of infrastructure and should be at the top of the list for federal funding associated with proposed power grid upgrade spending, although the final language in the proposed infrastructure bill(s) currently before Congress is uncertain.
Public Buyouts of Burned Properties for Greenspace Buffers: Neighborhoods of closely spaced houses are usually easier for firefighters to protect with fire lines, backburns and aerial attack, while dispersed homes in remote settings at the ends of roads that often have no other way out pose a significant risk to emergency responders. Rather than rebuilding homes in the WUI that are likely to burn again, the city of Paradise has purchased about 300 acres of land from willing sellers with burned homes that are at high risk of burning again and added them to the town’s existing park land to be maintained for recreation and as fire-resistant green space.
While this could potentially cost many tens of millions of dollars for just the 2020 Oregon fires alone, a 2019 report from the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response found that the cost of fighting wildfires will likely rise beyond the tens of billions of dollars over roughly the next two decades (and this was published before the unprecedented 2020 fires). Buyouts are NOT eminent domain – landowners must be willing to sell, and the price is negotiated with the public buyer. But the trauma and loss that these landowners have suffered, the increasing cost of fire insurance, and the rise in building costs may be strong motivations to sell. Right now, this initiative in Paradise is being funded with grants from nonprofits, but in our area, these costs could be paid out of infrastructure funds and the properties added to adjoining federal lands.
“FireWise” Communities: Since 2002, the National Fire Protection Association has promoted community fire preparedness through their Firewise USA program. This program emphasizes tree and brush removal to create “defensible space” around homes. Rural neighborhoods in fire-prone areas are encouraged to band together to do this work supported by federal funds. Most of you who are reading this article will be familiar with at least the broad outlines of this very worthwhile program.
While “firewising” has proven to be effective in allowing firefighters to move into burning areas more safely, it is not foolproof, especially during wind-driven climate fires like the Sept. 2020 fires in western Oregon. A couple of months ago, I stood by the charred ruins of a once charming log home whose owner, a long-time UW supporter and former board member, had faithfully followed the Firewise recommendations and still lost the home he built, lived in, and loved.
Forest Management Options for Wildfire Mitigation: The safety of human life and property is of universal concern and is the primary focus of all the strategies outlined above. But active management to protect mature and old-growth forests is more controversial.
Some, particularly timber interests), contend that thinning forests beyond the WUI is a viable solution to create “fire breaks” that can be used to stop fires before they get to communities. Others contend that thinning forests away from the immediate borders of communities is simply an excuse to log more timber and lowers biodiversity. Many researchers contend that although thinning may be successful at mitigating wildfire damage soon after it is completed, it must be combined with periodic prescribed fire to be effective over the long run. Analyses of the 2021 Oregon Bootleg Fire that has burned through a mix of mature forest, plantations, and thinned forests with and without subsequent prescribed burning will supply a wealth of data that will help to show how effective (or not) these management practices are.
Conservationists are particularly concerned that money in the infrastructure bill(s) will be commandeered by timber interests to ramp up logging on public lands under the guise of wildfire protection. But what has been shown to be the most effective type of thinning is “low thinning” (a.k.a. “thinning from below”), where instead of taking the largest (and most valuable) trees out of the stand, only the smallest (and most flammable) trees are cut. This type of thinning would require a large investment with little or no return from the small diameter, largely unmerchantable trees that would be removed.
If done properly, and maintained by periodic underburning, thinning in already managed plantations away from the WUI has the potential to mitigate some of the risk of wildfire, both to distant neighborhoods and also to the old-growth forests they often surround. Recent fires have shown that mature forests with their mix of ages and structural heterogeneity are much more resistant to high-severity crown fires than even-aged plantations. However, these increasingly rare ancient stands are more and more likely to be surrounded by highly flammable plantations, especially in the BLM checkerboard, and are therefore more vulnerable to severe fires as a result. Thinning uniform plantations around old-growth forests to break up their continuous fuel structure would not only decrease the risk of high-mortality fires spreading into primary forests but would also create the structural diversity that promotes native biodiversity.
The history of “restoration” being used as an excuse to log more timber has made this last suggestion controversial in conservation circles. But “firewising” native stands to protect their enormous stores of carbon and genetic diversity shouldn’t be dismissed just because of past abuses. In 2013, UW developed and adopted a set of restoration principles that can serve as guidelines for what legitimate restoration should look like. These are now eight years old, and in light of accelerating climate change, are due for review at our next strategic planning meeting in November. We invite you to take a look at these guidelines and send us comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to give us your feedback or any suggestions for changes you might have. Thanks.