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Forest Fires and Forest Health
Ross W. Gorte
Interest in fuel management, to reduce fire control costs and damages, has been renewed with the numerous, destructive wildfires spread across the West during the summer of 1994. Fuel management is often linked to forest health, since major forest health concerns include excess biomass (i.e., fuel loadings) and catastrophic fires. Several tools, such as prescribed burning and salvage timber sales, can address these problems, but the extent of the problem and the cost of needed treatments are genera lly unknown. Fuel management may well reduce fire control costs and damages, but the evidence is largely anecdotal, with few documented estimates of the decline in control costs and/or damages associated with fuel treatments. Finally, the roles and responsibilities of the Federal and State governments in fire protection may be subject to further debate.
The 1994 fire season saw numerous large wildfires, with the deaths of several firefighters and the destruction of many structures. Many observers suggested that the extent and severity of the fires was largely due to the poor health of the national forests of the West.(1) These observers argue that activities to improve forest health by reducing fuel loadings will also reduce fire control costs and fire damages. This report describes fuel management and its benefits for controlling wildfires and for reducing fire damages, and discusses the relative roles and responsibilities of the Federal and State governments in wildfire protection.(2)
The Forest Service began moving into fuel management in the 1960s, to reduce the net cost of wildfires to society. Although numerous techniques can be used, one of the most common is prescribed burning -- intentionally setting fires within established control boundaries under prescribed conditions to burn the existing fuels when and where the fire can be contained. Occasionally, weather conditions change, and prescribed fires escape, causing unanticipated damages; for example, the Mack Lake fire in Michigan in May 1980 was a prescribed fire that escaped and killed one person and destroyed 44 homes and buildings.(3) Despite the obvious risks, however, prescribed burning can be an efficient tool for reducing small-diameter fuels at or near ground level.
Salvage timber operations can also be used to reduce fuel loadings. The Timber Salvage Sale Fund is a self-financing, permanently appropriated special account, with receipts from designated salvage sales deposited into the account for use in preparing and administering future salvage sales (and for road construction associated with those salvage sales).(4) To the extent that salvage sales remove woody materials from the forest, they can be considered fuel management activities. Furthermore, they can be legitimate tools for achieving desired forest health conditions.(5) However, because they have to be sold, salvage sales must focus at least partially on removing merchantable wood, and reducing fuel loadings or achieving desired forest conditions could be compromised. At a minimum, salvage sales are insufficient to fulfill the latter goals. In addition, salvage sales can be costly to the U.S. Treasury; they often cost more than the revenues they can generate, because timber quality is lower and operating costs for the buyers are higher.
Other tools for reducing fuel loadings also exist. Pruning, precommercial thinning, and mechanical or chemical release can reduce live biomass and make it more susceptible to elimination, naturally (through decomposition or wildfire) or in prescribed fires. However, these tools are less commonly used because of their relatively high costs.
Finally, the possible extent of fuel management and forest health activities is largely undefined. To date, the discussions of prescribed burning, salvage sales, and other fuel management or forest health activities have identified neither the acreage needing treatment nor the likely treatment costs. Treatment costs probably range from less than $100 to more than $1,000 per acre; "average" costs may be about $250 per acre. If 10 percent of the National Forest System lands in the coterminous western States -- about 14 million acres -- were treated, total treatment costs would be $3.5 billion, roughly equal to the annual Forest Service budget. However, these "guesstimates" are very coarse; needed treatments might cost less than $1 billion or more than $10 billion, and could be spread over a decade or more.
In general, when wildfires occur, the fire organization swings into full gear to try to stop them. For several years, beginning in the late 1970s, the Forest Service and the National Park Service had "prescribed natural fire'' policies. In wilderness areas and Park System units with fire management plans, wildfires burning within prescribed situations were monitored, rather than aggressively suppressed. (These policies have been colloquially known as "let-burn" policies.) In recognition of the financial and environmental costs of total fire suppression, these policies permitted the use of wildfires to achieve the goals of prescribed fires. Following the Yellowstone fires in 1988, however, the use of prescribed natural fire was halted. While one can question whether the prescriptions were sufficiently responsive to burning conditions (fuel moisture, precipitation, dry lightning, winds, etc.), the termination of prescribed natural fire policies may have been an overreaction to the public sentiment.
The public outcry over the fires in Yellowstone and during the summer of 1994 is, in part, a result of the belief that all wildfires can be controlled. This belief is widespread, internally as well as among the public, because of our general success in controlling structural fires in urban and suburban areas and because all wildfires eventually go out. However, most fire experts agree that, because of fuel types and loadings, topography, and temporary weather conditions (lasting a few hours to several weeks), some fires simply cannot be stopped and some cannot even be influenced. Substantial funds are spent on efforts to suppress what are uncontrollable wildfires. Such efforts contribute to the belief in our ability to stop all wildfires, and lead the public to believe that damages from wildfires only occur because of the Government has been inefficient and ineffective .
The desire to control all wildfires has also led to a belief that fast, aggressive control efforts are efficient, because fires that are stopped while small will not become the large, damaging, fearsome fires that are so expensive to control. The belief in efficiency of fast, aggressive fire control was embodied in the 10-acre and 10:00 a.m. policies of the 1930s.(6) However, only a fraction of fire ignitions ever become catastrophic fires, even without fire suppression. These 10-acre and 10:00 a.m. policies were terminated in the late 1970s, because research documented that the policies led to organization size and efforts that far outweighed the benefits of fire control.
The preferred technique to evaluate the economics of fire control, and of fuel management, is known as "least-cost-plus-loss."(7) This approach, in essence, asserts that fire control is only justified by the damage prevented. Little or no fire control is economically justified for wildfires that are doing little or no damage (the underlying idea for the prescribed natural fire policies) or for wildfires that cannot be controlled (because no damage can be prevented). Similarly, fuel management is justified only when the treatment costs are less than the benefits, either in reduced control expenditures or in reduced damages. (See below.) Proponents of forest health activities often assert that reduced fuel loadings can reduce fire control costs and damages. This assertion is logical, and is supported by some anecdotal evidence. However, there appears to be very little research documentation of widespread fire control savings from fuel treatment, which is essential to demonstrate the merit of forest health activities for fire control savings.
Wildfires can damage lands and resources. Timber is burned, although some may be salvageable. Existing forage, for livestock and wildlife, is destroyed. The reduced vegetation can increase erosion; in severe situations, such as southern California, the result can be mudslides when the wet season returns. And burned areas are not pretty.
The damages of wildfires on lands and resources are often overstated, for two reasons. First, fires are patchy, leaving unburned areas within the fire perimeter. Thus, reports of acres burned, typically calculated from the perimeter, overstate the actual acres burned by 10 to 50 percent, depending on the local vegetative, weather, and other conditions.
Damages are also usually overstated, because fires do not destroy every living thing within the burned areas. Mature conifers often survive even when their entire crowns are scorched; a few species, notably lodgepole pine and jack pine, are serotinous -- their cones will only open and spread their seeds when they have been exposed to the heat of a wildfire. Grasses and other plants are often benefitted by wildfire, because fire quickly decomposes organic matter into its mineral components (a process that, in the arid West, may require years or decades without fire), and the flush of nutrients accelerates plant growth for a few growing seasons. Few animals are killed by even the most severe wildfires; rather, many animals seek out burned sites for the newly available minerals and for the flush of plant growth. And erosion is typically far worse along the fire control lines than from the broad burned areas. The recognition of these ecological benefits from fire was a major factor in the end of the 10-acre and 10:00 a.m. policies and their replacement with fuel management and prescribed fire (natural and otherwise).
Nonetheless, the net damages from wildfires are generally greater when fires burn more intensely. Thus, lower fuel loadings may reduce the net damages caused by wildfires. Proponents argue that forest health activities to reduce fuel loadings also reduce wildfire damages. Again, this assertion is logical, and is supported by some anecdotal evidence, but there appears to be very little research documenting widespread reduction in wildfire damages from fuel treatment. Such evidence is critical, however, to justify of forest health activities from lower fire damages.
Finally, it should be noted that emergency rehabilitation occurs on many of the large, severe wildfires. While emergency activities can prove beneficial, especially for erosion control, they may inhibit the restoration of natural ecological processes. In particular, grasses are often seeded in severely burned areas. However, the quick-growing grasses typically used may not be native to the area, and some grasses suppress tree seedling establishment and growth. Thus, while solving some environmental problems, emergency rehabilitation may cause other problems.
ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
The Federal Government clearly has a responsibility for fire protection on the Federal lands. The responsibility for protecting homes and structures on private lands in and around the Federal lands, however, is less clear. In general, the States are responsible for fire protection on non-federal lands, although cooperative agreements may shift those responsibilities (especially when a realignment is efficient). It may be appropriate to maintain some separation, because of structures on non-federal lands and the differences between structural fires and wildfires. (Structural firefighters use different techniques and face different hazards from wildfire fighters, but basic Federal firefighting courses focus on fighting wildfires.)
Furthermore, the Forest Service has a cooperative fire protection program within its State and Private Forestry branch. This includes:  financial and technical assistance to State and other governmental organizations;  equipment loans of excess Federal personal property; and  cooperative fire preven-tion to provide a nationwide fire prevention program through public service advertising, education, partnerships, and other efforts. FY1994 appropriations for cooperative fire protection were $17.1 million, but the budget request for FY1995 was only $3.7 million, because President Clinton has proposed eliminating the financial assistance program (as was proposed several times by Presidents Reagan and Bush).(8)
Another question is about the relative priorities in wildfire suppression. Assuming that the fires can be controlled, should Federal firefighting decisions include values at risk on adjoining or surrounded non-federal lands? If so, this is effectively Federal fire protection for certain private lands and structures. If not, the Federal Government may be liable for damages to private lands and structures from wildfires originating on the Federal lands -- essentially free Federal fire insurance. In either case, it raises the question of whether Federal responsibility warrants Federal regulation -- if the Federal government is responsible for fire protection and/or insurance, then regulating building materials, site clearing and planting, road construction and access, etc. might be appropriate to constrain Federal costs.
l. It is widely accepted that livestock grazing, timber harvesting, and fire suppression over the past century have led to unnatural conditions -- excessive biomass (too many trees and dead woody material) and altered species mix -- in the pine forests of the West; these condi-tions make the forests more susceptible to drought, insect and disease epidemics, and other forest-wide catastrophes (including large wildfires).
2. For a brief history of Forest Service fire policy and of wildfire economics, see: Julie K. Gorte and Ross W. Gorte. Application of Economic Techniques to Fire Management -- A Status Review and Evaluation. Gen. Tech. Rept. INT-53. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, 1979. (Hereafter referred to as Gorte and Gorte, Economics of Fire Management.)
3. See: Albert J. Simard, Donald A. Haines, Richard W. Blank, and John S. Frost. The Mach Lake Fire. Gen. Tech. Rept. NC-83. St. Paul, MN: USDA Forest Service, 1983.
4. Sillce 1988, the Forest Service has been directed by Congress to share 25 percent of its salvage sale receipts with the States. Since 100 percent of receipts are deposited in the Salvage Fund, the receipt-sharing payments effectively require transfers from other (non-salvage) timber sales. This reduces timber sale receipts deposited in the U.S. Treasury, and thus costs taxpayers.
5. See: U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Salvage Timber Sales and Forest Health. by Ross W. Gorte. CRS Report for Congress No. 95-364 ENR. Washington, DC: March 10, 1995. 6 pp.
6. The 10-acre policy was that all fires should be controlled before they reached 10 acres in size; the 10:00 a.m. policy was that, for fires exceeding 10 acres, efforts should focus on control before the next burning period began (at 10:00 a.m.).
7. See: Gorte and Gorte, Economics of Fire Management.
8. The FY1996 budget request for Cooperative Lands-Fire Management is $17.6 million, slightly greater than the FY1994 appropriations.
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