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Forest Service Report: Incomplete Forest Fuel Treatments Don’t Slow Wildfire

Last updated on 2012.11.18

The Governor Dennis Daugaard's "Beat the Beetles" program just won recognition from the Council of State Governments for innovative state policy. One of the major selling points of South Dakota's pine beetle mitigation program as been to reduce the risk of "devastating wildfire." At the federal level, too, Republicans supporting more government response to pine beetles have argued that cutting infested trees is about preventing the Black Hills from burning down. (I'd link to the Dakota War College article on this topic, but it's another bit of public narrative that Pat Powers has deleted.)

The 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder, Colorado, did not involve significant stands of beetle-infested trees. But there had been significant "fuel treatments" to thin trees in an effort to reduce wildfire risk. Did these fuel treatments reduce the risk of wildfire? Mr. Kurtz sends me link-hopping to discover that, in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder, Colorado, the Forest Service says the answer appears to be no:

Fuel treatments had previously been applied to several areas within the fire perimeter to modify fire behavior and/or burn severity if a wildfire was to occur. However, the fuel treatments had minimal impact in affecting how the fire burned or the damage it caused [Russell Graham, Mark Finney, et al., "Fourmile Canyon Fire Findings," USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, August 2012].

The report cautions against general inferences, but it says that narrow treatments areas, failure to remove slash piles and other surface fuels, and failure to maintain treatment areas after cutting appear to have contributed to the failure of fuel treatment efforts to mitigate the Fourmile Canyon fire. Not conducting prescribed burns of slash piles after cutting appeared to make the fire worse.

In other words, just cutting down a few trees isn't enough. If you're really trying to change fire behavior, you've got to clear canopy and surface fuels (see p. 59, Figure 48 in the report, which shows a home in the middle of the forest that did not burn, apparently thanks to clearing a lot of trees).

There's an argument that aggressive removal of every dead tree in the forest is bad for the ecosystem. Dead trees, says ecologist George Wuerthner, provide vital habitat and food for ants, martens, bats, woodpeckers, salamanders, and grizzly bears (bears eat ants!). But those dead trees on the ground are part of the surface fuel that the Rocky Mountain Research Station report is talking about. Plus, standing dead trees pose greater risks for firefighters.

So I'm left wondering: can Black Hills beetle suppression meet the goal of fire suppression without much more widespread removal of trees and surface materials?


  1. Rorschach 2012.09.08

    I don't expect that either the state or the federal governments have enough money or personnel to clear all of the areas with dead trees or dense overgrowth. But they need to work diligently on it. Clearing dead trees and overgrowth is one of those things that can be good for both the environment and the economy.

  2. Eve Fisher 2012.09.08

    I have to admit I've often wondered at the (more or less) neatly stacked piles of dead brush and branches that the forest service has left after tree cutting, since they seem to be there just waiting - for weeks, months, ??? - for a spark to set them ablaze.

  3. larry kurtz 2012.09.17

    South Dakota subject of uncompleted fuel treatments:

    "Some see support for the argument against prescribed burning in the fading populations of black-backed woodpeckers in California, Oregon and South Dakota. This year four environmental groups filed a petition to have the bird declared endangered, blaming the Forest Service’s policy for the decline." NYT

  4. larry kurtz 2012.11.09

    Insect trying to save Black Hills threatened by earth haters: Woster.

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