Adapting to more wildfire in western North American forests as the climate changes

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has published its recommendations for a new approach to managing forests in the American West to adapt to the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in the changing climate.  The authors of the NAS publication regarding adaptive forest management in the changing climate are 12 academic scientists from major public universities in 8 western states. (1)

Although the National Academy of Sciences was created by an Act of Congress in 1863, during the Lincoln administration, it is a non-governmental non-profit that receives no direct government funding.  Its charge is “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. … to provide scientific advice to the government ‘whenever called upon’ by any government department.” Members of the Academy serve without salary as “advisers to the nation.” Election to the National Academies is one of the highest honors in the scientific field. The independence of NAS is ensured by lack of governmental funding and salaries to its members.  However, 85% of NAS funding is government grants and contracts. (2)

In other words, this publication is an important policy document, prepared by distinguished scientists and published by America’s most prestigious scientific institution.  It deserves our attention and respect.

Why is a new forest management approach needed?

In the past, forest management policies have focused primarily on preventing fire, reducing fuel loads, and restoring burned areas.  Given the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires, there is a new understanding that these approaches are no longer adequate to address new conditions created by the changed and changing climate.  The new approach recognizes that fuels reduction cannot alter regional wildfire trends and therefore must adapt ecosystems and residential communities to more frequent fires, including “planning residential development to withstand inevitable wildfire.”  This represents a shift from restoring historical conditions, now considered unsustainable, to developing fire-adapted communities.

The authors of this publication tell us that managing forest fuels has been ineffective:  “Mechanical fuels treatments on the US federal lands over the last 15 years totaled almost 7 million hectares, but the annual area burned has continued to set records.  Regionally, the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”  Where fuels treatment was done, wildfires subsequently occurred:  “10% of the total number of US Forest Service forest fuels treatments completed in the 2004-2013 period in the western United States subsequently burned in the 2005-2014 period.”  This suggests that “most treatments have little influence on wildfire.” In any case, only 40% of wildfires occurred in forests since 1984, with most fires burning grasslands and shrublands.  Clearly, these projects have been a waste of time, trees, and taxpayer money.

This area on the west side of Grizzly Peak Blvd is known as Frowning Ridge. It is one of the first areas that was clear-cut by UC Berkeley over 10 years ago. Destroying the trees did not prevent the grass and shrubs from igniting in the August 2017 fire. Pictures of that area before and after the trees were destroyed are available here:  The fire in August 2017 was stopped when it reached the forest on the opposite side of the road.

Nor do the authors consider “thinning” of forests a viable method of reducing fire hazards because “when thinning is combined with the expected warming, unintended consequences may ensue, whereby regeneration is compromised and forested areas convert to non-forest.”  When trees are thinned, the trees that remain are more vulnerable to wind and they lose the ability to share resources with the neighboring trees that have been removed.

Tilden Park, October 2016. East Bay Regional Park District has radically thinned this area to distances of 25 feet between remaining trees. This area is about 2 miles away from any residential structures. Cal Fire defines “defensible space” as 100 feet around structures.

There are two major reasons for increased wildfire hazards.  More than 50% of the increase in areas burned by wildfire in the American West is attributed to climate change.  The expansion of residential development into forested areas—called the Wildland-Urban-Interface (WUI)—is the second factor:  “Between 1990 and 2010, almost 2 million homes were added in the 11 states of the western United States, increasing the WUI by 24%.”  35% of wildfires in the WUI since 2000 were in California, more than any other state.

What is the new management goal?

Whereas past policies were designed to maintain forest conditions to historical conditions, this is no longer considered a realistic goal.  The recommended goal is now “supporting species compositions and fuel structure that are better adapted to a warming, drying climate with more wildfire.”  Sounds like planting tree species that are adapted to new climate conditions, doesn’t it?

The other, equally important new goal is to reduce the vulnerability of communities to wildfire by “changing building codes to make structures more fire-resistant…and providing incentives, education, and resources to reduce vulnerability to future wildfire.”  The only tree removals that make sense to the authors are those immediately around residential communities, “strategically located to protect homes and the surrounding vegetation.”  That is the principle of creating “defensible space” immediately around structures:  “fuels management for home and community protection will be most effective closest to homes…where ignition probabilities are likely to be high.”

Source: Cal Fire

These strategies are called “transformative resilience,” which “refers to planned fundamental change in response to drastically altered disturbances that have the potential to create broad-scale, systemic shifts in ecological states or radical shifts in values, beliefs, social behavior, and multilevel governance.”  The authors of these policy recommendations acknowledge that such rapid and radical shifts in social and ecological transformation are rare and difficult to achieve.  We certainly agree with that observation.

The urgently needed paradigm shift

Public policy and conventional wisdom is wedded to the past.  The public is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the realities of climate change.  They remain committed to “restoring” the landscape to an imagined pre-settlement ideal in the distant past.  And public land managers remain committed to creating that fantasy landscape, by destroying existing landscapes and using herbicides to do so.  They destroy the trees of the future and plant the trees of the past.  And they destroy trees miles from any residential properties while property owners resist the creation of defensible space needed to protect their homes.

The authors of the NAS publication clearly state the risks of continuing down that path:  “[Such policies] may be the easiest, most familiar path with the least uncertainty, but this approach is short-sighted and could come at the cost of adaptation to future wildfire as climate change continues.”

They also urge the public to wake up to this new reality:  “Some ecosystems will survive and thrive as they adapt to novel future conditions, but not all.  Embracing rather than resisting ecological change will require a significant paradigm shift by individuals, communities, and institutions and will challenge our conservation philosophies.”

Our safety and the future of our land are at stake.  We must take our heads out of the sand and look forward instead of back to a past that is long gone and will not return.  Since climate change is causing more wildfires, destroying more trees than necessary to achieve fire safety is counterproductive because deforestation is the source of about 10% of carbon emissions contributing to climate change.

(1) Tania Schoennagel, et. al., “Adapt to more wildfire in western North American forests as climate changes,” Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, May 2017

(2) Wikipedia

House burns without igniting eucalypts

There was a fire in the Berkeley hills yesterday.  A home in the 1400 block of Queens Drive was gutted by the fire.  The home was completely surrounded by eucalyptus trees, some branches overhanging the home.  The trees did not ignite.  The leaves do not appear to be scorched by the fire.

Fire on Queens Road
Despite the fact that the trees didn’t burn, the news coverage of the fire focuses on the flammability of the trees:  “Eucalyptus trees are especially flammable and often used for kindling because of their oils.”  The accusation of flammability is not new.  We see it in any news story in which eucalypts are mentioned in any context, even those unrelated to fires. 

The claim that eucalyptus is used as kindling is something we have not heard before.  In fact, it makes no sense since the oil in eucalyptus is contained in the leaves, not in the wood, which is the usual definition of kindling.  However, we are accustomed to new anti-eucalyptus stories being fabricated at every opportunity.

We won’t repeat all the evidence that eucalyptus is not more flammable than other trees in this post because our readers have heard it all before.  We will just remind you that all reputable sources of information about preventing wildfires inform homeowners that the species of plants and trees are irrelevant to fire safety. 

All species of plants and trees will burn under certain circumstances, such as a wind-driven fire on a hot, dry day.  Property owners can reduce their risks of wildfire with appropriate maintenance, such as removing lower limbs on all trees, pruning trees and shrubs away from structures, and removing accumulated leaf litter.

In the case of the fire on Queens Road, the neighbors put themselves in harm’s way by parking cars on both sides of a narrow street, narrowing the road to one-lane which severely restricted access to the home by fire trucks. 

Parked cars restrict access on Queens Road

As usual, humans are always looking for a non-human scapegoat for the risks they choose to take.  Rather than taking care of the vegetation around their home and reducing the number of cars parked on a narrow road, they prefer to blame the trees.  In this case the trees had nothing to do with this fire.

Creating Defensible Space for Fire Safety

Those who have a sincere desire to reduce fire hazards in the Bay Area would be wise to turn their attention away from the distracting and irrelevant debate about the flammability of native compared to non-native plants and trees.   California native ecology is dependent upon and adapted to fire.  The native landscape is not less flammable than non-native plants and trees.  Most firestorms in California are wind-driven fires in which everything burns, including native and non-native trees and plants as well as any buildings in the path of the fire.   

Rather, the creation of “defensible space” immediately around your home is your best defense against the loss of your home in a wildfire.  Creating defensible space means reducing fire fuels around your home by appropriate pruning and maintenance, such as limbing up trees to remove the fire ladder to the tree canopy and removing leaf litter.  Defensible space is intended to slow the progress of fire to your home.

In this post we will visit several reputable sources of information about fire safety that advise homeowners about how to protect themselves, particularly those who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface where fire hazards are greatest.   We will see that all these sources of information have in common that they do not single-out specific species of plants or trees.  Rather they emphasize that how vegetation is pruned and maintained is more important to reducing fire hazard and that materials we use in building our homes are equally important to our safety.  These sources of information are not native plant advocates.  Their advice is not based on a desire to destroy non-native plants and trees in the belief that their destruction will benefit native plants and trees.  

Firewise Communities is an internet resource provided by the National Fire Protection Association and co-sponsored by the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior.  This resource offers on-line courses in fire safety.  In the course on “Firewise Landscaping” these criteria are listed as the characteristics of fire-resistant plants:  low leaf litter, high water retention ability, high salt retention ability, lack of aromatic oils, low fuel volume, height and spread that fits well into the intended space.  Some native and some non-native plants fit these criteria and some do not.  For example, although the leaves of eucalyptus contain aromatic oils, so do the leaves of the native California bay laurel.   

Homeowners in the Wildland-Urban Interface should focus on creating defensible space around their homes rather than on choosing particular plant or tree species. CALFire guidelines for creating defensible space do not advise for or against any particular species of plant or tree. Rather CALFire focuses on how to prune and maintain vegetation around your home and create a “defensible space” around your home with low fuel volume, as illustrated in this brochure on their website.

Creating defensible space around your home. CALFire

Likewise the UC Berkeley Fire Center in their brochure “Home Landscaping for Fire” says, “It is important to remember that given certain conditions, all plants can burn…how your plants are maintained and where they are placed is as important as the species of plants that you chooselandscape management (e.g., pruning, irrigation, and cleanup) have a greater impact on whether or not a plant ignites than does the species.” It is ironic that UC Berkeley is engaged in the destruction of every non-native tree and plant on its property, despite the advice on its own website about fire safety, which is obviously being ignored. 

The August 2010 issue of Sunset Magazine includes a comprehensive “Wildfire Survival Guide,” including advice about planting a fire-safe garden. 

The City of Oakland passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring homeowners to maintain defensible space around their homes and voters in Oakland agreed to tax themselves to pay for the enforcement of this requirement.  Unfortunately, a drive in the Oakland hills informs us that these requirements are not being enforced. 

Oakland hills

This home is particularly vulnerable because fire tends to travel up hill.  Firewise says that a 30% slope will accelerate the rate of spread of fire to twice the speed of fire on flat ground. 

Wouldn’t the people of Oakland be better served by enforcement of requirements for defensible space around homes rather than paying shared costs of $662,280 for a FEMA grant to eradicate all non-native vegetation from 325 acres of wildland? (see “Our Mission, Projects in the East Bay”)  Oakland is  flat broke and one of the most violent cities in the country.  Eighty policemen were recently laid off and 120 more are likely to be laid off if voters don’t vote to tax themselves further.  Shouldn’t homeowners be required to create defensible space around their homes where their lives and property are most at risk before “vegetation management” is extended far beyond the perimeter of homes?