Forest Fire Management
Considerable public and media attention has focused on the causes and consequences of recent forest fires on public lands in the western United States. These fires caused significant harm and upheaval in some communities and, in some of these areas, increased fire intensity was linked to unnatural fuel accumulations. Because past land use management and policies have contributed to these conditions, many have called for prescribed fires and mechanical thinning programs aimed at reducing forest fuels. Recently, the Administration and some Congressional leaders have offered plans to address this situation.
Action is indeed needed in some western forests, but it is critical that any plan enacted is consistent with current scientific understandings. Sustainable forest management can be achieved only when the best scientific information is incorporated into management strategies. The following principles are central to fire management on western landscapes. Attention to them will greatly enhance the likelihood that efforts to address wildfire in western forests will achieve their objectives.
- Crown fires cannot and should not be eliminated from all forests.
Different ecosystems require different approaches to fire management. In some forest types, crown fires are a natural, indeed inevitable, part of the regime. For example, chaparral, lodgepole pine, boreal forest, pitch pine and sand pine have long experienced crown fires. Attempting to eliminate such fires in these ecosystems is not ecologically justified and is unlikely to succeed.
- Restoration is warranted, but it is not a cure all.
Some forest ecosystems, such as the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, have experienced an increase in large scale crown fires in recent years. In these forests, management to achieve a regime of frequent, low-intensity burns may be scientifically justified. Some of these areas can be restored through prescribed burns, but mechanical thinning will be necessary in many areas. However, under severe weather conditions, even forests with normal accumulations of fuel may experience crown fires. Severe fires cannot be eliminated in areas subject to drought; there is no scientific basis for “fire proofing” a forest.
- To succeed, restoration efforts must recognize natural variability.
Forests, especially those in the mountainous West, are highly variable in both species composition and structure. Even within a single forest type conditions vary significantly from place to place. Such variability precludes one-size-fits-all solutions to fuel management. Management goals and objectives must be adaptable to changing, site-specific conditions, as well as new scientific discovery.
- Fire suppression is not the only cause of fire regime changes.
Many land use changes including grazing, logging, road building, invasive species (such as flammable grasses) and the intrusion of human habitations into the forest have also contributed to these changes. A management strategy that addresses only fire suppression will be incomplete and likely unsuccessful.
- Preservation of large trees is necessary to meet management goals.
To restore frequent, low-intensity fire regimes, it is necessary to restore forest structures. In frequent, low-intensity fire systems it is the largest trees that are the least susceptible to fire. Therefore, restoration management must focus on removal of smaller, highly flammable fuels.
- Fire management must be adaptive.
Monitoring and research must go hand-in-hand with management. We have much to learn about fuels management and fire behavior across the wide array of forest types in the western United States. Managers must be able to learn from previous projects and adjust future prescriptions accordingly. Adaptive management should be an integral part of the restoration plan.
- A long-term commitment is imperative.
Forest structure changes slowly and restoration requires a long-term commitment. Once fuel reduction treatments have begun, attention must be given to the means by which appropriate fuel conditions are maintained, either through prescribed burns or naturally occurring fires. Without such attention, our forests will soon return to their present condition. Success will depend on the formulation of clear post-restoration management protocols and providing the funding to implement those protocols in the future.
Although this is an urgent challenge in some areas, the challenge will not be met by quick fixes or by strategies that are not based on the best science. Restoration efforts must be prioritized, and areas in which human life or property are at a great risk should be our highest priority. Much will be learned from these efforts that can then be applied to more remote areas. As the nation’s largest professional organization of ecologists, we stand ready to assist in both science and practice.
Adopted by the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America, April 2003