FIBER research draws 3 wildfire lessons for forest towns

Director of FIBER Dave Hulse and professor Bart Johnson published an article on The Conversation about the results of their NSF founded research. The research team made of landscape architects, ecologists, social scientists and computer scientists has been exploring and testing strategies to help forecast and mitigate extreme fires. Here are three key lessons on how people might reliably reduce their losses in a future that could bring more fires, unpredictable larger fires, or both.

1) Prepare for uncertainty: In a simulated world with extreme, unpredictable wildfires, 10 times more homes were threatened in our study area than in identical rural development and forest management scenarios under less extreme climate impacts. The research team made a worst-case scenario – in which rural development expands without constraint and the forests aren’t thinned by people or allowed to burn naturally – over 30 times more homes were threatened than under conditions with less rural population growth and more management. The good news was that when 30% of the burnable landscape was actively managed to reduce fire risk with forest-thinning techniques and grassland restoration, the threat to homes fell by nearly half in the world of extreme wildfires.

2) Choose treatments wisely: Reducing forest density by thinning out smaller trees and underbrush effectively reduced the spread and severity of fires in extreme fire weather. In fact, our results suggest these tactics become increasingly effective as fires grow larger and more intense. In the study area, restoring imperiled native grasslands with scattered trees could do the best job of reducing risk to individual homes by creating “safe” places, where the fire can’t spread fast through the tree canopy and firefighters can battle it, under even extreme wildfire conditions. One such fire exploded out of nowhere under the less-extreme climate model, threatening over 900 homes. Two-thirds of homes in restored grasslands were protected by Firewise practices. Density thinning was only half as effective because of the difficulties of protecting homes in a forest. But the biggest challenge was that the high costs of thinning kept most forest landowners from maintaining treatments over time. As a result, high-severity fire consumed unmanaged forests, threatening 85% of homes there. Grasslands pose a two-edged sword if not carefully managed – under extreme fire weather they could foster fast-spreading fire corridors that leave homes in nearby forests exposed to greater risk. An animation shows how the same fire spreads in three potential future landscapes in three scenarios: with no management, thinning only and thinning accompanied by grassland restoration.

3) Manage rural development. Dealing with the often-divisive issue of where and how people build new homes is crucial when it comes to wildfire risk. Oregon is renowned for statewide policies that constrain urban sprawl. When the research team tested scenarios with more relaxed rules, they found that adding many new rural homes increased the average risk per home. Under these relaxed policies, sites in less risky areas were quickly developed and housing shifted to steeper, forested terrain at greater risk of severe fires. That can compound risk by putting more homes in harm’s way and increasing the potential for vehicles and power lines to ignite fires. An advantage of simulation modeling is that it allows scientists, policymakers and citizens to investigate things we can’t easily test in the real world. We can explore prospective solutions, identify new problems they create and address them and run the simulations again. In the real world, there is only one chance to get it right. People need to be able to identify reliable, adaptive approaches that can be implemented in sufficient time and in the right places before catastrophes happen. As carpenters say, “Measure twice, cut once.”

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