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Fighting fire with fire

April 14, 2014

Bishop High graduate James Denver battles the Rim Fire near Yosemite last year by setting a back-burn. A recent study suggests that the state can save millions by investing in forest management that removes dry forest overgrowth that can lead to similar “megafires.” Photo courtesy James Denver

A recent study by the U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy suggests that the state can save millions by investing in local forests.
More specifically, the study indicates this investing is best done via pre-emptive forest fires and otherwise clearing away debris that could later on fuel catastrophic wild fires.
The study – released last week – states that forest management activities, such as controlled burns and fuel reduction, can save up to three times the cost of future fires, reduce high-severity fire by up to 75 percent, and bring added benefits for people, water and wildlife.
The Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis examines the costs and benefits of reducing the risk of high-severity forest fires through proactive techniques like thinning and controlled burns. Set in the central Sierra Nevada, just north of last year’s destructive Rim Fire, scientists modeled likely future wildfires with and without proactive fuel treatments.
“The results indicate that investing in healthy forests can significantly reduce the size and intensity of fires and save millions of dollars in structure loss, carbon released, and improved firefighting safety and costs,” a press release from the three agencies states.
Locally, the Inyo National Forest manages a fuel reductions program that includes thinning the canopy of the forest to prevent fires from leaving the forest floor and prescribed burns that reduce the amount of fuel on the ground.
“On the Inyo, we have a really proactive fuels management program and thinning programs,” said INF Public Information Specialist Deb Schweizer. “We follow up with slash burning in the winter months when it’s safe and we do several prescribed burns in the winter months.”
The Inyo also allows natural, lightning-caused fires to run their natural course, if they don’t threaten life or property.
Schweizer explained that in the Eastern Sierra, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. Over the past 100 years, humans have waged war against fires, which has created a build-up of fuel that can create extreme fire conditions.
“Recent megafires in California and the West have destroyed lives and property, degraded water quality, damaged wildlife habitat and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” said David Edelson, Sierra Nevada project director with The Nature Conservancy. “This study shows that, by investing now in Sierra forests, we can reduce risks, safeguard water quality and recoup up to three times our initial investment while increasing the health and resilience of our forests.”
Megafires have become much more common in the last decade – the average size of a fire today is nearly five times the average fire from the 1970s, and the severity is increasing. The Sierra Nevada is at especially high risk this year with only one-third of normal snowpack as a result of the drought. “Many scientists are predicting an increase in the size and severity of fires due to a changing climate,” said Jim Branham, Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “These fires, such as last year’s Rim Fire, degrade wildlife habitat, release massive amounts of greenhouse gasses and can result in many other adverse impacts.”
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1 billion to cover firefighting shortfalls, taking money from programs that fund activities designed to reduce the risk of such fires. New bipartisan legislation called the Wildfire Funding Disaster Act seeks to address this problem by creating a reserve fund dedicated to excess firefighting costs, similar to the way FEMA provides funds to respond to other natural disasters.
“Our ongoing goal is to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work and this study strongly supports that,” said Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester. “Our current pace of restoration work needs to be accelerated to mitigate threats and disturbances such as wildfires, insects, diseases and climate change impacts. The goal is to engage in projects that restore at least 500,000 acres per year. Many types of projects help us reach our restoration goals including mechanical vegetation treatments, prescribed fire, and managing wildfire for resource benefits.”
Schweizer said that the Forest Service is hoping to increase its efforts this year, but the responsibility of preventing forest fires also falls to residents. “We’re in a third year of drought, so we know our fuel is going to be dry. What we don’t need are more human-caused fires. People can really make a difference” by being responsible forest users this summer.
For more information on the Mokelumne Avoided Cost Analysis, or to download the study, visit

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