Fire Mitigation 2020 or Hindsight 20/20?
There's a relevant axiom the special forces community uses to incite change "if you want to make an omelet, you gotta crack a few eggs"! This adage represents our community's anxiety with fire mitigation, our forests (our planets) health and our own private backyards.
We are no longer in a state of denial, we're in a state of crisis. Our Beetle Epidemic has killed trees across nearly 6 million acres of our forests. One in fourteen trees are dead in Colorado and our survival (perilously) depends on our interconnected ecosystems, that helps maintain our basal equilibrium (our balance between fuel loading and nature being key).
Unfortunately we're hanging on to a precipice with one hand and the other's reaching for help. Are you ready for help? There always was and still is a path forward, it's called stewardship!
"In Colorado alone (throughout 6 million forested acres), 1 in 14 trees are dead.
The cause? Our Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic."
According to the U.S. Forest Service the 2020 fire suppression budget will increase to $1.6B, and their prevention budget will decrease by $91M. In 1944 they began an aggressive fire prevention campaign... do you remember the slogan? Only you can prevent forest fires. Private fire mitigation prevents loss, maintains balance and celebrates stewardship. With out a doubt, this is our path forward.
When I jumped for the BLM, we prioritized staffing all initial fire starts by 1200 hours the following day. We wanted to keep them small, dormant and low cost. We then used off-season (fire prevention) to control burn tens-of-thousands of acres. It worked extremely well for us. As the mid to late 90's approached, private owners were growing intolerant of prescribe (Rx) fires, in proximity to the wildland- urban interface (WUI). Smoke became their campaign.
Despite the positive impacts Rx had on the local ecosystem, private owners used their local, state and federal platforms to curb prevention. It worked... here we are. We can reverse our mistakes through education (learning), training (implementing), and action (preventing). We can succeed.
"For what is one is in the whole. What you decide to do will eventually impact everyone."
- Caroline Myss
So how does this begin to impact our community? Historically, when we have a natural disaster we acceptingly throw gobs of money at it - out of sight... out of mind. When we have a national crisis like excessive fuel loading, not so much - we can't afford it. Remember we're talking about our own back yards. Private property. Many of these examples are directed towards common areas and contingency lines that separate county, state and federal lands from private.
So what would benefit our community more, fire prevention or reaction? What's easiest? And what's the missing ingredient with local fire mitigation? Here's what we do know; local, state and federal governments budget monies for prevention. The vast majority of private WUI owners do not. Do you budget for fire mitigation?
Tho Interesting enough, many large (private) land owners log, burn, and graze fuel loading to appropriate levels know as Ideal Basal Area (IBA). These areas include timber stands, species, diameter, density and surrounding ground cover. Sustainable - healthy action taken to protect their portion of the ecosystem. There are proven formulas that work for large and small acreage. Remember, smaller acreage is much easier to address then larger acreage, meaning it's achievable if you want it.
For the past 15 years we've spent $1B (annually) on firefighting and there's no tangible evidence that it has provided much (if any) relief. In fact conflagrations have only increased in size and have become deadlier (i.e. California, Russia, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Israel and Australia), just to name a few.
Private owners and communities alike, are looking to their forest management actions to see how it's done. We should probably stop looking at what's happening in the forest and manage our own resources first. By our own resources I mean our own private property. You must remember that no agency's required to save your property other than you! As the saying goes you can't take care of others if you don't take care of yourself. Think of your property as a micro-forest management plan, but one you control. Again, it's easier than you might think.
"Winter pile burning is the single most important act in reducing our excessive - basal fuel loading!"
Vicki Christiansen, (USFS Chief)
Failed forest management is often used to explain why people lose homes and property to wildland fire. Wildland Fire Personnel (WFP) are not going to save your home when the fire front is too dangerous for everyone. They need some sort of realistic expectations. We all need fire mitigation.
The U.S. Census claims that 140M Americans are living in excessively fuel loaded areas (like you and I). According to the National Inter-Agency Fire Center (NIFC), nearly 90% of all wildland fires, are human caused (i.e. just like here in our own back yards - La Plata County). Again, have you prioritized your own fire mitigation yet?
Here's another acute statistic, almost 60K fires burn annually and less than 2% of the 70K communities (here and throughout the west), have not done anything substantial to prepare themselves, or their community for fire. Are you preparing for wildland fire?
Recent surveys show that nearly everyone believes that our local, state, and federal agencies will (somehow) save their property. People also believe that they are entitled to some form of state and/ or federal assistance, regarding any homeowner insurance - coverage gaps. Remember your insurance covers your home not your property... or your views. There are affordable options available to private owners who possess the gumption or require service. Learn more.
Media has done a superb job acknowledging (and embellishing) our firefighters - they jump from planes, drop retardant, and pull women and children from burning homes. Unless you've been up close and personal with The Dragon, you'll never really understand how this notion is foolhardy at best. I know, I've been at the front lines countless times and hindsight has always been 20/20. For most WFP, the days of hanging it out, while trying to save life and property, have come and gone.
Smoke related illnesses and PTSD, have ushered in a new paradigm. Right or wrong, one that takes a different approach to direct and indirect firefighting tactics and operations. It's imperative that firefighters be able to arrive at your home (or community), and be ready to defend - not fire mitigate. Do you understand the difference? If you're fire mitigating on the day of the fire, or you're begging professionals to save your home, you've failed to prepare.
There's an old smokejumper saying, as it relates to fighting fire in the wildland- suburban interface... If you want to hide from your neighbors, buy 40 acres!
I can tell you from decades of experience, that (logistically) only time and adequate preparation will allow for successful structure protection operations. Our community is not equipped for running and gunning operations. Strike teams of wildland fire engines only come when strident fire conditions are present (i.e. 2018). And only if available!
Sadly it only takes one red flag warning day, and we could be back to spending millions on Incident Management Teams. If we're not preventing fires then we are surely going to react to them. Loosing fire control not only costs financially it also demoralizes and incapacitates communities.
Our community's still recovering from the affects of excessive fuel loading and wildland fire. Fires that could have created far greater destruction. Knowing that our fire threat is growing expeditiously, and having a resource management plan ready to implement, protects property and saves lives.
Local Firewise® models outlining fuels removal 30 feet away from your structures is a drop in the bucket. You're going to need to plan for colossal. There is no sugarcoating 300' (that's feet) flame lengths. Local municipal fire departments have a difficult time as it is encouraging homeowners to perform even the most basic applications. Have you performed the basics? Now we have an even bigger pill to swallow. Homeowners are going to need to fire mitigate their entire property to be successful, and plan for their own structure protection.
"Homes can be rebuilt (relatively) quickly, but your views will take decades. Do you have decades to wait?"
Residents that have set this plan into action are ahead of the fire danger. Remember, when you reduce the fuel loading you reduce the rate of spread (ROS). In other words you give a compelling reason for firefighters to protect your property, instead of performing community triage operations. Do you want to save your home and your property? Remember fire mitigation basics help structure protection only. Removing complete excessive fuel loading, enforces home, property, and ecosystem survival.
Local community leadership is not in any position to evoke fear into our lives. Their sole purpose is to serve and protect. They've tried to warn us (without enacting mandates), that local fire mitigation is a priority. Less that 7% of private residents have acknowledged their caution. Our predicament is one of crisis at a disproportionate level. Attempting to hide out in excessive fuel loading is no longer considered living in the forest. You can learn to hide in plain sight. Fire mitigation is not about butchering trees. It never has been. Have you planned out your fire mitigation goals - what does your IBA look like?
We've all heard the frustrated and perplexed outbursts like: let it all burn... I'll sell and rebuild somewhere else with my insurance check. Unfortunately, this does not take time, food, water, shelter, weather, essentials, and re-homing your family into consideration. I've seen the aftermath and it's associated depression. The disparagement that quickly ensues. No one wants to live or rebuild on moonscape, and it's hardening to watch your mountain dreams vanish. Today's homes can be rebuilt in months, but our forest views... they take decades.
Do you have decades to wait? For those of us who are lucky enough to have additional properties or vacation homes in the area, this applies to us too. Fire nuisance affects us all. Remember La Plata county fire ordinances call for non-threatening conditions hazardous to life, property or public welfare in the occupancy of structures or premises. Would excessive fuel loading classify as threatening?
Many environmental attorneys seem to believe so. Is this a risk that we should be taking?
Our America twenty years ago had less than 1,000 homes burned annually. Today we burn 6 times more acreage and nearly 3,000 homes annually and the number is growing. You can prevent this from happening - you can fire mitigate! It does work. A century ago our local Ponderosa Pine stands averaged a dozen trees per acre. Today it is not uncommon to find stands in the hundreds. This is not stewardship. This is excessive and deadly fuel loading. This is disaster waiting to happen. This is FEMA setting up in our schools. We ALL need to be proactive as our survival actually depends on it.
As a concerted community, we will not be able to air curtain burn, masticate, or wood chip our way out of this mammoth mess. Logistically, these tools (primarily) treat the symptom not the problem. Although, once excessive fuel loading mitigation has been accomplished, air burners (if available or afforded) could suffice upkeep. I've ran this position by a dozen professional colleges (their experiences range from Inter-Agency: National Fire Office, Fire Management Officers, Hot Shot Superintendents, Smokejumper Management, and Air-Tactical Group Supervision), and their position is (overall) unanimous - we are too far along in our private and national quagmire to accept minimal standards. Time's running out!
"In the past, aerial resources have helped our community "get by"... what will happen when our luck runs out?"
It's extremely rewarding when you witness your efforts paying off and it becomes contagious. Welcome to stewardship! We forget about electing donkeys and elephants or millions acres of dead beetle kill forests, and we concentrate on our own backyards. We also strengthen our community. It works.
Maybe we thwart the next campaign fire and keep mom and pop in business and don't lose tourism dollars. Our community is just one fire away from financial devastation, death, loss, and displacement. There is so much at stake with our national crisis.
Ask any wildland firefighting professional (off the record), and hear what they have to say. Listen to how our professional men and women work on their own properties. They get it done through timeless fundamentals and winter burning. Cut, pile, cover, and winter burn. It works. Smell a little smoke now or gasp, choke, and wheeze later. Cut-out making costly - unnecessary trips to the slash depot.
Maybe we should make all of our local Fire Danger - Warning Sings interchangeable. That way when fire season ends we can flip the sign and display when it's OK to burn. Local social media, news and radio stations could help out by announcing safe burn days. I'm sure our local municipal fire departments wouldn't mind being trained, to assist their constituents, when burn windows are green? Anyway, It's a start.
By in large, our local community is afraid of winter burning. It has become demonized by those who do not understand its importance. By folks who never stepped foot on a raging wildland fire or have seen this practice work. If you're worried about your neighbor burning down the forest realize open burning is very safe when snow is on the ground. If you're worried about ISIS burning down our forest, well then you've just entered the world of arson. Resourceful fire mitigation/ Rx fire treatments will combat arson.
Millions of Americans are moving into wildfire-prone areas every decade. With climate change expected to lengthen and intensify western droughts (and fires expected to keep pace), real estate will keep burning at an unprecedented rate. Homeowners must act on the most American of Principles and start protecting their own property. With so much riding on the line, private fire mitigation is needed now more than ever.