Suppression Linked to Fire Exclusion and the Manipulation of Landscapes by Fuels Crews
Suppression-Caused Wildfire Exclusion
It is by now largely an accepted opinion that the exclusion of fire from ecosystems is creating conditions supportive of greater-intensity wildfires. The central premise of fire exclusion is that suppression activities, namely the construction of control lines (“fireline”), prevent wildfire from performing its natural role in removing dead and down material, initiating growth, and thinning vegetation and timber stands (“fuels”).
On one side of the fireline is the burned area, “the black,” where the landscape had its fuel loading managed by the fire. On the other side of the fireline is the unburned area "(the green) where fire was not allowed to enter. As a result, the fuels in the green will grow taller and closer together, setting the stage for larger and harder-to-control wildfires in the future.
A few exceptions have been reported. In some areas of the Northeast where Indigenous burning practices were interrupted, and fire has been generally excluded, these landscapes have become harder to burn. Some species of Chapparall in Southern California have had a similar experience to the Northeast.
The question begs to be asked, “Why are fires not allowed to burn in order to prevent this situation where wildfire suppression begets more wildfire suppression?” In many cases, they are. Well, it is not so much “allowed” as it is: “The fire is burning so rapidly, and intensely all resources have to back off.” The fire was allowed to burn more acres, though not as a proactive outcome of any decision-making process. There was no choice. It must also be brought into question if the high-severity stand-replacing burn in question was appropriate for that landscape at that time. Was it too much? What will the benefits be? What are the dangers? How long is recovery? It is not (always) as simple as burning more acres.
There are other factors involved that complicate efforts to manage fire exclusion. The highest-ranking official on the land a fire is burning on dictates the strategy used throughout the duration of the fire, including full suppression. The individuals managing the fire (“the Incident Management Team” [IMT]) are bound by this decision, which may be more preferential (I do not want this fire on my forest) and not ideal for long-term wildfire risk reduction. This is an example of the wildfire management system acting against its best interests.
Weather, expected fire behavior, and resource availability are all important factors in considering how to manage a fire. Even with minimal fire behavior, it is important to question if enough resources are available to monitor the fire and allow it to perform its important role. If the fire is being monitored for resource benefit, is the weather expected to get hotter and dryer and lead to exponential increases in spread and intensity? Will it burn at an intensity that is detrimental to the landscape? An alternative management strategy may be chosen with firefighters building fireline away from the fire (“indirect”). When completed, a fire will be started to consume all the vegetation between the fire and the fireline, effectively burning additional acres, increasing the footprint of the fire, and managing wildfire risk.
This is not a post against suppression. It is a post about managing the deleterious effects of suppression. Suppression is needed, and engines, Hotshot and Hand Crews, heavy equipment, and aircraft should be called on to do it. Not every fire is an opportunity in disguise to reintroduce fire into areas where it has been kept out of sometimes for decades. Fires that threaten life, property, and resources require swift suppression action. Situations may also arise where it is disadvantageous to let a fire enter an area where fire has been excluded repeatedly and effectively to the degree that there is no recorded fire history across that landscape. Strategic decisions must be made about when and on what terms fire will be allowed to enter such an area.
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Fuels Landscape Manipulation
There are those who are devoted to putting fire back on landscapes it was previously excluded from. They operate under the name “Fuels” or “Fuels Crews.” Drawing considerably from observations of local fuels projects and experience actually doing the work (as well as suppression), while suppression has certainly had its day in court, fuels deserve one as well.
Weather, fuels, and topography combine to form the fire environment. The state of each variable influences how a fire will burn. Fuels work often manipulates vegetation (brush, trees) mechanically with chainsaws. Many times, the goal is to create a park-like landscape where space is created between fuels that reduce the likelihood of an intense fire. In doing so, fuels technicians are granting primacy to a particular point in time where a park-like landscape might have existed, then recovering it and materializing it at large. If fire is then reintroduced onto the landscape intentionally by prescribed fire or unintentionally through arson or a lightning strike, a very different fire will occur than if it burned as it was encountered prior to thinning. Placing manipulation aside for a moment, strategically placed park-like breaks in the continuity of fuels can be valuable for managing wildfires, especially around areas where homes intermix with vegetation.
Suppose a specific area has been selected for a prescribed burn and is small enough to thoroughly engage with. In that case, fuels technicians may manicure the unit and remove certain species that would increase fire behavior beyond what was desired. Like in the situation described above, the first objective is to modify the fuels aspect of the fire environment to produce a desired landscape. Whether mechanically thinned without the intention of burning it (but planning for unexpected ignitions) or specifically prepared for prescribed fire, the desired landscape is conducive to low to medium burn severity. It is not just thinning but also the manipulation of fuels to produce a certain fire severity. However, in the event of unexpected ignition, weather conditions may increase fire severity beyond what was expected.
If the correct weather window presents itself, fuels technicians might burn one or more units. When burning what might be a carefully polished unit created to promote a low severity burn, fuels crews may ignite fuels slowly to modulate fire behavior and keep it on the ground, sometimes forming a mosaic pattern of black ground and green grass where certain species are growing. Technicians igniting the unit are often aided by water from hose lays, which can further regulate fire behavior.
What is the Right Thing to Do?
It would be valuable to explore the historical or scientific basis for replicating the park-like landscape in many different places and fuel types. Fuels crews have the technical capacity between chainsaws, weather, and fire modeling data (if available) to design the vegetation composition in a unit to be treated. If this unit is to be eventually burned, the structure of the treated vegetation was chosen for its probability of burning in a particular way. The fuels crew has selected both the fuel composition and the characteristics of the fire that will burn across the landscape. It should be questioned, “What is the rationale for intervening in fuels to produce a certain type of fire?”
The apparent propensity of fuels crews to create park-like landscapes in smaller units that tend to burn with minimal to low severity fires is in need of examination. It is possible a unit fuels technicians were working on and cut all of the heat-producing fuels out of was supposed to experience a high-severity fire. While low-severity burns with minimal fire behavior and park-like stands undoubtedly have their ecological role, perhaps there is an argument that they should not be the standard. It should be asked, “ Is this strategy capable of expediently addressing fire exclusion?” By granting authority to an image of what landscapes should look and burn like, inefficiency and ineffectiveness are introduced into fuels work managing the effects of fire exclusion. It does not seem probable that this approach if it is widespread, will make a meaningful stand against fire exclusion. So what then? Maybe we need to let fire be fire.
It is possible this post could serve as the outline for a very long book. Fire exclusion linked to suppression was addressed before moving into a discussion about fuels work. It was suggested that whenever safe, beneficial, and practical, fuels technicians should let the fire burn in the landscapes they encountered. The weather and lighting patterns during prescribed fires become the strategic variables, not fuel treatments, with the exception of fireline. This strategy allows a landscape to burn as it was encountered to encourage natural processes and reduce the fuel loads caused by fire exclusion.
There is plenty of room to dispute what constitutes “natural” in the fuels narrative. At what point in time could an idea of natural originate from? Was the landscape natural when treated with regular Indigenous burning that managed fuel loads? Was it natural when logging-related fires tore across the landscape? Did the current state of forest and brushland across the nation become natural when fire was excluded, possibly for decades after decades? Or is it natural when a single tree lightning strike spews hot embers into explosive grasses, resulting in a large fire? “Natural” is difficult to define. Lightning strikes seem like the obvious candidate for natural fires on the landscape, but there may be too few to manage the issue of fire exclusion in the United States. What some fuels crews are doing by creating park-like landscapes that may have existed in the pre-colonial era may be unnatural as the strategy leans on the outcome of intentional burning.
A walk down a trail in any Southern Californian national forest will likely be flanked with towering Manzanita brush. The continuity and density of the Manzanita may be a deviation from what is understood as its historical norm. What if fuels pivoted from a concern to the historical and the natural to the artificial? The landscape fire has not been allowed to enter and has become an artifice. Fire exclusion has changed the realm of possibilities for burnable areas around the country and set them on a trajectory they otherwise would not be on. This is about dealing with the present as the present. Data on how far an area has deviated from its normal fire pattern could be useful, though not without considering the rationale for returning to a “normal/natural” fire pattern.
Landscapes are partially characterized by episodic burning of varying intensities; it should be considered how that knowledge, but not data points, can be applied to landscapes that have become artificial. Returning forests and brush and grasslands around the nation to historical fire patterns and fuel composition may be a long-term goal. The short-term goal is the reduction of fuels that have accumulated through fire exclusion, which will reduce long-term wildfire risk. A fire pattern designed by fire officials and fuels crews will establish how often the area of concern needs to be burned to continue to minimize risk. Fuels management becomes concerned with looking prospectively at artificial landscapes as they are when encountered and seeing how, over time, their wildfire risk can be managed through prescribed fire and wildfires. Fuels crews are not working with the natural, but something produced through human actions. It is through human actions that a new pattern of fire activity fixated on managing fire risk can be developed and followed. Prescribed fire then becomes a matter of "burning forward" into a new landscape structure where wildfire risk is lessened through moderate severity burns rather than "burning back" to achieve an image of how an ecosystem used to look.
It is recognized here that not all units are thinned prior to burning. The size of the unit makes thinning beforehand impractical, though they likely still have fireline constructed around them. This post also recognizes that burn windows and Hotshot Crew’s off-seasons may align. If this is the case, they will not be available for fuels work as some conversations assume they will be. Hotshots are valuable resources for both constructing fireline around the unit and igniting it. In the present situation where enough acres cannot be burned, finding the resources to burn them may be challenging.