Preventing wildfires: Forest management has potential to protect communities from wildfire disasters
On March 14, the Western Governors’ Association Out West podcast welcomed Executive Director of the Intermountain Forest Association Ben Wudtke to discuss the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service’s management strategy.
Forest management is something land and homeowners in the West must consider in order to protect their communities, says Wudtke.
Desirable forest conditions
Wudtke mentions too dense of forests are a leading driver in the forest health crisis the country is facing.
“Desired forest conditions influence a lot of actions we push for as an association, and we believe it should influence the actions pushed for in other agencies and organizations as well,” he says.
Wudtke explains managing forest areas include looking towards the future and deciding what the landscape should look like 10 years from now.
“Sometimes what people want to see 10 years from now isn’t what they want to see today or vice versa,” he continues.
He mentions a lot of people find luscious, green forests, abundant with trees to be desirable.
“When people look at pictures of these green forests immediately following wildfire and look at the impacts those green, dense conditions have on what they want to see in the landscape long term, people realize desired conditions don’t always line up with what they think is good today and what they want to see on the landscape in the long run,” Wudtke says.
Wudtke says a case study from USDA shows how crews were able to utilize a fuel break to control the Buffalo Fire of Silverthorne, Colo. in 2018. A fuel break is a wide strip of land where vegetation has been modified so a fire burning into it can be better managed.
“The fire started just outside of Silverthorne and was moving very quickly,” he says. “The fire hit a fuel break which had been installed around the community, and the fuel break was credited to saving 1,400 homes of $1 billion worth.”
Wudtke says this is an incredible success story for wildfire management. He notes, although there’s tragedy unfolding with wildfires in the West, people need to be aware of the success stories there have been as well.
“We have to be aware of the successes we are seeing in fighting these fires,” Wudtke says. “We need to see the successes on the landscape and what made them successful so we can be moving those projects forward,” Wudtke says.
Fuel breaks were also utilized during the Badger Creek Fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
“The case study the USDA released talked about this fire growing quickly and moving rapidly with 200-foot flame lengths,” says Wudtke. “As the fire moved into fuel treatment areas, the wildfire behavior reduced to a level where firefighters could actually put in suppression efforts.”
“They weren’t able to fight the main body of the fire ahead of this, but after it hit those fuel breaks, the fire conditions allowed them to aggressively fight the fire and save communities,” he continues.
Wudtke mentions water producers are interested in managing forests 100 or more miles away from where they’re supplying customers, and it’s for good reason. Water quality can be impacted by very severe wildfires.
“Wildfires we see on the evening news, where the area was burnt is black and there’s not a forest left, are the types of fires having incredible impacts on water quality,” he says. “A lot of this attention to forest management from water suppliers really started with the Hayman Fire, which started northwest of Colorado Springs, Colo.”
Wudtke says the degradation of water quality following the fire and the enormous investments made to treat the water resulted in water suppliers focusing more of their attention to managing forests.
“Water suppliers recognized they could be more proactive and be on the front end of wildfires, doing beneficial work on the landscape versus just trying to treat the water following wildfires,” he says.
“Water suppliers aren’t left dealing with 100,000-acre fires degrading water quality, which they have to invest in treatments for,” he continues. “We are also seeing benefits to communities as well.”
Wudtke notes certain geographical areas welcome forest management and others don’t support it.
“Areas which have had million-acre fires or entire communities destroyed understand the threat,” he says. “Other areas which haven’t experienced wildfires to this extent yet and haven’t lost communities may not understand what this looks like and how forest management will be implemented. Those areas will take a little more work to get the community support.”
Wudtke mentions many people move out West for the forests. Sometimes it can be difficult for these people to understand why the forests need to be managed and thinned out. Perspectives vary greatly between people who have experienced loss due to wildfire and those who haven’t.
“When talking to homeowners who have lost their homes, their responses might be different now, they understand there’s action needing to take place on the landscape,” he says.
Wudtke mentions the forest may look different for a while after forest management practices are implemented, but there’s still going to be a green forest. There won’t always be this outcome with natural events like wildfires.
He explains, “We are having more and more success stories where we are seeing wildfires move over areas which have been managed.”
“We have to be active before the fire, we can’t wait. We can’t change the weather conditions, but we can change the forest structure,” Wudtke says. “This means we can change the fire behavior and give ourselves a better chance of success.”
Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.