Forest Service Chief Talks Need For New Fire Management, Fuel Treatments

A line of wildland firefighters marches through the woods during the Yellowstone fires of 1988. The massive complex of fires, which burned more than 790,000 acres, was a transformative moment in the country's view of wildfire. CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
A line of wildland firefighters marches through the woods during the Yellowstone fires of 1988. The massive complex of fires, which burned more than 790,000 acres, was a transformative moment in the country's view of wildfire. CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

The West is in the midst of another intense fire season. Fires in California and Oregon have claimed lives and homes and burned up farmland.

As part of EarthFix’s ongoing series on wildfire, reporter Tony Schick spoke with interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about what her agency is doing to reform fire management and reverse the fire problem.

Christiansen discussed her agency’s approach to wildfire management and what she’s doing to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. Below are some of her responses on these issues, edited for length and clarity. 

U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen CREDIT: U.S. FOREST SERVICE

U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen
CREDIT: U.S. FOREST SERVICE

As EarthFix reported, the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires, decades after recognizing the danger in that practice. Wildland fire agencies currently spend millions fighting relatively low-risk fires that could actually help protect communities if allowed to burn a bigger footprint. Researchers within the Forest Service are trying to push wildland fire management toward more data-driven decisions that consider the long-term tradeoffs of fire suppression. Asked what she’s doing to implement that throughout the agency, Christiansen said she was trying to build more acumen for risk management and reset the agency’s thinking.

“We are successful at extinguishing 98 percent of all fires. But there’s 2 percent that, I call them hurricane fires. We don’t ask public safety officials to stop a hurricane. We ask them to get people out of harm’s way, to provide assistance to mitigate, create resilience, etc. Well that’s the situation we are in. But we are asking many of our responders to take aggressive action when there is zero probability of success.

“So our reset is about thinking about (the) probability of success, and just the first line — all fire is bad and we must stop it. Why are we exposing responders, not doing our work to get people out of harm’s way, spending all kinds of public funds, when the probability of success is zero to very low. That’s the first level of the reset.”

Christiansen often talks about the agency’s 98 percent success rate at keeping fires small on initial attack. Researchers have pointed out that number, for many reasons, might not be the best measure of success for an agency with a stated goal of living with fire, not simply trying to extinguish it. Christiansen said the Forest Service would start to talk about metrics:

“There might be a day, a year, or four or five whatever it is down the road, where I don’t have to articulate just the 98 percent initial attack success rate because we’ve created more understanding, more acceptance of fire’s role on the landscape, where allowable.”

Christiansen said she pictures a system that better separates “wanted” and “unwanted” fire. Unwanted fire would still be measured by initial attack. But wanted fire would be measured based on how often it’s meeting certain objectives, like improving the environment, providing habitat and reducing risk to nearby communities.

“I hate to boil it down this way, but there’s good fire and bad fire. So, then we have shared goals about bad fire and we have some shared goals — and measure our outcomes — about good fire.”

The West is way behind where it needs to be for fuel treatments and many of the treatments being done do not follow what science has shown to be most effective, as EarthFix reported last week. Prescribed fire is a crucial aspect of fuels reduction and forest restoration, but its missing on a large number of projects. Asked what the agency was doing to make sure treatments keep pace, Christiansen said the West needs to adopt the culture of the Southeastern U.S., where burning is common practice:

“We don’t have a culture of accepting fire in the West like we do in the Southeast. The Southeast, it’s a part of the culture, of the community that you have to have routine burning to keep the landscapes in their most productive condition. So we have a cultural barrier and a lot of that leads to smoke, but that’s not the only barrier.

“The smoke management is a whole complex issue of itself. But as we have had more drastic, catastrophic wildfires, there is more public understanding that these landscapes need to burn somehow and if we can meter it out with some planning, with some advanced notice and over time in smaller doses, that taking our smoke in that way is better than multiple weeks if not months on end of being smoked out, as you all in Portland and throughout Oregon and Washington experienced last year.”

This year Congress stabilized Forest Service funding by ending its need to borrow fr