Catastrophic Wildfires

Catastrophic wildfires burn vast amounts of our forested resources every year. Between 2001 and 2010, an average of 78,072 forest fires were reported each year; average yearly acres burned were 7,282,33.
Moreover, catastrophic wildfires emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Wildfires account for one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere. Catastrophic wildfires also devastate wildlife habitat, damage municipal watersheds and threaten human life and property. For threatened and endangered species and old growth trees catastrophic wildfire is often the number one threat to survival.

Although moderate to low intensity wildfires can be an important part of maintaining natural ecosystems, past fire exclusion practices have led to more frequent, unnaturally hot wildfires. Many public forests are overstocked and unhealthy, due largely to a lack of active management. A study of the national forests in Eastern Washington shows that those forests, left unmanaged, will actually become net emitters of CO2 and that the forests would likely burn at a rate of 1.7% per year—meaning the entire forest could burn in just over 50 years. California forests are currently burning up at a rate of about 0.64% per year and that number is expected to increase by up to 55% by the end of the century, due to warming temperatures and reduced snowpack. Such conditions are common throughout the West, particularly on our public lands.

Research shows that active forest management reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Thinning forests can reduce wildfire severity by up to 60 percent and remove up to 400 percent more carbon from the air than leaving forests alone. The same active management can enhance biodiversity, create jobs more efficiently than any other sector and help offset emissions from fossil fuels by utilizing forest residues to generate electricity.

Mechanical thinning is needed to treat tens of millions of acres that are highly susceptible to catastrophic wildfire. These stands are referred to as Condition Class II (at moderate risk to wildfire and moderate departure from natural fire regime) and Condition Class III (high risk to wildfire and high risk of losing key ecosystems). Because of the focus placed on the quantity of acres treated, the Forest Service has accomplished most of its fuels reduction goals using prescribed fires for areas at lower risk to catastrophic wildfires. The focus of fuel reductions must be shifted to Condition Class II and III forested areas that are at highest risk to catastrophic wildfires. This approach would maximize benefits such as reduced emissions from wildfires, increased local employment and reduced risk to adjacent land and property.
Since Forest Service and BLM budgets are not expected to increase in the near future we must take steps to ensure better use of existing funding for forest health treatments. There should be a conscious effort put forth to incorporate hazardous fuels dollars into projects that will actively treat Condition Class II and III forest stands. This will not only reduce fire hazards, but will also generate merchantable products much needed by our industry infrastructure and revenue to help offset the costs of forest health treatments
In 2003, Congress passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) with broad bi-partisan support to give land managers additional tools to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire on public lands. Since its passage, HFRA has been underutilized by the Forest Service. From fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2007, only 295,000 acres of the 20 million acres that were authorized in the Act were treated using HFRA authorities. In 2010, Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR) sponsored “ HFRA II” which would increase the areas where the authority could be used and remove barriers to implementation
1) The Forest Service should be directed to develop additional guidance to the field to aggressively pursue mechanical treatments in high risk forested areas. Budget strategies, such as using hazardous fuels funding to plan projects to treat Class II and III lands, should be implemented.
2) The Forest Service should be directed to prioritize use of Healthy Forest Restoration Act authorities. If changes in current law are required, such as HFRA II, Congress should move swiftly to enact those.

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), headquartered in Portland, Oregon, represents nearly 80 forest products businesses and forest landowners in twelve states, primarily in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana. Its mission is to create a favorable operating environment for the forest products industry, ensure a reliable timber supply from public and private lands, and promote sustainable management of forests by improving federal laws, regulations, policies and decisions that determine or influence the management of all lands. For information, contact Tom Partin 503 222 9505 May, 2011