Beyond the fire line: To figure out where and when fire helps an ecosystem federal officials need data on lands burned by wildfire. But the information they need has never been collected

Beyond the fire line: To figure out where and when fire helps an ecosystem federal officials need data on lands burned by wildfire. But the information they need has never been collected

Jane Braxton Little

In 2000, the fire season ignited May 4 with a 48,000-acre fire in New Mexico, the first of a series of blazes that burned more than 7.4 million acres of Western forests and range. More than 861 buildings went up in flames, 237 of them houses in Los Alamos.

Headlines across the country blared, “93,000 acres lost in eastern Oregon” and “Wyoming fire destroys 138,000 acres.” Governor Marc Racicot declared Montana a state of disaster. Idaho’s Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage launched federal investigations into the “destruction and negligence.”

When we assess what was damaged by those wildfires, it’s easy to see how many homes were destroyed; we can count the charred foundations. But what natural resources were lost nationwide to these wildland fires? What old-growth stands, trout pools, and prairies? No one knows; no federal agency has ever collected that data.

Since 1906, when Gifford Pinchot ruled as its first chief, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has kept an annual count of the number of fires and the size of every wildfire over 100 acres. Officials there know how many acres of land are inside the containment lines firefighters build to halt the spread of each blaze. But no federal land management agency has kept track of whether forest stands were devastated or improved, whether watersheds were hurt or helped, wildlife habitat destroyed or enhanced. The information about what happened inside the perimeter lines is gone.

With it, we’ve lost valuable lessons about how to repair the land after a fire, how to increase protections for firefighters and homeowners, and which blazes to fight and which to let burn. At a time when the public goal is to restore forests to their natural health, knowing where fires destroy and where they revitalize ecosystems should shape federal management policies and determine how federal funds are spent. To do that, land management agencies need on-the-ground information that currently doesn’t exist.

“Our data is terrible,” says Dave Cleaves, national program leader in fire research for the USFS. That could change. The political firestorm set off by the blazes of 2000 sparked the National Fire Plan, which allocated $1.9 billion to bolster firefighting resources, rehabilitate burned lands, and rebuild affected communities. It included $26 million a year for research, Among the 182 projects launched by the Forest Service and the Joint Fire Science Program, a five-year multi-agency effort, are studies designed to improve ecosystem restoration and make communities more effective at dealing with wildfire. Other projects focus on reducing hazardous fuels, minimizing invasive species, and predicting the movement of smoke.

But none of the research deals directly with improving the annual fire acreage reports that galvanize the public and inflame politicians season after fire season. “There’s almost a disincentive built into the system to obtain that data,” says Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society.


As raw numbers, the acreage figures provide no details about the intensity of the burns. In map format, they present landmasses encircled by an unbroken line–what cartographers call solid polygon shapes. On the ground inside the fire lines, the flames may have licked at old-growth trunks and moved on. They may have left large islands of land untouched.

Yet these improved or undamaged acres do not show on the maps or in agency databases. Everything inside the fire lines is reported as burned. The official assumption is that all has been lost.

This data not only exaggerates the destruction; it may also contribute to it. Perimeter acreage reports are used to mount emergency logging operations to salvage what’s left before the bugs reduce it to sawdust. Whether the logging contributes to the future of the forest or detracts from it is one of many questions seldom asked. Lack of accurate data routinely transforms green and healthy stands of timber into logs labeled fire salvage.

Federal officials blame the agency’s traditional preoccupation with fire suppression and timber harvest volume, a decades-old double-whammy that has generated management policies that ignore the role of natural fire in the evolution of ecosystems.

“We’ve been at this fire-management thing for over 100 years but we’ve been marching to the drumbeat of aggressive suppression,” says Cleaves, the Forest Service research leader.

Federal agencies do study the effects of the most destructive fires through Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) teams. BAER team hydrologists and soil scientists document the damage using aerial and infrared photographs along with information gathered from crews on the ground. Their assessment of high, medium, or low fire severity gets plotted onto maps that show burn intensity in irregular splotches of red, yellow, and green.

These maps direct forest managers to the areas that need immediate protection, says Max Copenhagen, a hydrologist and national watershed restoration programs manager for the Forest Service. That direction guides the short-term stabilization work, “what we need to do so the hillside doesn’t come down,” he says. BAER teams are most concerned about how surface soils will handle runoff over the next 90 days to a year and designing treatments to lessen erosion, flooding, and water quality deterioration.

But only the most damaging fires merit this in-depth attention. In 2001, BAER teams studied 56 of the nation’s 84,075 fires. In 2000, the teams analyzed 82 fires, less than 1 percent of the total. With even this handful of fires, the data is collected to stave off the worst erosion and the most costly siltation in the next year or two. The data is not used in long-term planning by forest ecosystem managers.


For federal agencies to improve the way they manage public lands, they need to know more about what happens on the ground during and after a fire, says Bob Clark, a National Park Service official who coordinates the Joint Fire Science Program. In the past, they have relied on aerial and satellite photographs validated with damage assessments provided by fire crews.

“It’s almost impossible to get accurate data from a firefighter who’s standing there with a shovel,” Clark says.

In addition to the research funded by the National Fire Plan, a few agency scientists are studying past fires to guide future land management. On the Wenatchee National Forest in northern Washington, a Forest Service team has been using the 1994 Rat Hatchery fire complex to learn more about managing dry-site forests, where low-intensity fires historically burned through stands of ponderosa pine every 15 to 20 years. How many trees should the post-fire treatment leave? What size should they be? How far apart?

To develop answers, the Wenatchee team left three different amounts of snags in varied spatial arrangements throughout the 44,000-acre fire site. Bill Gaines, forest wildlife biologist, is studying Lewis woodpeckers, white-headed woodpeckers, flickers, and other cavity excavators to see how the various snag treatments affect them. To his surprise, the area where the scientists left a mixture of open areas and nags has attracted the highest number of birds. He expected more snags to provide better habitat.

“Some of our predictions are based on pretty weak science. Our hope is that we will learn from our results and adapt future projects to what we know,” Gaines says.

Better scientific information could save taxpayers money. In the last seven years, federal agencies have spent an average of $714 million a year fighting wildfires. The cost was $1.6 billion in 2000 alone. Knowing more about the terrain and its fire history would contribute to decisions about which wildfires to put out and which to simply monitor.

Last year the Forest Service spent $6,000 an acre on the Dog Creek fire ($3.3 million in total), which burned 550 acres in eastern Washington’s high-elevation mountains, where fires normally burn themselves out. In 2000, the Clear Creek fire burned 217,000 acres in the remote mountains of eastern Idaho, where 1,783 firefighters built 200 miles of fire line at a cost of $71.5 million. But it was rain and snow that finally extinguished the fire–not the massive suppression effort.

Better information could also save lives by helping firefighters predict fire behavior in specific forest types and under specific weather conditions. Since losing 34 lives during the 1994 fire season, safety has become a national priority, says Clark, the Joint Fire Science Program coordinator. Around half the research projects under the five-agency program deal with protecting firefighters and homeowners.


Despite the recent congressional support for research, many independent scientists remain skeptical. Most federal study to date has focused on the negative short-term impacts of fire and ignored the positive long-term impacts, says Peter Morrison, executive director of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop, Washington.

Studies have generally been based on the assumption that reducing the quantity of forest fuels will reduce the risk of wildfire, a notion that coincides conveniently with the historic timber harvest mission of the Forest Service. Small trees and brush are considered the lower rungs of the fire ladder, which carries flames to the forest canopy where they spread hot and fast across the landscape. To reduce the wildfire hazard, the National Fire Plan set a goal of logging or chipping excess fuels on 1.8 million acres a year.

That may not lessen the fire risk, Morrison says. In his in-depth examination of dozens of fires over 20 years, he has found densely stocked stands that fit the forecast to burn intensely but didn’t. He also has found open stands he expected to be spared intense burning but weren’t. Without broad-based data documenting the effects of fire on the ground, the national effort to remove forest vegetation and reduce the threat of wildfire is management by conjecture.

“A lot of assumptions people are making don’t pan out when you look at real fires,” says Morrison, a forest ecologist.

Forest fuels may not even be the primary factor in how intensely a wildfire burns. Wind, for example, may have a more dramatic effect on a fire’s spread and severity. Cutting small trees to reduce the hazardous fuels opens up a stand, creating higher wind velocities, which in turn create hotter fires that carry further. The effects of solar radiation on temperature and fuel moisture also make forests more vulnerable to wildfire.

What’s needed is more study of what happens on real fires under real conditions, Morrison says. “We need good data to make good decisions. Right now we have very little.”

Cleaves, the national research program leader, says Forest Service scientists are raising many questions about “agency folklore,” including the notion that reducing forest fuels automatically reduces the risk of catastrophic fire. Studies in Colorado are looking at different fuel treatments to see how they affect fire behavior. Separate experiments with remote sensing could help agency officials document how intensely every fire burns and how that affects standing timber, brush, and forest litter.

The National Fire Plan research, which Cleaves is determined to continue beyond its 10-year funding, may eventually produce data that will help land managers allow fire to resume its natural role without jeopardizing the safety of firefighters or communities. If it does–and the jury is still out–the next challenge will be convincing policymakers and the public to use the information to restore forestlands back to health.

That’s no easy task when flames are shooting through local neighborhoods and national beauty spots. It pits the nuanced, measured voice of scientists, who study the long-term evolution of ecosystems. against the shrill pitch of politicians, who answer to constituents demanding immediate protection from wildfire.

Even armed with sound scientific data, federal officials may never solve the problems involving wildfire in America’s forests and rangelands. Without the data, they have no chance.


Beyond the Fire Line reveals a lack of data and information on wildfires that could help the Forest Service in making policy and management decisions. Basic information such as how hot a fire burned within its perimeters seems essential to guide management actions for rehabilitating burned areas and reducing the risk of destructive wildfire. The reality, however, is that wildfire research is often disconnected from practical management questions.

Research generally is done by scientists who respond to, and are motivated by, scientific literature and questions that are important among their peers. Their research questions are often narrow and their methods expensive and time-consuming. These questions and methods generally fail to connect with the questions of resource managers who have to respond quickly to issues in a real place with its own geographical, environmental, social and economic context. Despite significant investments in wildfire research, it is questionable whether this research is actually helping resource managers on the ground.

To ask and answer policy and management-relevant questions, we need to change the way we think about science and the way we do research. Decisions based on what is best for both ecosystem health and community well-being must reflect that issues involve a complex array of variables and that science must deal with uncertainty and constantly changing systems.

The phrase “adaptive management” has been used to describe how scientists will work with resource managers to respond to real management questions and learn from their actions, providing a basis for the next set of actions.

Adaptive management is often defined as “learning to manage and managing to learn.” Although these concepts have gained broad acceptance among scientists, resource managers, and policymakers, little progress has been made in implementing them. Significant challenges remain in shifting the mindset of traditional research institutions and their incentives to support a new type of research that takes on these practical management questions and research methods.

The community-based forestry movement has taken adaptive management concepts one step further through the practice of “civic science.” Civic science challenges researchers to move toward a practice-based approach that engages resource managers and diverse community groups. Civic science seeks ways to deal with uncertainty and complexity.

For example, while the effects of hazardous fuel reduction remains uncertain scientifically, community forest practitioners recognize hazardous fuels as a key variable affecting wildfire risk that resource managers can influence.

Therefore, they have engaged in planning, implementing, and monitoring hazardous fuels-reduction projects with agencies and scientists. Effective monitoring examines the effect of such work on ecological conditions, the creation of training and local job opportunities, and the stimulation of local economic activities.

Civic science, we believe, can make research more relevant and accessible as it builds toward a learning process through which scientists, resource managers, and diverse community groups can address issues, take action, and learn together. (For more information on “civic science”. see our “ecosystem restoration and maintenance agenda,” under forest policy resources at, and the book Understanding Community-Based Forest Ecosystem Management.)–Gerry Gray and Christian Cromley

Contributing Editor Jane Braxton Little covers environmental topics from her home in Greenville. California.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Forests

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