Forest ThreatNet

Volume 10, Issue 5 - Nov. / Dec. 2016

Western Threat Center Highlight: Researchers Assess Fuel Treatments to Develop Better Strategies for Fire Management

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy recognizes that wildfire is a necessary natural process in many ecosystems and strives to reduce conflicts between fire prone landscapes and people. In an effort to mimic natural fire disturbance and mitigate potential negative wildfire impacts proactively, the Forest Service fuels program reduces wildland fuels through prescribed burning and mechanical treatments. Nicole Vaillant, fire ecologist with the Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC), led an assessment that evaluated the extent of fuel treatments and wildfire occurrence within lands managed by the National Forest System (NFS).

Wildfire_hazard_map.jpgResearchers compared areas of fuel treatments and historic fire disturbance rates in order to assess the extent to which the fuels program compensates for the disturbance deficit caused by fire suppression. They also compared treated areas and areas currently vulnerable to hazardous wildfire to evaluate whether fuel treatments strategically target high hazard locations.

Results indicate that, annually, 45% of NFS lands that would have historically burned were disturbed by fuel treatments and characteristic wildfire, indicating that NFS lands remain in a ‘disturbance-deficit.' Lands with the highest wildfire hazard had the lowest percentage of area treated and the highest proportion of both wildfire of any severity and uncharacteristically high severity wildfire suggesting that an alternative distribution of fuel treatment locations will likely improve program effectiveness. Moving forward, strategies to reduce fire hazard and achieve the ecological benefits of fire include: 1) increasing the extent of fuel treatments if resources permit, 2) designing treatments to create conditions conducive to naturally ignited fires burning under desired conditions while fulfilling an ecological role, and 3) placing treatments to reduce hazard while providing options for firefighting when highly valued resources and assets are present. An article about this study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Forestry.

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Pictured: A map shows wildfire hazard for NFS lands in the continuous United States. Click to enlarge.

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