Treating Forests Back to Health

As temperatures begin to signal winter, Forest Service districts are starting planned fire operations to clear low lying tree debris that will reduce hazardous materials.

Crystal Young Office of Communication | |

With red flag conditions, severe ongoing drought, low humidity, and the potential for high wind conditions, more than 260 firefighters concentrated efforts on the southeast edge of the Mammoth Fire June 10, 2021. Early in the incident firefighters worked around untreated areas from a safe distance to contain torching 100+ foot flames advancing toward Mammoth Village through brush and short grass understory, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Spruce and Aspen.

As temperatures begin to signal winter, Forest Service districts are starting planned fire operations to clear low lying tree debris that will reduce hazardous materials. While images of firelines snaking across valleys and consuming entire communities flooded the media this summer, voices joined in a chorus that “we must do something about this”. With an emphasis on “we” states, tribes and federal agencies began working across jurisdictional boundaries to address significant natural resource problems through formal Shared Stewardship agreements in 2019.

To date, 47 states, three territories, the District of Columbia and one tribe are covered under memorandums of understanding to co-manage natural resources on a large scale. Among the management goals in many western states is using thinning and prescribed burning to prevent wildfire. How the management happens looks different as communities grow into the shared stewardship environment.

Forest treatments tame flames across the west

Communities across the country are nervous to embrace prescribed fire and forest thinning as a strategy to prevent future fires. There are generations of stories about prescribed fires burning out of control and communities watching their forests being carried away on the back of a flatbed truck. In those areas, Forest Service crews have been working to reduce the risks in their boundaries beside agencies who cooperate with them when it is time to respond to fires. Residents of Mammoth Creek Village learned the value of that effort.

Eleven years ago, fire prevention teams at the Dixie National Forest in southwestern Utah began thinning trees and burning debris piles at the mouth of Tommy Creek Canyon and a few other areas. The areas were broken by jurisdictional boundaries with private property and state and federal agencies.

A picture showing before and after land treatments and the erosion effects.
Blue Pine treatment area impacted by the Brian’s Head Fire in June 2017, the photo on the right shows erosion in an adjacent area from the same time frame that was untreated when the fire passed through.

This spring, fire conditions were strained enough to implement Stage 1 fire restrictions on forest lands. On June 5, lightning ignited a fire near the Mammoth Creek Village east of Cedar City. Bode Mecham, Cedar City Ranger District fire prevention technician, and a few interagency firefighters responded as part of the initial attack team. Most of the area hadn’t been treated yet and was still thick with 200-300 ponderosa pine trees per acre.

Over the course of a few days, the fire climbed dangerously high to the top of the trees and burned toward the village threatening 280 homes, encroaching on the narrow fire break near Tommy Creek Canyon. With no way to safely manage the advance, Mecham shifted the bulk of his team from fire defense to help the Garfield County sheriff’s office evacuate homes and preparing to defend the first homes that would be impacted by the fire.

As fire moved down the Tommy Creek drainage, Meacham’s task force leader reported that the fire encountered the decade old treatment area and the flames dropped rapidly from about 100 feet tall to around 5 feet. Meacham said the dramatic change shifted his team back to fighting the fire. They were able to control it quickly, the entire 700-acre fire completely contained in about 11 days.

A picture of a before and after forested area.
More than three months after the Mammoth Fire the treated area on the right shows the resilience of forested areas following fires with intense flames that burn into treated areas. In addition to the health of the trees, regeneration of the area depends on how severely the soil was burned, the photo on the left shows an area that will likely take years to rebound.

“When you look out there now, the area that was treated is the only area out there that is still green and growing,” said Mecham, who has been a wildland firefighter for 22 years. “[The defensible space] was pretty crucial to this community allowing everyone time to get out as well as saving all the homes here.”

Shared Stewardship enables POD work

The number of large fires in the last five years alone has states like Utah working to increase protection for residents. They are building critical community support by entering into Shared Stewardship Agreements that help partners identify and achieve common land management and protection goals.

A picture of a burned area in a forested hillside.
Trees burned in high intensity flames lie across the ground on the south end of the Smith Fire September 4, 2021. Cooperating agencies stood by to protect homes in the area while crews used strategic fire operations as weather allowed to help contain 100+ foot flames.

In Oregon, partners used that common ground to develop potential operational delineations or PODS. POD lines don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries but follow roads, mountain ridges, fuel breaks and other land features firefighters can potentially use to help bring megafires down to fighting size.

Dan Dallas is an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Type 1 incident command team that served on the Devils Knob Complex on the Umpqua National Forest. The Devils Knob Complex started when a dry lightning storm touched off more than 40 fires that grew together into two major fire areas in southern Oregon.

A picture showing an active burn area with flames and smoke near a large tree.
At 45,771 acres the Smith Fire is only 20% contained as it burns near Road 27 with a low intensity on September 15, 2021. Using POD strategies, three interagency crews worked to contain the fire using naturally occurring defense structures like roads and mountain ridges.

At more than 70,000 acres, Dallas said he used information in the electronic POD plans to better understand how to protect lives, a pair of Forest Service campgrounds, critical private timber industry and an experimental forest with 65 uninterrupted years of data. Dallas said the layers of information in each POD plan he reviewed changed what he knew about the constants of fire behavior.

“Normally we could use a previous burn scar as a containment feature. What [we learned] is once an area previously burned by a fire gets 1-2 years old, it is no longer a containment feature and it will carry a fire,” Dallas said. “Because of long range spotting from dry conditions and unstable weather, things we used to be able to count on like ‘fire won’t go over the Continental Divide, fires won’t carry through aspen patches, old fire scars will slow down a fire, all of those things have kind of gone out the window.”

A picture showing a National Forest property boundary sign.

Dallas said the shared stewardship approach to how Oregon agencies are using the PODs between fire seasons connects the dots of fuels management on a scale that helps treatments be more effective at reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire, but overall public support of thinning and prescribed fire is still a key piece that is missing.

Envisioning wildfire prevention

Salida, Colorado is in the heart of Chaffee County just over the mountain range from the Rio Grande National Forest where Dallas is the Forest Supervisor. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains with mixed conifer and spruce forests and the headwaters of the Arkansas River runs through it.

“Open spaces are central to our soul as a community. We are all willing to struggle to live here, it is that important,” said Kim Marquis, Envision Chaffee County project and outreach coordinator. “A healthy forest is central to the community and always has been, but we weren’t sure if people understood the fire danger.”

Chaffe County planners started developing a new master community action plan that addresses the special challenges that come with rapid community growth, building around the recreation industry. When the county first reached out to the community to find out what was most important to them, beetle killed trees were just beginning to emerge on the landscape, but a few impactful fires in the previous five years made them take closer notice of fire danger where they live.

Some people in the community said they didn’t support thinning treatments because they thought the Forest Service just wanted to make money from the trees. Many were concerned about the safety of prescribed burning and uncertainty about whether treatments would make a difference. None the less, about 1/5 of the population responded that mitigating the risk to their homes was one of the top four issues the county should address in the master plan. The county began educating people about the risks.

As the community watched the evergreen forest quickly fade to greying decay from aggressive insects, the danger became an uncomfortable reality in 2019. Lightening ignited the Decker Fire on the Rio Grande National Forest. It burned as a relatively benign fire close to the ground in a congressionally designated wilderness area for more than a month. The fire picked up intensity on a dry, windy day and grew far closer to the city’s edge than citizens were prepared to see.

A picture of a piece of heavy equipment working on a hillside that heavily forested.
A tethered cut-to-length feller buncher descends the steep slopes thinning beetle killed trees near the Monarch Ski area on the Salida Ranger District of the Pike-San Isabel National Forests & Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands Sept. 23, 2020. Thinning on steep slopes is a tactical challenge that significantly increase the cost of some thinning treatments but is necessary to help protect utility corridor infrastructure and economic resources in Chaffee County.

The fire spotted onto the Pike-San Isabel National Forests & Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands and stretched up to the crowns of the trees, consumed part of the Rainbow trail and crested Methodist Mountain on the Salida Ranger District as dozers plowed a fire line south of the Boot Hill neighborhood. While wilderness policy supported managing the fire in the wilderness area, tactics switched to full suppression once it was clear it would threaten the community. The fire was not fully out until the first snow fall of the year.

Efforts to treat the forest district surrounding Salida faced many jurisdictional and tactical issues but a signed memorandum of understanding between the USDA and Colorado agencies in October 2019 ensured that when the county brought about 1500 citizens and 80 critical partners to the table, they would be feeding data into the broader picture beyond jurisdictions to protect the citizens of Chaffee County.

After gathering data, the planners revealed that while there were already patchworks of treatments on state and federal lands, the community could reduce the risk to the most important assets by half through efforts of private landowners to mitigate their own land and contribute to the auspicious goal of treating more than 30,000 continuous acres of public and private land by 2030.

A map that shows fuel treatment priority areas within Chaffee County
Chaffee County worked with more than 1500 citizens and 80 partners to develop this map and showed it to citizens of Chaffee County so they could see how their private efforts would contribute to the community’s big goals. The map cross references subdivisions, businesses, recreational areas and more to demonstrate the areas where funds focused by Chaffee Common Grounds Planning will have the most positive impact and benefit for public safety. 

“The community is getting more clued in on the risk each summer and rather than being on their own, we created a program where if you are identified on this map, you can get a free property assessment and treatment plan which you need to get the money to get the property treated,” said Maquis. “Now a landowner can look at that map and understand where joint projects are going on and join other people in their subdivision and see how their efforts contribute.”

A picture of a forest worker clearing brush near a forest road area.

The county passed a tax referendum to raise money to stand up the community programs that enabled landowners to participate which showed the depth of community support that attracted funding from organizations within and outside the state of Colorado to bring that goal closer to reality. The community supported their program that allows people to bring their thinning materials to be chipped by investing more than 2000 hours preparing their own properties.

Marquis estimates the overall community planning efforts that include investments in forest health have contributed more than $22 million in value to the economy. She said the most important thing to inspire the community is having a balance between setting big goals and people believing it can happen and the momentum is sustained by showing that stuff is getting done. While she believes the community is still very scared of the fire risk, they measure their success in program participation and neighborhoods that are working toward Firewise status.