It's not a matter of whether a forest fire will strike any given wooded area, it's a matter of when. And while we can't control the whether and when of a forest fire, we can have some say over how severe that fire might be.
Phil Omi, professor of forest sciences and director of the Western Forest Fire Research Center (WESTFIRE) at Colorado State University, is working on that very topic.
Omi has focused on a systematic assessment of the effectiveness of fire mitigation treatments, such as mechanical removal and prescribed fire. By studying wildfire effects in both treated and untreated areas, he can evaluate how well certain treatments work.
That's not always as straightforward as it sounds. Fires in treated areas are not always less intense or less damaging than fires in untreated areas. There are many other variables that may affect severity: temperature, wind speed, the toll from insects or diseases, or how long ago the area was treated. Nonetheless, fuel removal reduces the severity of eventual wildfires. The bigger question is whether public agencies can treat large enough areas to effectively reduce the fire hazard.
Colorado State has become a leader in evaluating the cost/benefit side of fire mitigation, thanks to Omi and colleagues Doug Rideout in forest sciences and John Loomis in agricultural and resource economics. It is fairly simple to assign a value to saving timber or livestock grazing, two direct benefits of fewer or less damaging fires. But Colorado State's research has focused on benefits that are harder to assign a monetary value to. How much is wildlife habitat worth, especially for nongame and threatened or endangered species? What's the value of maintaining water and air quality from fewer or smaller fires? Most people would agree that these are significant benefits. Because they are not marketable commodities, however, there is no easy way to factor them into the cost/benefit decisionmaking process.
Cost/benefit analysis is becoming even more important as greater numbers of Americans build homes in or near forested areas. People and property in this urban fringe are at increasing risk from fires. In Colorado, these areas include the Front Range and Durango. Because this is private land, landowners bear much of the fire mitigation cost themselves. A sound economic basis for decisions on what, where, when, how, and how much to treat is as important to them as it is to managers of large forests.
Thinning often is recommended to reduce fire risk. Selling the resulting lumber would help landowners offset their costs. Unfortunately, there is not much demand for the small-diameter trees produced by this thinning. Selling it as firewood, an obvious option, is becoming less feasible, as more and more areas put restrictions on wood burning. Omi and Dennis Lynch, also in forest sciences, are looking into markets for these small-diameter trees.
There are demographic issues, as well. Are newcomers to forested areas aware of the consequences of choosing to live in or near a forest? How well do they understand fire management, fuel management, and even fire itself? What are the best ways to reach various audiences to educate them about the importance of fire mitigation practices? Omi and his colleagues are hard at work trying to answer these questions and, in the process, come to better understand how to communicate with people at risk from forest fires.
Luckily for Colorado, Omi and WESTFIRE understand that you can't control the whether and when of forest fires. Their research is predicated on controlling the severity through effective fire mitigation practices, cost/benefit evaluations, understanding conflicting perspectives and management goals, and improving communications with people at risk from fire.