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Forest projects aimed at wildfire protection misdirected, study says


With the federal government spending nearly $3 billion trying to reduce the impact of fire in national forests, a new academic study suggests the bulk of the work is being done in precisely the wrong places.
Researchers at the University of Colorado found that only 11% of so-called fuel-reduction projects in the last five years are undertaken where increasing numbers of Westerners are living: in that alluring landscape on the edge of suburbia that fire officials call the urban-wild land interface.

Despite the fact that the National Fire Plan calls for special emphasis on thinning forests in or near the interface areas, the paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that Americans living in fire-prone areas are not beneficiaries of the same fire protection projects as back country forests.

"We were very surprised by our results," said Tania Schoennagel, lead researcher. "It's a problem. I think we need more targeting of the wild land urban interface in terms of mitigating fire. It's more effective if you are near communities. The public has the impression that a lot of acres are being treated, so there's a sense that a lot is getting done."

The Forest Service's analysis last year, however, cataloged 15 million acres of public land in the urban-wild land fringe that had been treated for "hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration" since 2001, compared with about 29 million acres outside the interface: roughly a 1:2 ratio. The study also included Department of Interior lands.

The University of Colorado team of geographers, fire ecologists and landscape ecologists examined more than 44,000 federally funded fuel-reduction projects in 11 western states between 2004 and 2008. It is the first analysis to systematically juxtapose the Forest Service's cutting and clearing with communities and subdivisions. The researchers concluded that only 3% of the projects took place in the interface as strictly defined. An additional 8% of the work occurred within 1.5 miles of the interface, an area the team defined as a "buffer."

Complicating the best intentions of federal fire managers to clear forest land, the study revealed that about 70% of the property in the interface is privately owned and beyond the jurisdictional reach of the U.S. Forest Service.

"It's an odd situation when you step back from it," Schoennagel said. "The Forest Service is in charge of fire suppression and protecting homes, yet that agency has no jurisdiction over requiring fire-wise homes and landscaping."

Schoennagel noted that projects undertaken in interface zones are three to four times more expensive than those in remote areas. With 15% of the West's interface already developed, Schoennagel said, "If we really want to control fire risk, I think we really have to control development in the wild land urban interface."

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Flames threaten a home in Santa Barbara County's Mission Canyon area last month. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

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Just goes to show that environmentalists and bureaucrats cannot be trusted to do the public good.

Jim French understands.
In addtion, private property owners only "have to" manage fuels 100 feet from their homes in accordance with California PRC 4291. The area beyond is someone elses respnsibility; this often leaves gaps in the WUI Zone between public lands and assets at risk.
It is up to ALL the property owners/managers thoughout the WUI to do the "right thing".
Ed Chombeau
Charter Board Member; Butte Co FSC and RCD

Hello, my name is Jim French, I live in Trinity County in N. Ca.( few people, lots of under-managed forest) where we have 100,000 acre wild fires every other year it seems. Additionally I'm chairman of our Resource Advisory Committee authorized under the Secure Rural Schools & Communities Act, which tackles the thorny issue of fuels reduction, and I serve as the president of the National Forest Schools Coalition.

One of the many challenges of effective fuel reduction is the mere scope of the need, millions of acres need attention,
and funding only allows for so much fuel reduction. Funds generated through the Secure Rural Schools and communities Act are usually allocated near those forests which tend to be in the rural areas away from what you call the urban-wild land interface. If all sources of fuels reduction funding are included in the study, those funds mentioned above could account for some of the findings that some view as "work being done in the wrong place".
Also in my opinion, which I think is shared by many forest study types, merely building a "ring" around a fire prone community, when fuels beyond the "ring" are extremely heavy, won't provide the critical protection as much as the appearance of protection. (Forty foot King Kong coming at you at 20 miles per hour won't be stopped by a four foot fence") Reducing heavy fuel loads beyond the interface, and well into, what you call the "buffer" is extremely important. There is so much fuel in the forests that we have created (lots of fuels, under-managed, under-burned forests), wherever you reduce fuels, it can be argued that the work should have been done somewhere else.

my $.02

Jim French

No Comments after eight days? I'm looking for people who are concerned about the state of America. Guess I'm in the wrong State. I thought California was an " Activist" State. Anyone who reads this, can e-mail me, and prove me wrong. At Thank You.


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