Most Thinning Projects Not Near Threatened Homes

Study finds only 11 percent of the billions spent on forest fuel reduction projects protect fire-menaced communities


Only a paltry 11 percent of the money the U.S. Forest Service has spent on thinning projects in the past five years has gone to protect the most endangered communities, according to a national study by researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The researchers concluded that most of the thinning projects have taken place miles from forest communities —or taken place in forest types where the projects provide little benefit.

“Our comprehensive analysis suggests that fire mitigation treatments do not effectively target the wildland-urban interface, observed Tania Schoennagel, a scientist in the university’s geography department.

The researchers reviewed 44,000 federally-funded thinning and fuel reduction programs in 11 western states between 2004 and 2008. The study was published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study noted that the plan should give priority to projects where thick forests surrounded towns and subdivisions. Moreover, the study concluded that overgrown ponderosa pine forests present the most immediate danger, since they can burn fiercely when conditions are right.

By contrast, even much thicker forests dominated by spruce and fir trees get so much snow and moisture that they don’t pose nearly so great a danger.

Moreover, the wet, high-altitude forests are naturally thicker, while the ponderosa pine forests are adapted to much lower tree densities and frequent, low-intensity fires.

By that definition, most of Rim Country rates as a high priority area for fuel reduction projects. The Forest Service has made a good start at creating thinned buffer zones around Pine, Strawberry, Payson and Star Valley. However, many other Rim Country communities remain largely unprotected.

That makes the report’s findings alarming — and suggests that the Forest Service has wasted 90 percent of the money spent on thinning project, if protecting towns remains the top priority.

The National Science Foundation Study found that only 11 percent of the 44,000 thinning projects took place within 1.5 miles of a town or subdivision. The great majority of the acreage treated was actually more than six miles from the nearest settlement.

The researchers concluded that one big problem lies in the private land that accounts for much of the acreage that needs clearing to create a buffer zone to protect developed areas.

They concluded that the Forest Service should consider a “significant shift” in its policy to find a way to thin private land in the buffer zone and to find ways to encourage property owners to thin trees and brush in a “firewise” approach.

Another recent study found that embers produced by a big fire that can fall a mile from the fire front account for most of the homes destroyed.

That study by researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology took a detailed look at a 200,000-acre, 2007 California fire that consumed 1,100 homes. Damages totaled $1.8 billion and suppression costs topped $18 million. The research revealed that two-thirds of the homes fell prey to embers, which landed on vulnerable roofs, lit brush close to the house or drifted into uncovered vents into the attics.

Congress allocated $2.7 billion to fight wildfires between 2001 and 2006. In addition, the Forest Service spends about $1 billion annually fighting fires.

All told, the various federal agencies “treated” about 29 million acres between 2001 and 2008, but most of that effort did very little to protect communities.

The University of Boulder researchers said the Forest Service will face a crisis in coming decades, which demands a change in policy.

So many people have moved into forested rural communities in recent years that the area of “wildland-urban” interface grew by 61 percent between 1970 and 2000. The number of homes at risk grew by 68 percent between 1990 and 2000.

At the same time, the number of fires has exploded. The acreage burned in those western states between 1987 and 2003 increased 16-fold over the previous 16 years. The trend reflects rising populations in forested areas but also the effects of drought, rising spring and summer temperatures, longer fire seasons and earlier snowmelt.

Between 2002 and 2006, wildfires consumed 10,000 homes. In four of the last five years, wildfires have gobbled up 8 million acres annually — with this year on track to beat that average.


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