Raging for 69 days, from August to October in 2021, the Caldor wildfire in South Lake Tahoe, California, charred more than 221,000 acres. At least 1,000 structures were destroyed. More than 50,000 residents were displaced.
A technique called Hazardous Fuel Treatment, (HFT) the reduction of the amount of vegetation which has built up to dangerous levels, or changing the arrangement of these fuels in the environment, played a critical role in preventing further devastation, according to a top US Forest Service official.
Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Chief, said in an interview, “hazardous fuel treatments in South Lake Tahoe helped spare that community.”
Practiced for more than 20 years, HFT is not a new tactic, but it is about to get a lot more attention, as wildfires evolve.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recently launched a 10-year, comprehensive strategy to combat what they called “the nation’s growing wildfire crisis”.
“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities, and natural resources,” said Vilsack.
The strategy outlines the need to significantly increase fuels and forest health treatments to address the escalating crisis of wildfire danger that threatens millions of acres and numerous communities across the United States.
“The pace and scale of wildfires are significantly larger than the fuel treatments we’ve been able to do up until now. The strategy gives us a science-based way of focusing on the highest risk places”, said Hall-Rivera.
Those places, she said, are the ones “that provide the most exposure to communities. Being able to name those and focus our resources and our partners’ resources on those places first, and the funding that we are getting from the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Law is really going to help us make a down payment on that.
The law provides nearly $3 billion to reduce hazardous fuels, restore America’s forests and grasslands, as well as investments in fire-adapted communities, and post-fire reforestation. Alloted funds would be used to begin executing this critical work.
Implementing the Strategy
According to the plan, the Forest Service would collaborate with other federal agencies, and other partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at the scale of the problem, based on the best available science.
The strategy highlights new research on what Forest Service scientists identified as high-risk “firesheds” – large, forested landscapes with a high likelihood that ignition could expose homes, communities, infrastructure, and natural resources to wildfire. Firesheds, typically about 250,000 acres in size, are mapped to match the scale of community exposure to wildfire.
Some of the highest risk areas, based on community exposure, include the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada Range in California, the Front Range in Colorado, and the Southwest.
The strategy calls for the Forest Service to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and support treatment of up to an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, private, and family lands.
The nation’s landscape, according to Hall-Rivera, has suffered “pretty significant disruption for more than 100 years, primarily from fire exclusion.”
It’s absolutely critical, she said, “that we scale up hazardous fuels treatments in these most critical at-risk places. That’s the only way that we’re going to get in front of this”.
Many of the country’s forests are “fire-adapted”, which means communities take mitigation actions so they can live with wildfire without harm and extensive wildfire suppression efforts.
“They need fire and that is a bit of a paradox, but right now most of them, especially in the West, are not in a state where they can receive fire in a healthy way, so we’ve got to get in there and do those treatments”, Hall-Rivera said.
How does fire adaptation work?
“We take out those small trees, get the forests back to the distribution of trees and the size and spacing of trees that they had more historically. We absolutely need to do that across all landscapes, not just on Forest Service land but on and forests across all of our landscapes”, she said.
The Importance of Teamwork
To be successful, according to Hall-Rivera, the strategy relies on a variety of partnerships.
“Partnerships with states, localities, tribes; and industry play a critical role as well because we also need ways that we can use these by-products from these treatments.”
Fuels and forest health treatments, including the use of prescribed fire and thinning to reduce hazardous fuels, according to the Department of Agriculture strategy, would be complemented by investments in fire-adapted communities and work to address post-fire risks, recovery, and reforestation.
“Our experts expect the trend will only worsen with the effects of a changing climate, so working together toward common goals across boundaries and jurisdictions is essential to the future of these landscapes and the people who live there,” Vilsack said.