The Forest Service claims progress in the effort to control western wildfires

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The Forest Services, part of the Agriculture Department, is in the midst of a 10-year effort to better prevent wildfires, the kinds of seemingly out-of-control blazes that have charred millions of acres out west. With six months until the peak danger season, Federal Drive host Tom Temin checks-in with the strategy’s program manager, Brian Ferebee.

Interview transcript:

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Forest Services, part of the Agriculture Department, is in the midst of a 10-year effort to better prevent wildfires, the kinds of seemingly out-of-control blazes that have charred millions of acres out west. With six months until the peak danger season, Federal Drive host Tom Temin checks-in with the strategy’s program manager, Brian Ferebee.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
Let’s talk about this plan. It’s known as Confronting the Wildfire Crisis. Tell us about the plan, what it’s all about what it seeks to do.

Brian Ferebee
Yes Tom. Well, good morning, again. And the wildfire crisis strategy really is a vision of what it’s going to take for us to really have a different experience when it comes to wildfire, both communities, people and our natural resources. Right now, America’s forests are in an emergency crisis when it comes to wildfire. And in order to change that experience, the strategy lays out the type of efforts we need to take, the scale of the work we need to do, the amount of acres we need to treat in order to change that experience.

Tom Temin
Yeah, my sense of reading the strategy is that it’s primarily aimed at prevention of forest fires and wildfires, correct?

Brian Ferebee
I would say it is approach to deal with mitigating fuels, so that we can reduce maybe in future years, the amount of suppression activity that we have to engage in, and actually reduce severity of wildfires and how people experience them currently.

Tom Temin
And when you say mitigating fuels, what does that actually mean? Because the trees themselves are the fuel at some point.

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct. So vegetation management, it means removing different types of vegetation from the American forests, which in turn reduces fuels, which in turns affects fire severity, or the severity of a fire.

Tom Temin
In other words, there’s a lot of growth down on the ground that can light up and then therefore transferred to the trees. And so if you get rid of that brush, that type of thing, and then that will prevent fires?

Brian Ferebee
Correct.

Tom Temin
Because I’ve seen that in action once on the east coast on an island off of North Carolina that were very highly treed. And there were hundreds of piles of brush that were set up, and they were waiting for a truck to take it out of there. I guess that was mitigation.

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct. Typically, what you just described is usually the result of us doing mechanical treatments in forested lands. And then we take that byproduct out, we either remove it, as you just suggested by removing it with trucks, or in many cases, we’ll pilot and then burn it.

Tom Temin
Got it. And is there any like “vegiecidal” approach to this, or is it mostly cutting and trimming and removing?

Brian Ferebee
There is a number of different activities, it really does depend on the state of the force that you’re operating in. Many of them will require some type of mechanical treatment that could be commercial timber sale, it could be a non commercial removal of vegetation, and or typically followed up by prescribed burning, most of our forest types have evolved with fire. And so one of the things that science has really shown us now is we need to get fire back in these landscapes to help mitigate the impacts that we’re seeing.

Tom Temin
Right, because fires have been a feature of forests for all of recorded history and way before that correct. And forests somehow come back from fires stronger in some cases.

Brian Ferebee
Correct. It’s a natural part of the regime. And so ecologically, having fire back into these landscapes is very valuable, but not to the severity that we’re seeing currently.

Tom Temin
And do you find that there is sometimes local opposition to that, because maybe that brush and undergrowth is someone else’s, you know, privacy screen, and they like the feeling of woods and this kind of thing?

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct Tom. Why many people understand the value and importance of managing our American forests, there are some that move to forested areas for just that purpose. And to see those materials moved is sometimes less desirable. But, typically, we can work through that with many of our publics it’s what we talk about in terms of engaging our publics and helping them understand the value and importance of the work while at the same time being able to retain much of what they desire.

Tom Temin
Sure, maybe they could put up translucent fiberglass in front of that outdoor shower afterwards.

Brian Ferebee
I wouldn’t suggest that, that’s the mitigation.

Tom Temin
All right. We’re speaking with Brian Ferebee. He’s team lead for the Confronting the Wildfire Crisis plan at the U.S. Forest Service. And under the plan, what is the responsibility of the federal government of the Agriculture Department? And what do you try to have local state people participate in?

Brian Ferebee
So our strategy indicates that in order to address this current situation that we’re experiencing at scale that we need to treat approximately 50 million acres, 20 million on national forest, and 30 million on others. Federal, state, tribal, and private lands. And so it really is an all lands issue. It really is a American forest issue. And so it takes the collective us to come together with our resources and our skills, and to prioritize and implement. And that is really what we are working on and hope to continue to see great progress going forward.

Tom Temin
It’s accurate to say that the state’s tribal, privately held lands, forest lands are contiguous with the U.S. federal owned. So it’s really, in that sense, one big forest.

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct. And as you well know, wildfires know no boundary, which is why it really is all lands approach that we want to take to this work.

Tom Temin
And under this plan, is your metric for progress, the number of treated acres, or is there some other measure?

Brian Ferebee
We’re looking at acres treated. But more importantly, we’re trying to look at how we mitigate exposure to communities, to values that people care about, like recreational facilities, wildlife habitat, water sources, utility corridors and utility lines. And so you’re really is trying to mitigate the effects to wildfire on these lands, because we know we will continue to experience wildfires, but if we can reduce the severity of them and effects of them, that is really what we’re striving to do with our partners.

Tom Temin
So would it be accurate to say, yes, you understand that the forest can survive and prosper after the fire, you just don’t want the fire to take homes, playgrounds, utilities, infrastructure with it.

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct. But also, in certain situations where it is so severe, where it burns not only the existing stands of timber, but it also burns to seed sources. And it creates such a disturbance to soul that after a fire, we see significant erosion. And so it can be to the point where it’s devastating, even to natural resources.

Tom Temin
Where are we in this 10-year-plan? My follow on question will be shouldn’t this be an effort that goes on forever?

Brian Ferebee
So to the first part of your question, we are in year two of the plan. And we’re excited about because 2002 was really our initiation, kind of our ramp up year. And we’re really excited about moving into year two, with the work that we have planned and laid out. And as you suggested Tom, once we get these stands into a condition that we feel comfortable with, we will then move into what we call a maintenance mode, whereas you’ll have to get on a cycle, in some cases is five years. In some cases, it could be up to 10 years, where you go back in and do similar activities. And so you’ve never done it is definitely activities that occur forever, essentially.

Tom Temin
And the goal, though, is that 50 million acres eventually to be all treated, then it becomes maintenance mode, depending on where and when.

Brian Ferebee
That’s correct, while at the same time keeping many of the other forest stands that aren’t in this severe situation right now in a maintenance mode as well.

Tom Temin
And by the way, this is not just a West Coast issue, is it?

Brian Ferebee
No, it is across the United States. However, the vast majority of the issue is out west.

Tom Temin
All right. And now the USDA, the Forest Service has deployed a kind of interactive map, that people can see what’s going on, tell us how that came about, and what you can see on the map.

Brian Ferebee
So the interactive map came about as a result of us having a number of engagements with our external partners both at a national level and at a regional level. And one of the things that we heard constantly from those participants where we would like to be able to see what you’re doing, where you’re working, really just show us information to be more transparent. So we developed this interactive web based tool that is available to the public, to NGOs [Non-Governmental Orginizations], to congressional members, to even our own employees. And what it depicts is it shows you it talks a little bit about the welfare crisis strategy. And then it shows where we’re investing. It shows the amount we invest in each landscape. It then shows the type of work that’s going on in the landscapes, the progress being made in these landscapes. And in some instances, it’ll show preconditions and post activity conditions so people can really see the kind of work that’s taking place it needs to take place out on the landscape.

Tom Temin
And by the way, I imagine that over the long term, this whole effort puts less pressure on the federal state and local firefighting teams that are the ones that have to deal with the fires when they do break out and we’ve seen some pretty big pressure there.

Brian Ferebee
So we believe that if we are really are able to achieve our goals and strategy with our partners, it will help us with suppression activities, both from the standpoint of firefighter safety, and the severity of which they experienced wildfires currently.

Tom Temin
And just a final question, is there a lot of negotiations involved in the establishing of these mitigation areas and activities, just to put it bluntly, on the one hand, you’ve got the tree huggers. On the other hand, you’ve got the loggers that want to cut down everything. I know, I’m exaggerating. But you’ve got to navigate the various interests and values that people have in a given area to be able to effectuate this.

Brian Ferebee
We do have a number of different interests that we experience in these respective geographical areas. And our approach has always been to take a collaborative approach, bring those key important, critical, interested stakeholders together and see if we can come to some type of agreement or resolution about what level of activity will take place and where, and we’ve been pretty successful at that. And I think this day and age, all of us understand we need to take action, we need to have active management, but we may not necessarily all get what we desire.

 

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