Living With Fire

PODs: A Solution to Fire in the Time of Climate Change

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By Joseph Vaile, KS Wild

While all of us are focused on the COVID-19 virus and the widespread impacts on our lives and communities, we know that fire season is looming on the horizon. While our lives feel at a total standstill, nature continues onward. Wildfire season will come this summer, and we will be much better off if we prepare our communities and address the shortcomings of our current approaches to wildfire before the sparks begin to fly.

Photos of prescribed fire along a U.S. Forest Service road. courtesy of Ashland Forest Resiliency

We obviously need to do something different. The last decade of fire seasons in northern California has taught us that we must better prepare and react to wildfire. We know that as a result of climate change, past logging practices, development patterns, and the suppression of burning for the last 100 years, fire seasons in the west are growing in their impact on communities. As the climate warms and dries, we will only experience more severe fire in years to come. We must ask the question: “How do we build a better relationship with wildfire?”

First, we must recognize that forests are adapted to fire. It is impossible to stop all fires, and total fire exclusion is not a good idea. Most of the forests of northern California are dependent on frequent fire for seed propagation, nutrient cycling, and habitat maintenance. For millennia, lightning storms and indigenous cultures have ignited blazes that maintained the unique plant and wildlife communities that define the region.

Our forests are also key to our future. Finding a balance with fire is so important because the forests of California and the Pacific Northwest store millions of tons of carbon. Forests are key in helping keep the planet cool. Even after throwing billions of dollars at fire suppression every year, we won’t be able to entirely control fire in forests. But there are conservation and management actions we can take to better prepare and react to wildfire.

Before we can fix a problem, we need to first understand it. Historically, fire was a part of life in the forest. Fires were started either by random occurrences of lightning, or when indigenous people intentionally set them to encourage the growth of certain plants for food, materials, and medicine. This practice left forests more resilient to successive fire because these fires burned in mosaic patterns and removed much of the smaller vegetation around large trees. These fires left openings where forest fuels were diminished, creating a patchy landscape that would not carry treetop crown fires as easily.

Contrast this with more recent times. For decades we have actively managed our forests, logging our biggest trees and putting out fires that would have removed small trees and brush. Today’s forests have too few big trees with thick bark that have withstood fires for hundreds of years, and too many small, thin-barked trees that are highly flammable.

So, what about thinning out the small trees? Focused thinning near homes and communities—if followed with prescribed fire—is shown to reduce the likelihood of fire reaching a residence or sacrificing other resource values. Many tree plantations are now crowded with dense, planted trees that can be thinned. This is important work, but we don’t have the resources to thin the entire landscape to restore forest resilience in the backcountry. We need to intentionally set fires and use natural ignitions to accomplish a lot of this work for us.

The Forest Service’s mission must shift to better preparing for fire. On public lands in northern California, many groups are working with age-old cultural fire-management tools to change the way that forests are managed. To do just that, there is increasing interest in different approaches to landscape planning. One such approach is to plan based on potential wildfire operational delineations, or PODs, which are areas identified and drawn on a map using boundaries such as roads and ridges. Fire-safe land management strategies such as targeted thinning and prescribed fire are then planned for the perimeter of each POD.

PODs are a hopeful concept, as they would steer land managers like the U.S. Forest Service to prepare for wildfire through their vegetation management programs. Right now, the Forest Service continues to be driven to produce timber and treat fuels on a targeted number of acres as a measure of its success. Instead, the restoration of fire-adapted forests at a landscape scale should be the target. To do that, the Forest Service should embrace approaches like PODs as a better way to do business.

If PODs were the management and suppression strategy, fires that escaped the initial effort at suppression could be more easily suppressed in areas where strategic thinning and prescribed fire treatments were already completed. The integration of these strategic roadside and ridgetop fuel treatments with fire suppression would allow fire crews to more safely contain a fire inside the compartment created by the linear PODs treatments. PODs won’t stop all wildfires, but they could be a huge help to firefighters and allow fire to restore forests in a coordinated manner.

Once implemented, the treated areas around each POD could be used to help scale up the use of prescribed fire inside the compartment. In addition to the benefits to the forest, prescribed fire carried out in the right conditions can reduce smoke impacts on communities. Setting fires when the atmosphere is unstable allows smoke to rise up and away from communities, rather than being trapped near the ground. By intentionally setting fires during wetter times of the year, we can reduce the likelihood that more severe fires will happen in the dry season. Native cultures have practiced burning for millennia, and we need to allow this burning again and at a much greater scale.

Thinning and prescribed fire projects don’t necessarily produce direct economic profits, and so many politicians and industry representatives don’t always support the approach. But the truth is that smaller trees along strategic roads and ridges could be removed to help manage fires into the future. Some of these trees will have commercial value. We need our leaders to invest adequate funding, as these projects will not pay for themselves. Most importantly, we know for certain that climate change is real. Our world is warming and the forests of the West are drying out. Research shows us that the moisture levels are related to the temperature, and that persistently high late-summer temperatures are drying out vegetation and fueling big fires. We are guaranteed big fire years in the future, and how we prepare and react will only become more crucial as temperatures rise.

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire often feels like a terrifying, overwhelming threat. However, let this pandemic be a lesson to us as we inch closer to fire season: that there are real and actionable steps we can all take to prepare for fire and find a balance with our fire-adapted forests. Like all natural processes, we can’t continue to fight against fire and expect that we can entirely control the outcome, but PODs might help us learn to better live with fire.

With a background in wildlife and conservation biology, Joseph Vaile joined KS Wild in 1999. He has stewarded KS Wild’s conservation policy and advocacy programs, helping secure protection for thousands of acres of threatened roadless areas, groves of ancient forests, and hundreds of miles of wild rivers. Joseph launched KS Wild’s Climate Program in 2019 to advocate for climate smart conservation and forest management, and policies that recognize the important role that forests play as carbon sinks. He can be reached at [email protected]