Evolving Attitudes Toward Fire in the Watershed: A Farewell to the 1900s
Roberta Van de Water,
Back in the pre-Ecosystem Management times of the '70s and '80s, we watershed managers were largely occupied with trying to protect water quality in the face of clear-cut-and-burn and other intensive forms of management. The task then was to quantify effects of man-caused fire, applying research results from experimental watersheds which had often been converted to nuclear-blast zone equivalents. The effects we looked at were those on soil (nutrient cycling and erosion), on water (much the same plus temperature), and on beneficial uses. Our knowledge was used to help land managers avoid going too far with site conversion and site preparation projects. Meanwhile, when our fire management counterparts weren't broadcast burning, they were preoccupied with preventing fire and suppressing it when it started. The watershed expert's role had been to pick up the pieces after a wildfire, euphemistically called rehabilitation.
Little by little, it became painfully evident that the watershed which underwent large, stand-replacing fire could be as rapidly restored as could Humpty Dumpty. The old paradigm of preventing soil and water effects by suppressing all fire at any cost has faded during the emergence of ecosystem management and its attendant watershed analyses in the '90s.
But old habits die hard, and the century-long debate over fire suppression for control, versus protection through fuel management, rages on. This will certainly remain so in 'fire years' like this, especially where people and property are at risk. Still, tradeoffs are being discussed in town halls, and new solutions are materializing through a critical mass of fire science.
To discern what types of disturbance stimulate or inhibit specific ecosystem functions, researchers have turned to increasingly sophisticated inquiries into fire effects. They help decision-makers and the public better understand the spatial and temporal variability of effects. Such knowledge can guide short term or site-scale tradeoffs for the sake of long term or landscape-scale protection. These studies have and will continue to answer the most difficult questions, ranging from how to strategically protect communities on the urban interface, to how to ultimately reintroduce fire into an ecosystem it shaped.
The impacts practitioners need to assess go beyond soil and water to the vegetation, live and dead, which knits the watershed together. This is not so new. In the '50's a small group of zealots led by UC Berkeley professor Harold H. Biswell, the father of modern fire ecology, espoused the need to use fire as the tool of choice in timber stands. He was later joined by Jim Agee, National Park Service research biologist and U. of Washington professor, and others attempting to restore prime forage land and Open Parklike Stands. And we should certainly not overlook their predecessors, the native Americans and early ranchers who used fire as the range management tool.
Gradually, the specialty of fuels management for reducing wildfire risks has come into its own. Fire scientists have adapted studies of fire behavior done for suppression purposes to seek ways to manage vegetation in order to maintain or restore ecosystem function. Our view of the prescribed burner has gone from villain to savior. But vegetation management is a toolbox which is not limited to prescribed fire, and finding adept craftsmen may require us to form new alliances. In that willingness lies the hope of sustaining the values which we have come to depend on from our watersheds.
There is evidence that ever-larger communities along the urban interface are increasingly at risk, either directly from extreme wildfire, or indirectly from flooding and debris flows which come in its wake. Some groups have looked for purely social solutions, like zoning and Herculean suppression tactics, financed by either the taxpayer or the landowner. Others are looking toward fuel management as the most promising way to make areas resistant to fire damage over the long haul. This approach is already underway on many public lands and Nature Conservancy reserves. And in California, that state has drafted the 'California Fire Plan - A Framework for Minimizing Costs and Losses from Wildland Fires', which changed its policy to explicitly implement 'pre-fire management' on state and private lands, in order to reduce wildfire losses through fuel reduction and fire safety special districts. It is a model plan that is being implemented through the state budget and in communities.
But there remain huge obstacles. Besides the sheer cost and feasibility, meeting water and air quality regulations as well as requirements of the Endangered Species Act will be enormous management and social challenges well into the next century. They will continue to highlight conflicting values within an ever-expanding population. These values must be acknowledged in order to move forward.
The good news is that diverse groups - of scientists, managers, and community leaders - are genuinely collaborating to solve problems which are similar, across the nation and beyond. That commitment extends from planning into implementation and to monitoring and research. We can apply the knowledge accrued to make better decisions. Even policy makers, who were quick to (over)react after the 1988 Yellowstone fires, are seeking ways amidst controversy to live and work with fire, instead of against it. -
ÝYou can reach Robbie at 530-841-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org