Fire & Forest Management

“Fire Suppression”

Early Forest Service leaders believed that any and all fire in the woods was unacceptable because it destroyed commercial timber.  Beginning in the 1920’s, fire policy had two goals: 1) preventing fires from starting, and 2) if a fire began, suppressing it as quickly as possible. To prevent fires, the Forest Service opposed the practice of intentional burning, even though forests had co-evolved with indigenous fire use for thousands of years, and many ranchers, farmers, and timbermen favored it because it improved land conditions.

The approach to wildland fire in the 1990 Forest Plan is based on this historic commitment to fire suppression, stating “all wildfires shall receive an appropriate suppression response.”  There is a very narrow exception for natural ignitions in Wilderness Areas, which “will be treated as prescribed fires until declared wildfires.” However, MHNF’s current Fire Management Action Plan does not include a prescribed burning plan for Wilderness, rather it requires the “[i]nitial action on all wildfires will be to suppress the fire.” The Forest Plan’s Standards & Guidelines regarding fire use and management are focused on fire prevention, fire “attack”, fire area rehabilitation, and fuels treatment.

The Forest Service’s old fire management techniques create increasingly vulnerable regions, which will be exacerbated by longer, more intense fire seasons.

The 1990 Mt. Hood Forest Plan is essentially silent about the important ecological role of fire in maintaining forest health and the role of indigenous burning in the Mt. Hood area.  As explained in Indians, Fire & the Land in the Pacific Northwest, “Development of the field of fire ecology was stymied for many years by what has been called the ‘Smokey the Bear syndrome’: a pervasive belief, peculiar to Western cultures, that fire was a destructive force, particularly in forests, that had to be contained or eliminated.”

Ecological Fire Management

However, since the 1990 Forest Plan was written, the field of fire ecology has grown significantly and has informed a changing perspective on the value of fire on the forest landscape. Forest and range managers are beginning to understand what this area’s original inhabitants knew all along: fire is an integral part of an interrelated system of plants, animals, and the land.  Ecological sciences have only recently recognized that many plant and animal communities have adapted to withstand, and even benefit from, both low and high-severity fire. 

There is an urgent need to amend the MHNF Forest Plan to give fire managers the tools they need to protect communities and restore ecosystem functionality. The Forest Service has already created the pathway forward, both with the National Comprehensive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and with other National Forests who have revised or amended their Forest Plans to come in line with current fire management science and policy. In 2002, the Forest Service amended its Handbook to provide direction for restoring fire-adapted ecosystems and preparing updated fire management plans:

“Fire management plans should address as extensive as possible a range of potential wildland fire occurrences and should include the full range of fire management actions in a manner consistent with Forest land and resource management plans…Where the land and resource management plan does not support a full range of fire programs options, amending the Forest land and resource management plan may be considered by the Forest Supervisor to reflect a broader wildland fire management program.”

What could such a Forest Plan amendment entail? The Forest Service’s 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy provides a well-researched approach to updating vegetation and fuels management policies in National Forests, including the following general strategy:

  • Where wildfires are unwanted or threaten communities and homes, design and prioritize fuel treatments (prescribed fire, and mechanical, biological and chemical treatments) to reduce fire intensity, structure ignition, and wildfire extent
  • Where feasible, implement strategically placed fuel treatments to interrupt fire spread across landscapes.
  • Continue and expand the use of prescribed fire to meet landscape objectives, improve ecological conditions, and reduce the potential for high-intensity wildfires.
  •  Where allowed and feasible, manage wildfire for resource objectives and ecological purposes to restore and maintain fire-adapted ecosystems and achieve fire-resilient landscapes.

Managing unplanned, natural ignition fires for multiple objectives or for resource benefit is also a common thread throughout many of the revised forest plans. Wildland fire use (WFU) is the management of naturally ignited wildland fires (those started by lightning or lava) to accomplish specific resource objectives within a predefined area. Objectives can include maintenance of healthy forests, rangelands, and wetlands, and support of ecosystem diversity.  Managing wildfires—as opposed to simply “fighting” them–with alternative strategies and tactics that maximize the social and ecological benefits of burning while minimizing their potential adverse effects is far more economically and ecologically rational. A more strategic and selective approach to fire suppression would focus it on front country communities that absolutely cannot tolerate fire, and then implement fire use tactics in backcountry wildlands which generally require more fire.  As fire regimes shift over time, individual fire events filter for species adapted to changing fire and climate conditions. Promoting more wildfire away from people and prescribed fires near forested communities are important steps toward improving the adaptive resilience of ecosystems and society to increasing wildfire. Adapting to wildfire sooner rather than later provides the widest benefits to society at the least cost.