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Working together for effective wildfire management strategies

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 13, 2016

National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy plays an important role in guiding restoration work.

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Stakeholders discuss restoration treatments and methods for reducing wildfire risk on a field tour of the Ochoco National Forest

Managing our forests to be more resilient against wildfire is a critical goal for many agencies, and the forests and adjacent lands in the Blue Mountains are no exception. Fire is an important natural process that plays a vital role in forest ecosystems. However, throughout the area, unusually large and severe wildfires have become more common due to overcrowded forest conditions, extended late season drought, and the loss of fire-tolerant tree species. 

Creating more resilient forests will reduce the risk from these uncharacteristic wildfires, while allowing fire to play its natural role. To make a difference in restoring forest health, we must look at wildfire risk across public-private boundaries so that we can plan appropriate restoration treatments to mitigate that risk, therefore benefiting our national forests and the adjacent private lands.

The Forest Resiliency Project is the Forest Service’s effort to address the overstocked forest conditions on public lands. The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team is working with interested stakeholders to plan treatments across the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests to move them toward more resilient conditions. The team is incorporating efforts like the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy (which focuses on restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, effective and efficient wildfire response, and creating fire-adapted communities) to plan restoration treatments that will benefit both the national forest lands and private lands that surround them.

Slash piles are cured for fall burning after a thinning operation on the Ochoco National Forest. Removing excess fuel can help reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires. Photo by U.S. Forest Service
Slash piles are cured for fall burning after a thinning operation on the Ochoco National Forest. Removing excess fuel can help reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

What is the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy? In 2009, The Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME) directed the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a cohesive wildland fire management strategy. This resulted in a three-phased planning and analysis effort to thoroughly address the complexities of wildfire management issues nationwide. The framework that resulted focused on the need to safely and effectively extinguish fire when necessary, use fire where appropriate, manage our natural resources, and learn to live with wildland fire. 

This Cohesive Strategy is a complete assessment of fire risk on the landscape, considering factors such as climate change, insect and disease outbreaks and protecting the public-private interface. The strategy was developed collaboratively by federal and state land and fire managers, tribes, and other stakeholders. The strategy is an integrated approach that is designed to work across jurisdictions to achieve the three goals of restoring and maintaining landscapes, creating fire-adapted communities, and improving fire response. This “all hands-all lands” approach challenges us to take a long, hard look at wildfire risk across boundaries and work together to prioritize fuels reduction treatments to address that risk. Essentially, the intent of the Cohesive Strategy is to achieve fire management on a landscape scale.

Likewise, the Forest Resiliency Project looks at the need to create future national forests that are more resilient to disturbances like wildfire. This includes allowing forest managers more opportunities to use fire as a restoration tool, and reducing the exposure of uncharacteristic wildfires to communities and other highly valued natural resources. Fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest, but uncharacteristic wildfires pose a threat to communities, human lives, private property, and other highly valued natural resources. This project will strategically design treatments across the landscape to protect these resources, while setting up our national forests to be more resilient to future wildfires (read more in Reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires).

2.3 million acres in the Blue Mountains are in need of restoration. The Forest Resiliency Project is planning treatments on 610,000 of these acres to move the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests toward more resilient conditions. Creating defensible space around private property is an important tool that homeowners can do to help create fire resilient conditions and protect property. Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry.
Cross-boundary fuels reduction work on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and private land interface (right) demonstrates the importance of reducing hazardous fuel conditions on both public and private lands. Creating defensible space on private property (left) is one way homeowners can help create fire resilient conditions and protect property. Photo credit Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and Jana Peterson, ODF

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing wildfire risk. However, by designing the Forest Resiliency Project to be consistent with the framework of the Cohesive Strategy, the data and analysis from the project could be used to support multi-partner planning, implementation work, and funding of landscape-scale restoration with adjacent landowners. After all, collaboration and joint actions increases the probability of making a real difference of reducing wildfire risk, benefiting both the national forest lands and adjacent private lands.

Engaging communities in the Forest Resiliency Project is essential to achieving a truly resilient landscape. Efforts like the Cohesive Wildfire Strategy provide opportunities for Federal, State, and private land owners to achieve cross-boundary fuels reduction and increase opportunities to protect both structures and natural resources from large and severe wildfires. By working together, learning from each other’s successes and learning from each other’s mistakes, we can accomplish far greater work than could ever be accomplished by working alone. 

Do you want to know what others are saying about this project? Find out more by visiting the public reading room. Additionally, you can find notes from recent public engagement sessions on the project public engagement website.

For more information about the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy visit: https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/strategy/thestrategy.shtml

This is the ninth of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.