By Carter Stone et al
The USDA Forest Service is progressing from a land management strategy oriented around timber extraction towards one oriented around maintaining healthy forested lands. The healthy Forest Initiative promotes the idea of broadscale forest thinning and fuel treatments as an effective means for mitigating hazardous fuel conditions and, by extension, fire risk. Fuels mitigation is proactive while fire suppression is reactive and expensive. Costs associated with suppressing large wildfires, as occur in the western USA with annual regularity, are astronomical and routinely exceed fire suppression budgets. It is not difficult to demonstrate that treating forest fuels is more cost effective than suppressing forest fires on untreated lands. In addition, forest thinning is potentially profitable, or at least can recoup the cost of thinning, and may also produce safer conditions for those living in the wildland-urban interface zones. Thinning practices also facilitate wildland firefighting efforts for monitoring and controlling future fire incidents as well as for forest health management practices by state and federal forestry agencies. However, forest thinning and other fuel treatment strategies can take many different forms, some of which can do more harm than good when considered with other factors that influence wildfire behaviour, such as weather and terrain. One example of this issue can be seen in Montana during the 2003 fires. At the Cooney Ridge fire complex, an extensively and homogeneously logged watershed burned severely and uniformly due to remaining ground slash (which had attained low fuel moisture after overstory removal) and severe fire weather (low relative humidity and strong upslope winds). This contrasted with a mosaic of burn severities in an adjacent watershed with higher fuel loads yet greater heterogeneity in fuel distribution at the stand and landscape levels. Harvesting timber does not translate simply into reducing fire risk. Given the stochastic nature of fire weather events, and the complex terrain of most forested landscapes in the western USA, applying a variety of forest thinning and fuel treatment operations towards the goal of maintaining a diverse forest habitat mosaic, also constitutes a sensible fire risk mitigation strategy.