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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Can Wildland Conflagrations Be Stopped?

This post is written by Marty Alexander, who is a Senior Fire Behavior Research Officer with the Northern Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, Alberta, and senior author of the chapter entitled “Wildland Fires: Dangers and Survival” in the 5th edition of the textbook Wilderness Medicine. This post is adapted from an essay he wrote in 2004 - the message still applies.

Can Wildland Conflagrations Be Stopped?

Conflagration – A popular term for a large, fast-moving wildfire exhibiting many or all of the features associated with extreme fire behavior. (Merrill and Alexander 1987)

“Can Southern California Wildland Conflagrations Be Stopped?” (Countryman 1974) is the title of what I feel is one of the more important publications on the subject of fuels management presently available . The publication was written by Clive M. Countryman, a noted wildland fire behavior scientist with the USDA Forest Service based in southern California from 1941 until his retirement in the late 1970s.

Countryman's publication was written following the 1970 fire season in California (and no doubt was prompted by it) in which 16 lives were lost, more than 200,000 hectares of land were burned over, and some 700 homes were destroyed. Countryman’s 11-page publication consists of three major sections involving 17 sub-sections, each of which directly imparts a statement or conclusion worth noting:

The Fire Problem


• Climate, Fuels, Topography, and People Create Fire Problems
• Relatively Few Fires Become Conflagrations
• Conflagrations Are Most Frequent During Santa Ana Winds
• Suppression of Santa Ana Fires is Difficult

Fire Control as a Solution


• Fire Prevention Has Limited Value
• Effect of Organizational Problems on Fire Size is Small
• Firefighting Techniques and Equipment are Not Adequate
• Increased Fire Control Force is Only a Partial Answer

A Solution Through Fuel Modification

• Rotational Burning Creates a Mosaic of Age Classes
• Adverse Effects
• High Costs
• Possible Increased Fire Hazard
• Fuel-Breaks Provide Strips of Modified Fuel
• Fuel-Type Mosaics Can Lower Energy Output
• Fuel-Type Mosaics Can be Created in Many Ways
• Fuel-Type Mosaics Are Not a Quick Cure
• Complete and Coordinated Planning is Essential

The abstract from Countryman’s (1974) publication serves as an excellent summary:

In southern California, many fires start and burn under conditions that permit their control with little burned acreage and fire damage. In contrast, under other conditions of weather and topography, on a small group of fires, control is relatively ineffective; they become large and destructive. A major reason for these "conflagration fires" is the extreme difficulty of stopping the head of a hot, fast-running fire in dry fuels and strong winds. No radically new concept of suppression can be anticipated. The best prospect for alleviation of the problem is modification of the vegetation to reduce fuel energy output. In a fuel-type mosaic containing large areas of light fuels, where conventional suppression will be effective, potential conflagrations could be brought under control while relatively small. Creation of the fuel-type mosaic will require coordinated area-by-area planning and a variety of techniques.

In the concluding section of his publication, entitled “Complete and Coordinated Planning is Essential” Countryman notes:

In essence, the envisioned fuel modification will replace the present wildland vegetation patterns with planned and managed ones. To achieve this, complete and coordinated plans must be developed. As fire does not recognize administrative boundaries, such planning will involve not only fire control agencies, but also local governments, land use planning commissions, and sometimes private interests. Social, economic, land use, and environmental impacts must be determined and evaluated, and the best combinations of fuel modification to achieve adequate fuel-type mosaics for a given area established. Inputs into these plans will be needed from fire control and fire behavior experts, meteorologists, land-use planning specialists, economists, landscape architects, plant ecologists, biologists, recreation planners, and wildland research groups.

Much of the technology needed to create fuel-type mosaics is now available, is being developed, or is susceptible to development through research. Many of the techniques by which type conversion can be done have been demonstrated to be feasible. What is needed now is a comprehensive action plan that will effectively bring this technology to bear on the one factor controlling fire behavior that can successfully be managed and manipulated – the fuel.

To some, the extensive “monkeying with nature” required to replace the present wildland vegetation patterns with planned and managed ones may seen abhorrent. But the impact of man and man-caused fires has already had a massive effect on the natural vegetation, so much so that it is difficult if not impossible to specify what really is a “natural” vegetation pattern in southern California. And this impact will continue as long as conflagrations are a part of the environment. The only alternative to planned and managed vegetation patterns in southern California appears to be acceptance of the great economic damage, threat to human life, and unpleasant aesthetic and environmental effects of unmanageable wildfire.

It’s worth noting Countryman’s emphasis on the importance of “human factors” in reaching solutions to the conflagration management problem. Thirty years later, fire historian Dr. Stephen Pyne (2004) has advocated that “science-based-only solutions” are not enough and that effective wildland fire policy must integrate ethics, economics, aesthetics, and values. Accomplishing this will require consensus among many people; this undoubtedly represents the greatest challenge for wildland fire management in the future.

As Countryman points out in the introduction of his publication, “California does not have an exclusive corner on the large-scale, high-intensity fires often called conflagrations or conflagration fires...Other regions also have large wildland fires from time to time.” In my view, many of the fundamental principles stressed by Countryman can be considered quite applicable to regions of Canada.

The original printed copies of Countryman’s (1974) seminal publication were exhausted many years ago. Fortunately it has recently been made more readily available (at the request of the USDA Forest Service by the author) as a PDF that can be downloaded from:

http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/viewpub.jsp?index=7573

To answer the question posed at the start of this essay: Can Wildland Conflagrations be Stopped? No, not entirely, given the magnitude of the task at the landscape-scale (Amiro et al. 2001; Alexander 2002). One would be a fool to think otherwise. However, there is every reason to believe that through strategic fuel management planning, we could influence the total number and size of the occurrences as well as their geographic distribution and thereby mitigate the impacts of too much of the “wrong kind of fire” (Pyne 2004).

We should take advantage of the lessons of the past (and lessons relearned), like those in southern California, so we don’t have to learn them first hand the hard way. Surely, we have moved on from “it can’t happen here” to the questions of when and where will it happen.

References used in the preparation of this essay:

Alexander, M.E. 2002. An emerging fire management issue in Canada: Forest-fire fuels. Canadian Silviculture 2002(Fall): 14-15.
Alexander, M.E. 2003. Understanding fire behavior -- the key to effective fuels management. Invited Keynote Address at the FERIC Sponsored Fuels Management Workshop, October 6-8, 2003, Hinton, Alberta. 14 pp.
Amiro, B.D.; Stocks, B.J.; Alexander, M.E.; Flannigan, M.D.; Wotton, B.M. 2001. Fire, climate change, carbon and fuel management in the Canadian boreal forest. International Journal of Wildland Fire 10: 405-413.
Bentley, J.R. 1967. Conversion of chaparral areas to grassland: Techniques used in California. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Agriculture Handbook No. 328. 35 pp.
Chase, R.A. 1980. FIRESCOPE: A new concept in multiagency fire suppression coordination. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-40. 17 pp.
Countryman, C.M. 1974. Can southern California wildland conflagrations be stopped? U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-7. 11 pp.
Green, L.R. 1977. Fuelbreaks and other fuel modification for wildland fire control. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Agriculture Handbook No. 499. 79 pp.
Green, L.R. 1981. Burning by prescription in chaparral. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-51. 36 pp.
Green, L.R.; Newell, L.A. 1982. Using goats to control brush regrowth on fuelbreaks. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-59. 13 pp.
Merrill, D.F.; Alexander, M.E. (editors). 1987. Glossary of forest fire management terms. Fourth edition. National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Committee on Forest Fire Management, Ottawa, Ontario. Publication 26516. 91 pp.
Moore, H.E. 1981. Protecting residences from wildfires: A guide for homeowners, lawmakers, and planners. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-50. 44 pp.
Radtke, K.W.H. 1981 Living more safely in the chaparral-urban interface. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California. General Technical Report PSW-67. 51 pp.
Pyne, S.J. 2004. Tending fire: Coping with America’s wildland fires. Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C. 238 pp.
Roby, G.A.; Green, L.R. 1976. Mechanical method of chaparral modification. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Agriculture Handbook No. 487. 46 pp.
Rogers, D.H. 1942. Measuring the efficiency of fire control in California chaparral. Journal of Forestry 40: 697-703.
Salazar, L.A.; Gonzalez-Caban, A. 1987. Spatial relationship of a wildfire, fuelbreaks, and recently burned areas. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 2: 55-58.

photo of Marty Alexander

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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