I've been working seasonally on wildland fire for the past 4 years, and I'm seeing some things that are almost but not quite permaculture.
Wondering about long-term strategies to mitigate fire danger, improve forest and grasslands health, and get a handle on the waste of resources, lives, and nearly interminable smoke seasons from recent fires.
- Climate change: Weather weirdening includes longer and more severe droughts, earlier snowmelt, less moisture and lower humidity into the summer and fall, and more extreme storms including potential lighting or wind events that can whip lingering wildfires into fire storms.
- Non-climate change: Patterns of wildland-urban occupancy are changing; there's a push further out into areas that were not considered suitable for farming by previous generations, including many of our permie friends are setting up house in scenic, wild-ish places. Even as the majority of the population have become urbanized, and disconnected from land-management practices, practical skills, and the level of sheer physical work needed by typical peasants (land people) of past generations.
- Tech change: Social and industrial changes also include the availability of better geo data including satellite photos and GPS tracking, drones, mapping, and integrated resource maps that are starting to tickle the edges of mapping hidden features like hydrology. And the availability, perhaps waning but still strong, of fossil-fueled heavy equipment to do earth-shaping.
- Changing natural patterns/landscape: A lot of people know that wildfire suppression has led to a buildup of unburned, dead and down fuels in many forests. (and to a lesser extent, the lessening of firewood collection around communities has also contributed to a concentration of fuels that would have been unusual around settlements in previous eras, in my opinion). Geology is being changed with mining, roads, farming, and construction, and in some areas through natural processes like volcanoes, landslides, etc. Wildlife patterns are also changing; predator populations mostly declining, which sometimes results in increasing pressure of things like deer. Plants are migrating north and uphill, changing what's growing in many places, and leaving a certain amount of dead and dying plants that may be different from previous patterns.
All this adds up to, we have a lot going on.
Wildfire season is getting longer, fires have more potential for extreme growth; and fires have always been somewhat hard to predict and control even when we had fairly predictable weather patterns.
Just preventing fires might not be the actual goal. 'Cause we can do that by paving everything down to mineral hardscape.
If we want to conserve green, vibrant, vitality in the landscape as good stewards, we may need to take a more active role in resilient design.
Conventional mitigation strategies include
- fuels reduction (thinning trees, chipping dead brush or trimmings, leaving more mature trees and fewer brushy stands of scraggly and half-dead recent regrowth, selecting for fire-tolerant species where invasives are an issue),
- water management - mostly through big and small dams; for example, in 2019 our Lake Osoyoos will be filled to operational levels a month early to compensate for reduced snowpack and likely water shortages post-spring. Fire districts also cache smaller amounts of water near wildland-urban neighborhoods in tanks or portable reservoirs for firefighting needs.
- prescribed fire (controversial in some areas, but low-intensity spring fires can be very effective for reducing grass thatch and small fuels while leaving prairie soils and big trees even healthier than before.)
- localized forest/land plans, FireWise communities - Conservation District grants, USDA programs, BLM, forest service, tribes, states, and other land managers work to various degrees to manage wildland resources, which can include fire mitigation as well as dealing with blights, pests, timber sales, recreational values, other forest products, and community priorities. Some communities are pre-planning designated "Contingency Lines," basically a long linear meadow, open pine savannah, or road and trail system that can easily be turned into a fire break in the event of a large forest fire. Trained regional people are available to come in and advise homeowners and other land managers about how to prepare and improve their property, and what resources are available to help with labor or other costs.
Permaculture methods that could potentially tie in:
- Keyline, BDA, and terracing:
- Water Bars 2.0: Fire fighters already mitigate erosion by cutting "water bars" across steep sections of fire-break (trails and bulldozer lines down to mineral soil). If these were integrated into keyline-style, just-off-contour water diversion, we might improve seasonal soil moistures on a longer-term basis.
- Beaver Dam Analogues, BDA: Beavers were trapped out generations ago, and their near-extinction has been remarked on as a major factor in the transformation of the West. Beaver ponds tend to become wet meadows through silt collection, dramatically improving water retention and arable land/fecundity of natural landscapes. In the absence of beavers, streams tend to cut deeper, water tables drop, erosion gets worse, and the landscape generally has fewer green oases and more rugged / harsh / drylands characteristics.
Note: Drainage vs. Water Harvesting - Unlike beavers, our priority, coming from cultivated Europe, has been largely to drain fields and buildable lands, to prevent flooding and saltification. (A drained field can be irrigated, 'rinsing' the soil, to reduce accumulation of persistent salts). We also tend to divert and drain water away from our buildings, and solve road erosion problems by ditching and draining away the water. This all contributes to removing water swiftly from the landscape during our spring flood seasons, leaving it drier and far more prone to wildfire and erosion the rest of the year.
- Large Fuels Alternatives:
Environmentalists often object to salvage logging burned forests. However, many of the environmentalists who end up writing public petitions and initiatives to regulate or prohibit this activity have a lot less experience in the woods than the loggers and land managers that are trying to deal with the situation. If you have never set foot in a post-fire forest, and are not willing to fund or participate in a community restoration effort, maybe find someone with more experience who can help with that kind of oversight?
There are now a LOT of Western forests with huge stands of dangerous, dead trees that are too bug-raddled to be commercially useful, too plentiful to even make good owl habitat (they are too close together), and their most likely ecological role is to fall on something/someone and squash them flat, or burn again and intensify the next wild fire.
A certain number of nurse logs would be GREAT for forest recovery; but a lot of these stands are so thick that pushing trees over would result in a giant pick-up-sticks pile of aerial log fuels, which could not even reach the ground to start decomposing properly. Not great for soil, but great for maintaining high fuel loads and dangerous fires. Very intense fires, fueled by a lot of dead and dry timber, tend to scorch the earth and destroy fertility far worse than small, more frequent brush fires.
- Salvage logging dead trees within the first 18 months after a fire can pay for itself to some degree, as well as being beneficial to the long-term health of the forest. Since we harvest lumber from somewhere, selling the salvage helps pay for forest stewardship operations, and ostensibly reduces the number of live trees being killed during the same years. However, many of the stands needing attention are very low-value; and after a few months, dead trees are hard even to chip up for pulp without destroying the pulping equipment.
Yes, salvage logging often includes cutting live trees that are determined to be 'damaged', or just in the way of operations, or valuable enough to cut.
Pulling downed logs from fire areas is a very good idea. Clear-cutting them, probably not. However, with intense wildfires, there will be areas so badly burned that the removal of most dead logs would effectively resemble a clearcut. Erosion will be a major problem in these "nuked" areas, with or without the involvement of logging equipment.
- In-Place Nurse Log Rehabilitation: Rather than remove larger logs/snags, those without lumber value can be used in erosion control (sometimes done now for 'rehabbing' dozer line and hand trails), and potentially they can be deliberately incorporated into soil-building tactics (nurse log/ hugel berms). I should note that experienced wildland fire fighters find buried logs and stumps somewhat terrifying, as they can still catch fire, burn away leaving cavities under apparently intact soil above, creating fire-filled pit traps for fire fighters. Some of the worst burns that take fire fighters off the line come from falling into undetected stump holes during mop-up, and getting a boot full of embers or worse. Even after most of the fuel burns away, soil and rocks hold the intense heat for some time, which intensifies the heat and difficulty of finding and extinguishing any remaining fire in the roots or tunnels adjacent.
- Hugel Berms: There may be ways to do something like water-bars or hugel-fields, where logs are buried in shallow arrangements one or two layers deep, that would not create unreasonable hazards during future fires.
- Dozer Line Rehab: There are already natural/accidental hugel berms being created when bulldozers move and tumble a mixture of logs and dirt to clear safety zones, broaden roads or trails, and cut fire line down to mineral soil. Sometimes these piles are dispersed after the fire; teaching savvy operators how to recognize useful soil-building pile structures and leave some in the rehabbed areas would be pretty doable. (Areas that have been cleared for fire control, but are not intended to become public roads, are left 'lumpy' with large barrier logs and berms to discourage illegal ATV and vehicle use.)
Small Fuels Treatments:
- Meadowing: One of the most common things that manpower is used on big fires is to trim out and clear out brush and dead branches beside structures or roads, to create clear areas where fire will move more slowly, with shorter flames, through the remaining ground covers. Areas beside roads or fire line are sometimes burned out to create a wider area that will not support big fire. When done right, these burnout areas generally green back up within months, and look better than untreated areas for the next year to five years (almost park-like; and many flowers, mushrooms, and berries thrive in opened, fire-affected areas). Fire Wise design and permaculture are pretty well in agreement to concentrate the work around the home, making your Zones 1-3 places where the food grows fast and fire moves slow. An open meadow, circular driveway, or well-watered orchard around the house can be part of a fire wise landscape design.
- Mulching: After clearing the brush from one side of the road, it's not that productive to just pile it in tangled windrows on the other side. More often, masticators or chippers are brought in to process the trimmings into mulch. Mulch can be spread in place for soil building, and helps with soil water retention and plant regrowth.
- Snow Pack Substitutes: If we allow the glaciers to melt away, and our living soils to be destroyed in fire, drought, and massive erosion events, it seems like the water table will most likely drop away from our wells and food production areas in short order.
If we want to retain year-round flow in streams and rivers, we may want to intervene to create some type of replacement for dwindling glaciers and snow packs.
I'm not suggesting that technology can fully replace these massive reservoirs of fresh water; but in areas where large populations depend on seasonal water, it may be worth looking at beaver-dam analogues, keyline contour and terracing, and anything else that may build deeper soils, higher and larger-volume reservoirs, and more areas of shaded and erosion-resistant landscape that can retain water longer into the dry periods.
Even if the snow season dwindles away dramtically, more rain still falls in the West up high on cloud-capped mountains, and feeds our creeks and rivers. Anything we can do to keep it there longer into the summer droughts could help stabilize regional humidity and fertility. Some watersheds (Bull Run) are already protected and stewarded as municipal clean water supplies. We could encourage each community to adopt at least one upland watershed, or more according to its size and needs, to steward effectively to improve the slowing, sinking, and smoothing out of the annual rainfall budgets.
Future generations in arid lands may see diverting fresh water away from human settlements, or contaminating it with fertility-destroying chemicals as part of waste-removal functions, as one of the greatest crimes our generations have perpetrated against humanity. With weather weirdening and less predictable annual rainfall and snow packs, we may need the capacity to store and hold more than one year's annual water supply for our towns. Reservoirs are expensive and inefficient in the arid West (evaporating the water they collect and leaving salted pans), and covered tanks even more expensive and harder to construct in the volumes needed. Living soils and shaded aquifers must be protected and enhanced.
Does our developing technology offer any new tools for mapping and managing soil and subsurface hydrology?
Who else is thinking about this stuff?
What are your top priorities?
What do you see as top priorities for your neighbors and communities, that might be the best places to engage for public good?
What tools are becoming available, or are feasible to create, that might help us handle this adaptation and mitigation?
What research needs to be done before recommending solutions?
What aspects of this problem can we best manage this at the patchwork, local scale that breeds more diversity and resilience?
What types of federal or global support may be needed, when local effects of these problems may overwhelm local resources?