In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with RFF Nonresident Senior Fellow David Wear, who recently published an issue brief about how provisions related to wildfire management on federal lands in Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) Energy Infrastructure Act—specifically, methods of clearing the forest undergrowth, collectively called “forest fuel treatments”—could significantly reduce forest carbon emissions due to wildfires. Wear describes how traditional strategies of wildfire suppression may have backfired and that policymakers increasingly are looking to boost forest fuel treatment efforts—such as prescribed burns or mechanical interventions to remove excess vegetation—and reduce long-term fire risks. Wear elaborates on Manchin’s proposed bill, which would appropriate funds for wildfire management on 10 million acres of federal land and could be included in a future infrastructure package.
Listen to the Podcast
- Wildfires pose intensifying risks: “As forests have become overgrown because of fire suppression, when there is a fire, it tends to be much more intense, and we get massive releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases … In the United States, fires have emitted an average—over the last 10 years—of about 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. During the big fire years (these episodic high-fire years), we can see almost double that—maybe 180 million metric tons.” (6:14)
- Fuel treatments and why we use them: “I think of fuel treatments as a way to build fire-resilient forest infrastructure. And by that, I mean it’s a way to change the condition of the forest so that its response to fire is closer to that of a natural fire regime … In effect, it’s a way to reverse the effects of fire suppression over these many decades.” (9:06)
- Impacts of Senator Manchin’s Energy Infrastructure Act: “The bill targets about 10 million acres of fuel treatments. This is about 20 percent of what the Forest Service has identified as the backlog, or the amount of forest that is in need of this kind of treatment … We projected that somewhere between 11 and 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year would be eliminated [if the Energy Infrastructure Act passes], with a mid-range estimate of about 30 million metric tons of [carbon dioxide] equivalent being saved.” (14:02)
Top of the Stack
- “Wildfire Risk Reduction: Effects of the Draft Energy Infrastructure Act” by David N. Wear
- The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talked with David Wear, a nonresident senior fellow here at RFF. As anyone who's recently breathed the air in the Northeast or the Midwest knows, wildfires are increasingly posing risks to human health, the environment, and the climate. In a recent RFF issue brief, Dave analyzed how scaling up management of federal forests through forest fuel treatments could reduce wildfires and the damage that they cause. I'll ask Dave about recent trends in wildfire, how forest fuel treatments can address this growing problem, and much more. Stay with us.
All right, David Wear, my colleague from Resources for the Future, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
David Wear: It's a pleasure to be here.
Daniel Raimi: Dave, we're going to talk today about wildfires, forest fuel management, and its implications for greenhouse gas emissions from forests, which is something that's been on many of our minds lately. But before we do that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues. So what inspired you to take this career path?
David Wear: I think it started with just a natural love of the outdoors. As a teenager, I spent many weeks and weekends backpacking, usually in the Southern Appalachians. When I was 21, I moved to Montana and hoped to work on a trail crew with the Forest Service. I did land a job with the Forest Service, but they sent me to an office and I wound up working with a group of economists and modelers addressing public land controversies. From that day forward, that's all I've worked on.
Daniel Raimi: That's fascinating. Where did you grow up?
David Wear: I grew up in southwestern Ohio.
Daniel Raimi: Great. As I mentioned a couple of moments ago, we're going to talk about wildfires and forest fuel management. But before we get into those specific issues, it would be great if you could get us up to speed on what's been happening in the last couple years in terms of wildfires, particularly in the western United States. Just help us understand where we are this year in terms of wildfires and what we might expect to see for the rest of the year. I'll just note that we're recording this on July 22, so you might be hearing this about a week or two after we record the conversation. Dave, where are we historically and in this year's season?
David Wear: Wildfire seasons vary from year to year and we've had some really explosive years. Last year was a very explosive year in wildfire. Over the last 15 years or so, fire area and the intensity of fire has been trending up. We're seeing more of what people call mega-fires. This year, it looks like it's going to be another above average—as we go towards the new average—year. There's an extensive drought in the west this year and as we've seen already, there's higher than average temperatures in the Pacific Northwest. The fire prediction models say that we're expecting above average fire throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies and in California, which is a big area. I looked at the National Interagency Fire Center's news and there are about 78 large wildfires underway, while 2.6 million acres have burned already this season.
Daniel Raimi: We're increasingly learning about the health effects of fires, not just for safety but also for air quality, and the major implications that those have on populations living really far away, right? It's been really hazy on the East Coast and in the Midwest lately.
David Wear: No doubt. I mean, anybody who's sensitive to particulates is likely to struggle this year. Because of how the jet stream is moving right now we're seeing, even as far down as North Carolina, hazy days and higher than normal particulate levels.
Daniel Raimi: Here in Michigan where I live, I've definitely been seeing that and it's really disconcerting, but that's a topic for another podcast probably: the human health implications of these fires. We're going to focus today primarily on greenhouse gas emissions. Can you help us get a sense of how forest fires contribute domestically and globally to greenhouse gas emissions and how that is changing over time?
David Wear: I think it's important to start with the important clarifier that fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems. In North America, our forests are fire-adapted. That means fire plays an essential role in producing a healthy forest. Fires regenerate the land and reinitiate growth, and they have this important role in defining the forest structure, including the species composition of forest. Another way to look at it is that fire is just a part of the terrestrial carbon cycle. Fires put carbon dioxide in the air and then forest growth pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and sequesters it in the ground. At some broad scale, you've got some equilibrium with a certain amount in the air and a certain amount on the ground.
As we've come through better than a century of fire suppression, this natural fire regime, which involves a lot of low intensity fires, has been disrupted. As forests have become overgrown because of fire suppression, when there is a fire, it tends to be much more intense, and we get massive releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There's increasing evidence that this new fire regime is actually changing the structure of forests so that the storage capacity of the forest is diminished over time. We've shifted that equilibrium to more carbon in the air and less on the ground. We can think of it as moving from a natural fire regime to an interrupted fire regime that has a very different set of dynamics, and is perhaps best characterized by these mega-fires. Overall in the United States, fires have emitted an average—over the last 10 years—of about 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. During the big fire years (these episodic high-fire years), we can see almost double that—maybe 180 million metric tons.
Daniel Raimi: Pretty substantial. Is it fair to say that while there used to be a balance between the CO₂ going out from wildfires and the CO₂ being taken up by new growth, we’re now in a sort of imbalance where those 100 million metric tons are added on to what otherwise would be taken out of the air?
David Wear: Yeah, it's safe to say that some portion of that 100 million metric tons is an addition to the calculus, rather than just a part of that balance. It's also important to note that this is based on emerging research and increasing evidence that we're seeing the shift in capacity. So in some cases, forests move to a different species composition. In other cases, forest cover is replaced by this persistent shrub cover that obviously has much less capacity to hold carbon in the ground.
Daniel Raimi: Let's talk now about a topic that you've put a lot of thought into, which is the issue of forest fuel treatments. Forest fuel treatments are obviously very different from suppression. I'm hoping you can help us understand what forest fuel treatments are, how different types of them vary across dimensions, and then help us understand how they can help reduce the potential for these excess greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires.
David Wear: I think of fuel treatments as a way to build fire-resilient forest infrastructure. And by that, I mean it’s a way to change the condition of the forest so that its response to fire is closer to that of a natural fire regime that I mentioned a minute ago. In effect, it’s a way to reverse the effects of fire suppression over these many decades. by removing vegetation from the forest and restructuring that vegetation, so it's not so easy for a fire to reach the ground.
There are basically two types of forest fuel treatments. One is prescribed burning, where you set a fire under controlled circumstances and burn off a certain amount of the vegetation. The other is a mechanical treatment, where you mechanically cut down vegetation and remove it from the site. In some cases, mechanical treatments are used to produce some products, and those products sometimes have long-term carbon benefits as well. Most importantly, they work to limit the intensity of a fire when it comes along.
One other element of fuel treatments that's important to get is that within a landscape—or what they call a fireshed now—it's important to target key parts of that landscape. In other words, you don't have to treat the entire landscape. You can target treatments to places that will limit the ability of the fire to spread and to produce a mega-fire. That's an emerging area in fire science that's really pretty exciting.
Daniel Raimi: I'm wondering if you could help us picture what some of these treatments look like. If you're imagining the two major types of treatments that you described, prescribed burns and then mechanical interventions, what would they just physically look like?
David Wear: For a prescribed burn, you could imagine people dressed in a standard fire uniform: the yellow shirt, the green pants, and a hard hat, walking along a firebreak with a driptorch. They’d start a fire, studying the prevailing winds and the weather conditions that allow for that kind of controlled burn, and be careful to prepare with the right infrastructure to address any kind of escapes. So just putting fire in the woods, as they say.
In a mechanical treatment, it's going to look more like a logging operation except it's going to look more like a thinning operation with chainsaws. Again, it would include people working with heavy equipment like chainsaws, pulling the material out of the woods.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Just one more follow up question because I've seen driptorches before, and I've always wondered how they work. How does it work, where you can drip little bits of fire or petroleum through those torches? What is it?
David Wear: Yeah, it’s petroleum-based. In some cases they can be ignited from the air or from helicopters. It's a petroleum product that allows for controlled ignition along a line.
Daniel Raimi: That's super interesting. I would love to see one of those operations one day. Obviously, they probably don't let novices like me come out and look at them too often, but it does seem like it'd be pretty fascinating to watch.
David Wear: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Let's talk now about a recent RFF issue brief that you published, where you estimated the potential outcomes of a recent bill that's been proposed in the Senate. This is part of the big infrastructure package that's getting negotiated as we speak, and the bill itself was led by Joe Manchin, the Senator from West Virginia. The bill that you analyzed would allocate $3.5 billion towards forest fuel treatments on federal lands that have high wildfire risk. Can you tell us a little bit about how you modeled the potential impacts of that spending and then help us understand what you found?
David Wear: First, I thought it was interesting and appropriate that treating fire-prone landscapes was included as part of an infrastructure bill, since this is about altering our vegetative infrastructure to be more resilient. The bill targets about 10 million acres of fuel treatments. This is about 20 percent of what the Forest Service has identified as the backlog, or, the amount of forest that is in need of this kind of treatment. It's focused on areas with really high fire risk—as it should be—and would likely target areas that are adjacent to communities in order to protect not only property, but also municipal watersheds.
At 10 million acres, this type of work is really consequential in scale. It should have an impact. We tried to translate what that kind of treatment intensity would mean for changes to emissions. As I mentioned earlier, we have data on how much emissions result from wildfires, and how that's varied over time, and how that relates to area burned and the intensity of fires. To model the impacts, we had to translate that 10 million acres into some effect on area burned and intensity of burn. We also had to account for the carbon cycle, that tendency for forest to begin over again and recapture a certain amount of the emitted carbon, just to look at the net changes that could resolve.
I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of uncertainties about some of the parameters in our models. So we looked at a range of scenarios across a range of those parameters and came up with a range of possible outcomes. We projected that somewhere between 11 and 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year would be eliminated, with a mid-range estimate of about 30 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalent being saved through the plan.
Daniel Raimi: The scale of that is pretty amazing. You mentioned 10 million acres a couple times. I was just doing some quick searching, and the state of Maryland is about 8 million acres. We're talking about a really large area. Are there logistical challenges to actually treating that much area over 10 years or whatever the timeframe of the bill divisions?
David Wear: There really is. We're talking about a change by an order of magnitude or two to the current treatment schedule right, and that's important. We have this backlog of more than 50 million acres of high risk forest that need this kind of treatment, and that's way beyond the regular fuel treatments that public agencies engage in. This is like the difference between a capital investment and a maintenance budget. We've been working on maintenance when we really need to do a substantial capital investment in building out this resilient infrastructure, and this is a step in that direction. The bill anticipates the need for some support for this effort and actually includes funding for an expanded fire workforce in the federal agencies, technical and infrastructure enhancements to both wildfire responses and fuel treatment needs.
Daniel Raimi: It really sounds like some other aspects of the infrastructure proposals. There are many of them that are floating out there at the moment, but so many of them really take issues that have extensive backlogs—whether they're environmental issues or just physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges and rail—and really make a significant down payment to start reducing some of that backlog.
So in the issue brief that you published, you noted that at least in 2020, 70 percent of the acreage that burned in wildfires in the United States was on federal lands. Federal lands are clearly a really big piece of this puzzle, but there are obviously other lands that are owned privately or by states or are controlled by sovereign tribes. So what complementary activities might other entities like states, localities, tribes, or private landowners take to complement the federal actions?
David Wear: You're getting at a really important point there, and that is that the most effective treatment strategies prioritize lands across the entire landscape, not just the federal landscape. In the West, public lands dominate, but there's a real strong need to coordinate management and treatments across all owners within a fireshed. Federal agencies have been working on this set of issues. It applies beyond fire. It applies to insect and disease problems as well. We've seen emerging partnerships. The Forest Service is pursuing a concept called shared stewardship, which is an explicit partnership between the federal government and state government to address problems across these landscapes. The bill that we're talking about here does include some substantial funding for additional collaborative forest land restoration, so it is addressing that issue.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. Are those efforts relatively new or have they been going on for a long time in different forums and under different auspices?
David Wear: They've been going on for a very long time. The Forest Service has something called a state and private program, which is about building out capacity and funding forest management and forest treatments in those different ownerships.
Daniel Raimi: One entity that is obviously very interested in wildfires is the timber industry. I'm curious, to your knowledge, what are some of the actions that the timber industry could take or has been taking to address the risk of wildfires, which clearly poses a risk to their bottom line?
David Wear: It's worth pointing out that private, especially commercial, forests in the United States, are the most heavily managed forests. They're less likely to be overstocked, so the probability or the propensity for wildfire damage is lower where these commercial owners are prevalent. That doesn't address the issue where some firms or some components of the industry depend on harvesting from public lands, and clearly, they're strongly impacted. In addition, there's spillover mortality. Despite one's efforts to build resiliency, they may be overcome by neighboring forest conditions. I predict more active management in the private sector to reach that kind of resilient forest structure.
Daniel Raimi: Is that something that just happens in the process of doing business and of managing forests for harvest, or would it require additional steps from the industry?
David Wear: Well, I think it is part of the business model, but it is also explicitly addressing risk mitigation. So it's not strictly an outcome of trying to grow more timber. It is a risk mitigation applied to timber growing.
Daniel Raimi: So one other topic that comes to mind that I've been reading about a little bit has to do with forest carbon offsets. As many of our listeners know, there are governments, private companies, and others that are trying to achieve net zero emissions. For some of those entities, that means investing in forestry projects that are designed to offset the emissions that they can't get rid of, like we’re seeing in the aviation industry. To what extent do the increase in wildfires in the West pose a risk to the business model of seeking to achieve carbon neutrality by investing in forestry to offset emissions?
David Wear: Yeah, that, again, is a really good question. And I might go over the edge here with some statistics, but hold me back if I do. If we look at the forest sector as a whole in the United States, it's currently sequestering carbon at a fairly good clip. In spite of there being 100 million metric tons of emissions from wildfires, the net sequestration—after accounting for those emissions—is about 630 million metric tons per year, which offsets about 12 percent of the economy's total emissions. It's substantial, and I would say, consequential. There are ways to enhance that carbon sink, but it’s good practice to account for fire risk whenever one begins to calculate the carbon benefits of a fuel treatment. In other words, incorporating fire probability and expected loss from fire moving forward.
It's also important to know that carbon sequestration differs across regions of the country, and the potential for future sequestration differs across regions. In the West, where we're seeing much of this fire, we're beginning to see evidence that areas are shifting from a net carbon sink toward a net carbon source, or at least falling to net-zero. In those places, the most effective carbon offset project would be something that enhances resilience and maintains the potential of forest to absorb carbon and maintain a sink. In the East, where we currently have 80 percent of our forest carbon sequestration, there's an opportunity to enhance that sink by planting more trees and expanding the area of forest. It's a difference between an expansionary policy in the East and a protective or enhancing policy in the West. Again, I think good practice means accounting for those risk probabilities and expected emissions as part of the carbon calculus.
Daniel Raimi: Do you know if most current forest carbon offset programs do account for those expected losses from fire? And if they do, are they updating those estimates based on the changes to the frequency and intensity of fire that we're actually seeing in the real world?
David Wear: There's a difference between voluntary offsets and programmatic offsets. In general people are addressing that, but with more rigor in the programmatic areas.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, really interesting. Dave, this has been such an interesting conversation. I've learned a ton just in the last 25 minutes or so, but we're just about out of time. I'm going to move us now to our Top of the Stack segment, where we ask you to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard lately. It can be related to what we're talking about today or it can be something else entirely if you want, but just curious to hear what you'd recommend to our listeners. So what's at the top of your stack, Dave?
David Wear: Well, my current bedtime reading—there's a bit of a hazard here because I haven't finished the book—is a book titled The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's speculative fiction about a near-term future where the world is dealing with cascading climate change and crisis. What’s more fascinating to me is this interplay of nations and the banking system through this entity that's called the Ministry for the Future, which is a Paris Agreement offshoot that's supposed to represent the interests of the future. There's a lot of concepts from environmental economics playing out in a pretty fast-paced drama. I think it's a great book so far.
Daniel Raimi: I actually read that book recently because we are going to interview Kim Stanley Robinson in a couple of months here on the show, and we're going to talk about that book. I also read it and it's really fascinating. Environmental economics actually comes in for some harsh treatment in that book, and that's one of the things that I'm interested in asking him about, but it is a really fascinating read.
David Wear: Well, it is always important to read things you disagree with.
Daniel Raimi: Indeed. Absolutely. Great. Well, Dave Wear from RFF. Once again, thank you so much for coming on the show and helping us understand wildfires, wildfire mitigation, forest fuel treatments, and so much else. We really appreciate it.
David Wear: It was my pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, it's officers or it's directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.