Joshua Ginsberg 0:00
Dr. Hansen, I have to remind myself, is a fire ecologist and he'll tell you all about fires. But he is at heart and in training a landscape ecologist with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. And he has been really looking at the issue of fires and regeneration of forests, and how fires affect forests, for a number of years. So it is a great pleasure to have him as a colleague at Cary Institute.
For those of you who don't know us well, we are a small—about 100 people— independent research institute based in Millbrook, New York, which is about 100 miles north of New York City. We are interested in three real areas of research; we're interested in research that informs us about trying to understand the dynamics of the future, right, and I think this talk is a piece of that. We are interested in the issues surrounding the ecology of human well-being. And that will include many different things. But we are unabashed in our acknowledgement that a lot of what we do, we do to get better understanding of environmental processes to help develop better solutions for human well-being and equity and justice. And then the third piece is really understanding the role of biodiversity and ecosystem function and not—my background's in wildlife, and I like critters—but it's not just the individual species, but how species interact to form communities and how those communities function. We work all over the world, but we like to say we have deep local roots and global reach.
Anyway, so welcome tonight. And tonight, we will be talking about the Western Fire and Forest Resilience Collaborative. We also call it a center, so I have to make sure that I try and keep consistent so people know what I'm talking about. And this is a collaborative that Winslow has built—which has seed funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation out in California and we are incredibly grateful to them—and which is literally just launching. This is our first public event. And Winslow will tell you more about the plans for that as we go on tonight.
Dr. Hansen. Let's start with the obvious, right. So I think that for New Yorkers, fire was an abstract event. You know, if you lived out West, or you traveled to Singapore, or other places where fire and smoke had been a problem for a number of years, you would know about it. But most New Yorkers thought it was an abstract idea until June, when you all the boreal forest and Canada started burning and all the smoke started coming down here. And so, you know, I guess the easiest way to ask is, what's going on? Is this the new normal? And why is this happening?
Winslow Hansen 2:44
Yeah, it's so thanks so much for organizing this and doing this with me. It's been an extraordinary year for fire in the boreal forests of Canada. And I think it's one of the first times that in the Northeast, it's really hit home in a way that's personal. So smoke is one of those things that really captures people's attention for obvious reasons.
This year, 43 as of yesterday which I checked, 43 million acres has burned in Canada this summer—that's 12 times what burned last year, and six times the 10-year average. And it's released a tremendous amount of carbon to the atmosphere. Three hundred fifty megatons is the estimate, which people are thinking will be about three times the annual emissions from all the other sectors in Canada. So we're talking about a ton of stuff going up in the atmosphere and a lot of that ends up being smoke, right? And that smoke is distributed, far from fires. It's one of the things that that most impacts people that aren't directly affected by fire. Smoke got as far as Dallas a few weeks ago from the Canadian fires. And of course in June, we all experienced it here in New York, pretty seriously.
The CDC is amazing in their speed at doing studies. They've already done some research on this. And they found during the 19 days of high wildfire smoke that asthma-related ER visits increased by 17% compared to average nationally, and it was even larger here in New York State. So on June 7, that big day in all of our minds about smoke, ER visits for asthma increased by 82% compared to average, so just, you know, unbelievable numbers. And as you pointed out in your question, these fires are historically extraordinary. But all the indications we have is that they're gonna just continue to increase and this is almost certain to be the new normal that we're going to need to live with.
Joshua Ginsberg 4:52
And this isn't, these aren't the only fires that have been happening in North America this year.
Winslow Hansen 4:57
Yeah, great point. So often what happens is we think about the place that's on fire right at that moment, and we forget that fire is a fundamental earth system process that happens in many ecosystems around the world. And the fire crisis is not limited to Canada; many places in North America experience this regularly. So you know, ask our colleagues and friends and family on the West Coast and they'll be telling you, yeah, I've been experiencing this for the last three decades, right?
Joshua Ginsberg 5:28
And Southern Europe has fires every summer and right there. So it's elsewhere as well. So what—we're getting more fire, we're getting hotter fires, we're getting longer fires—so what are the elements that you put together, that create a fire? And why are those changing so that we're getting more and more fires?
Winslow Hansen 5:48
Yeah, when you boil it down, it's really kind of a simple process, right? Unlike much of ecology, my more brilliant colleagues work with these really complex challenging systems. But, fire, when you boil it down requires three elements, right? So you have to have the weather conditions; has to be sufficiently dry, winds can be really important. You have to have enough fuels to have a fire, right, so the amount of fuel matters. And then topography can actually play a really important role. So you can think about a landscape before us that's just homogenous and flat. Fire is going to spread through that far more easily than a really mountainous landscape with lots of big cliffs and crags and snowy fields, because it's so broken up. So topography is really important.
And what's really interesting is the ways that we have to manage fire, all directly tied to that triangle, right? So at the macro level, mitigating climate change is by far one of the most important things we can do. Because that would help us reduce warming temperatures that cause drying that lead to these really dry fuels that are so flammable. But even at more local scales, we can do things like prescribed burning, where we're actually igniting fires under relatively low-risk conditions to consume those fuels in our landscapes in many places. We can, if the risk is too high to actually ignite fires, go out and mechanically thin for us to reduce fuel loads. And then we can even, in certain conditions, use wildfire itself. It's called managed wildfire use, where we allow these fires to burn in low-risk places to consume those fuels.
And if you're looking up at the slides, you can see this amazing drone shot that we're looking at here, and I think it really illustrates it. So this is a stand of ponderosa pine in Eastern Washington that we visited this summer. That is a management experiment where they went in and they thinned first the small-diameter materials. And then every few years, they've been doing these low-severity prescribed burns that clear out the understory that provides healthy conditions for the bigger trees to thrive and to be more resilient to future drought. So right here, this shot, I think, just highlights it. And it was really quite inspiring to see at that local scale.
Joshua Ginsberg 8:17
So thinning and harvesting sounds like logging. So how does this differ from the sort of normal management of a forest for timber?
Winslow Hansen 8:27
Such a important distinction, right, so this is not logging that we're talking about. If you think about having a campfire, and you want to, you know, get it to flare up because it's a little cold, are you gonna throw on your big-diameter material? You're gonna throw on a bunch of like, you know, needles and dried small twigs; you're gonna throw on the small stuff—we call it flashy fuels. And those are the fuels that really are flammable in these ecosystems and can lead to the unusually high-severity fire that we'll get into a little bit later. So when we're talking about mechanically thinning, it's often targeting that smaller- diameter material, removing those surface fuels that are important, rather than taking out the big, beautiful big-diameter trees that that traditionally are logged.
Joshua Ginsberg 9:16
So you are from one of my favorite towns in North America—Bozeman, Montana. You grew up in the West, you have been studying Western forest fires, particularly in the Rockies. And I was wondering, you know, you have a three-decades-plus run of personal experience with that area and how have those fires changed? How has the environment changed? And to what extent is climate change—and we're not just talking about climate because it's climate week, but because climate is the driver of so much—but how much is this influencing those changes?
Winslow Hansen 9:49
Absolutely. It's changed profoundly in my lifetime and I'm not particularly old, although I'm getting there. So, you know, Bozeman was an incredible place to grow up; it's right in the Rocky Mountains, there's big forest to go explore. And for whatever reason, I was lucky enough to live right on the edge of the national forest land as a kid, go walk out the back door and go play in the woods, right? And when I was eight, a massive wildfire came burning towards our subdivision; we were evacuated, firefighters protected the house, and nobody's homes were burned, luckily, but it literally burned up to the backyard.
It was actually interesting; just last week, my mother sent me a picture. I'd asked for some pictures of being a kid in the woods and they took a picture of the fire burning above the house. The house was in the foreground. Yeah, it was, it was unbelievable; it was larger than I remembered. But the thing is, you know, the next year, it looked charred, of course, and burned, but there were morel mushrooms starting to pop up, vegetation. And I remember going back out and playing in those woods and watching them recover over subsequent years. The thing, though, is that the fires of my childhood are not the fires that we have today, driven by climate change—we're just seeing massive increases in burned area.
So since 1984, two years before I was born, annual forest-burned area has increased by 1,320%. This is work that was done by a close colleague and friend of mine, Park Williams, who's joining us remotely tonight—just a massive increase we're looking at on the slide right now, at that time series of annual burned area in the West. And there's a number of reasons why that's happening.
Climate change is one that we're going to be talking about again and again. Another really interesting dynamic to keep in mind is that at the same time of these big increases in burned area, we're also seeing a lot of people move to the West for the same reasons that I have such a fond memory of it as a child, right, it's a gorgeous place to live. So another colleague of mine has done some work quantifying the distribution of the what we call the WUI—the wildland urban interface—and it's just a fancy name for homes that are either abutting or intermixed with wildland vegetation. These are some of the places that have the highest risk of burning in ecosystems and developments. And they found that like, in 1990, about 10 million homes were in the wildland urban interface in the West, and by 2020, that's increased to 16 million.
So that means a lot; that's a big deal for two reasons. The first is that you have a lot more at risk when you put homes in these fire-prone areas. The other thing is that people start a lot of fires, right? Right. So another colleague did this really interesting analysis where—and they haven't been able to continue it because the data is no longer available—but in the 1990s and early 2000s, across the United States as a whole, something like 80% of the fire starts were ignited by people. Now, often those fires are smaller than wildfires, right? Because they're in places that are easier to suppress; they're close to roads, they're close to people. So they don't necessarily account for a massive amount of the burned area. But they are often really destructive fires. So one of the places that I think about a lot when I'm trying to wrap my head around this stuff is the front range of Colorado, right? So, often the fires that are burning there are not the largest fires we have on record, but they're often some of the most destructive we have on record because of where they're occurring.
Joshua Ginsberg 13:38
And they're, you know, so the majority of fires are lit by people, the minority of land is burned by fires lit by people, but they happen to start them in their backyards, and in their backyards they have neighbors and so you have a lot more damage to property and to person.
Winslow Hansen 13:54
That's absolutely right. Yeah.
Joshua Ginsberg 13:56
So that all makes really good sense. And the next question I want to ask him; the next slide we have; so we do try and make this look like we're actually haven't rehearsed it, but we have and we've got great slides and I thank my staff for that.
But you know, the next question I really want to pose has to do with this idea of good fires and bad fires. And the fact that, you know the wonderful word serotinous, but that there are systems and seeds that are adapted to fire. So could you talk a little bit about fire-adapted ecosystems and why they're so important? And just because it's important, I think, as we start to demonize fire, to remember that it has a strong ecological function.
Winslow Hansen 14:38
Absolutely. So, you know, I think I mentioned this earlier, but forests have burned for at least 150 million years. It's a fundamental ecosystem process to have fire in ecosystems, and there's a lot of tree species, wildlife, organisms that are adapted to fire from an evolutionary perspective. They need fire to thrive.
One of the classic examples that's close to my heart is the lodgepole pine. It grows prolifically in the forests of Yellowstone, which is just an hour and a half from where I grew up, and also happened to be the place where I got to do my PhD research while being based at University Wisconsin, which was delightful to spend your summers in Yellowstone for five years. So this tree species is so interesting; it has a thin bark, so it wants to be killed by fire. And it produces what we call serotinous cones. These are cones that hold the seeds, and they stay closed for many years with this really kind of nasty resin. And they only open when they're heated by fire, which then means in this post-fire environment where there's a lot of light, a lot of nutrients, there's even a flush of water; these seeds are dropped into what at least historically was quite a wonderful environment to establish as a seedling. And the next generation would grow up and it would occur on a cycle of every, you know, 100 to 300 years.
In 1988, Yellowstone burned and a series of massive fires; it was considered unprecedented at the time, there were newspaper articles about how this was the end of Yellowstone; it was ruined. Yellowstone is a moonscape. You can see a picture on the slide of what that looked like in 1988. And there was a tremendous amount of concern simply because we hadn't seen it, that the forest would not recover. And in fact, work that I did in my PhD, and that my PhD advisor has built a career around, and really championed, and was on the frontiers of, showed that, in fact, 30 years post-fire, those forests were able to recover prolifically. So now you drive through Yellowstone; this is a picture from 2013 from the same place, and you'll see trees everywhere and it doesn't look anything different from what was before the fire.
Joshua Ginsberg 17:03
So we have fire-adapted forests, we have species that are fire obligates. Right. So how do the fires in 2023 fundamentally differ? And how do you define what's a good and a bad fire?
Winslow Hansen 17:19
Yeah, so we're starting to hear that language a lot about, this is good fire, this is healthy fire. This is bad fire. This is catastrophic fire. And of course, there's a tremendous amount of nuance, and a spectrum there to unpack when we think about managing our forests. The reason why fires today are becoming more severe, more catastrophic, more damaging than they were historically is, is one of the main reasons is climate change. Right. So we've seen temperatures warm rapidly in forests like the Western United States, and that causes forests to dry out through this process we call vapor pressure deficit. So the idea is, is that the warmer the atmosphere is, the more water it can actually hold. And when it can hold more water, it actually sucks that just like a straw, from the land surface, and so the water is being transferred from our fuels up into the atmosphere with warming. What this has caused, is like 2000-21 to be the driest two-decade period and much of the western United States in 1,200 years. So our forests are drier than they've ever been in millennia. And that causes, as we remember our fire triangle, big increases in burned area.
Joshua Ginsberg 18:45
And I'd love to talk about that a lot more, we have a lot to cover. But that issue of hotter, drier, more moisture then we get a huge rainfall like we did this year. And it's fascinating how that's gonna play out, and maybe we can talk about that a little later.
So why is it that it's, you know, Western Fire and Forest Resilience, right? And, you know, what is it that makes for greater resilience in these forests? And how do we start trying to think about how to manage fire so that we can have greater resilience, which I know is sort of part of this project and a broader set of projects that the Moore Foundation is funding?
Winslow Hansen 19:24
Yeah, absolutely. So forests were adapted to their historical fire regimes; we, another word we use is resilient, to their fire regimes. And as those fire regimes are changing as far as becoming much, much larger, more severe, more frequent than they were during the Holocene. We're starting to see that resilience of forests erode, and what that means is, sometimes forests are already not coming back after fires. They're being replaced by grasslands and shrublands; less carbon-dense ecosystems. And we also have projections that suggest, over the next few decades, a lot more of Western forests, if they were to burn, are likely to not recover. So on that same trip to Eastern Washington, we visited a site that burned a decade ago, right at lower tree lines. So it's pretty hot, it's pretty dry there. And after a decade, trees have not reestablished. This is likely to persist in this kind of grassland, troubling state that we're seeing for decades to come.
Joshua Ginsberg 20:31
What's the impact of that, right? Because we love grazing ecosystems, we do a lot of work on them. And why should we care?
Winslow Hansen 20:38
Yeah, forest resilience is such an important topic, especially in the Western United States. Because these forests in the West hold a tremendous amount of carbon, that, if released to the atmosphere, is likely to only exacerbate climate change. So positive feedbacks might emerge. They also provide really important wildlife habitat. But there's also really important relationships with even water and water insecurity in the western United States. So, you know, we see headlines in the paper about Phoenix running out of water, limiting new developments; it turns out that the distribution of forests and forest dynamics play a really important role in the water cycle. And losing a bunch of forests is going to profoundly change the quantity and quality of water that's available to people over coming decades.
Joshua Ginsberg 21:28
And geologically, we've seen some of these changes, but it will be thousands of years— maybe hundreds of years if we can reverse and capture carbon—but it's going to be a very long time before we start getting areas that have been gone, you know, converted from forest and savanna back into forest.
And we've got all these changes that are happening now. And you know, a lot of this, you've got the buildup of your fuels as part of your triangle. I, of course, am twice your age...not quite, but close, half again...and I grew up with Smokey the Bear. And we all were preventing forest fires, and we were preventing forest fires for 100 years. So talk a little bit about the impact of that very well-intended, but perhaps ill-thought-out management strategy.
Winslow Hansen 22:25
It ties back to the fire triangle, right. So we've been focused on the weather side, the climate side, the amount of fuels also makes a big difference if you remember that triangle. And, before the, like, early 20th century, a lot of fire happened in our ecosystems; dry forests of the Southwest, mixed conifers of California, through a combination of lightning strikes, but also a tremendous amount of indigenous burning taking place. So Indigenous communities have burned forests for time immemorial. And they did it for many reasons, including creating hunting habitat with good line sight for hunting, for promoting wild foods that are super important, like berries for oak acorns, that would be ground up for foods. And then, you know, right around the turn of the 20th century, with pre-Euro-American settlement, that indigenous burning ceased.
And soon after that, right around 1910, the big burn happened in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. These were just massive fires; they burned something like the area of Connecticut, killed 80 firefighters, burned a bunch of homes. And this was really a wake-up call, or an eye-opening event for the newly formed Forest Service. So you got to, I mean, you got to think about, I'm from the West Coast so maybe this shows my bias a little bit, but it's a bunch of Yale foresters [ Gifford Pinchot, yeah], a bunch of Yale foresters coming out west thinking they know how to manage forests, and then these massive fires happen, takes everybody by surprise.
And one of the things that happened from that was a very strong emphasis on suppression of fire, of conquering fire, of keeping it from our all-important forests. And this culminated in the 1930s with the 10 a.m. policy. So the idea was that any fire that was sighted from fire tower would be put out by 10 a.m. the next morning. And because of larger climate trends and workforce availability, and then eventually, you know, equipment becoming available after wars, so war surplus, we were highly effective at suppressing fire through the 20th century. Now, the Forest Service has completely changed, and embraced this idea of needing fire in our forests to maintain appropriate fuel loads. And so it's a fundamentally different time today, but, we still are dealing with that legacy. And some, not all of our forest types, but some, of this universal suppression which has led to this massive buildup of fuel.
Joshua Ginsberg 25:22
Particularly in drier environments where you don't get the decomposition, and you don't get the natural loss of those fuels. And you and I were both at a meeting from the Conservation X Labs; Fire Grand Challenge was also funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. And I think one of the interesting things about that which you brought up is this interdigitation between Indigenous management of fires and the new fire regimes, and how you take that knowledge and apply it. And you showed us some things from the Washington example. But I think that's clearly an area rich for further exploration.
Winslow Hansen 25:58
Oh, yeah. And a tremendous amount of momentum is building in that space, which is so inspiring and exciting. So this meeting we were at included Indigenous leaders, from the Western United States, from the Amazon, and from Indonesia, coming together with Western scientists and trying to have dialogue about how we manage fire in this completely different time.
Joshua Ginsberg 26:26
Right. And tropical forest fires are a relatively new phenomenon. So it was, you know, I think North-South exchange, East-West exchange, and an intra-U.S. exchange. So, all right, so it's gone from good to bad and from bad to worse. Where do you think it's likely to go next?
Winslow Hansen 26:44
Yeah, when we look to the future, it can be hard to be hard to be optimistic sometimes. So, you know, we think of 2020 and 2021 as extraordinary years in the western United States in terms of burned area; we think of 2023 as being extraordinary in Canada. But when you look at future projections, based on climate of where fire is gonna go, so we're looking right now at a time series of projections of burned area through 2100. For the western United States, those extraordinary years become the average. Right? So we have years that far exceed what we've seen in the record so far. And we still have some years with low fire because climate is variable, even though climate change increases. But the best projections we have today suggest a doubling of burned area in the western United States, compared to the last few decades, so just massive increases in burned area.
Joshua Ginsberg 27:42
And that will have tremendous impacts. Are there areas that are, you know, so if you think about coral reefs, some of the most interesting research now is coming out on refugia and coral reefs, where you have upwelling zones, or you have heat-adapted commensal relationships between the different organisms on a reef. Are there similar kind of things where there are places where trees will survive; where we'll keep the seed source and have an optimistic view for the future?
Winslow Hansen 28:11
Absolutely. So there are absolutely going to be fire refugia, yeah, places that survive. For whatever reason: maybe they're in a wet landscape position, maybe just randomly fires don't ignite in those places, and they will persist through the next few decades for sure, and provide really critical seed sources for thinking about replanting, in places that that have transitioned to grassland, for example.
Joshua Ginsberg 28:40
So more beavers, more beavers. All right. We have to think about fires differently, right? So we had a period of time up til about 1900, when, you know, fires were useful and well-managed and a tool. Then we went into a stage where fires were evil and horrible, and we suppress them all. And now we've got climate change and drying out and more fuel, and these massive fires, how do we change the way we think about fire so that we can manage it better?
Winslow Hansen 29:11
It really requires a fundamental shift in our mindset, about living sustainably with fire, thinking about embracing fire in the ecosystems where it's ecologically appropriate to reintroduce fire, we should really prioritize doing that. And what's really exciting is that there is this very rapidly building momentum to reintroduce healthy fire to ecosystems to do the mechanical thinning that then would allow prescribed burning to play its historical role. I mean, if you'd asked me five years ago even, where we would be today, I would never have predicted the amount of momentum that's building.
So just recently, you know, a little over a year ago or so, the U.S. Congress allocated roughly $10 billion to prescribed burning and mechanical thinning and in U.S. forests. States are really leading the charge. So California is absolutely a thought leader in managing forests and fire, Washington and Oregon are doing really great work. And then what's been so exciting is philanthropic organizations are also really getting involved. So we've mentioned the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, who are sponsoring this event tonight. And they're launching just a quite an incredible initiative in terms of its boldness and vision to really try to get ahead of the fire issue and to provide the resources to do it in an intentional way. Funding science to support it, thinking about synergies across different sectors in that campaign.
Joshua Ginsberg 30:45
So you think there are new ways and you've got a picture there. It's another nice video of their people doing some things. Can you talk a little bit about what they're doing?
Winslow Hansen 30:56
Yeah. So right here we're watching a prescribed burn take place in a Western forest. And so you can see folks are walking around with drip torches and lighting the forest floor, which consumes those surface fuels, but you'll notice that there's not a lot of ladder fuels that connect the surface to the canopy. And so those prescribed burns are staying low in that surface fuel and just consuming those to keep them from building up.
Joshua Ginsberg 31:26
And then there's some folks with chainsaws cleaning out things to make it so there aren't ladder fuels. So you can do that. So we want to manage fire, but we want to use fire. And I want to go into a little more detail. So the Western Fire and Forest Resilience Collaborative. How do you see that moving forward? And what are its goals and objectives, and what's the structure of that collaborative?
Winslow Hansen 31:57
We're really excited about this opportunity. So we're developing a research program to try to co-create the science that needs to support environmental decision making moving forwards. And how we're doing that is we're engaging from the very beginning with decision makers. So these are managers of forests at state and federal levels, these are folks that are adjacent to policy and policy makers themselves, to really try to understand what their needs are as a community. Because those are the folks that have to make the hard decisions about how to steward our forests during a time of immense and profound environmental change. And then we're bringing the best science to bear that we can to support them in producing the knowledge that's necessary to steward those for us.
So we have a team of folks that are coming together over the next five to 10 years, kind of the rock stars of forest and fire ecology. Some of the names you've seen throughout the talk already. And what we're really trying to do is address five different objectives. The first objective is to try to really understand the mechanisms that are going to underpin how our forests change in response to increasing fire. So we know that it's really fine-scale processes; things like, is it wet enough for an individual seedling to establish that's going to aggregate to shape broader skill outcomes. And so we need to understand those underpinning mechanisms.
We also need to understand how our forests are changing in as real a time as possible. So we're using satellites and space to be able to track changes in forests and fire in very functional ways that a forest manager can relate to and understand rather than these indices, that not even me as a scientist who thinks about them all the time can really understand. We're passing that information on to simulation models and advanced computing, because forests and fire evolve over decades to centuries, right? It's not months to next year. And so we really need to understand how the decisions we make today and the conditions we see today are going to turn into outcomes in the next few decades when our kids are out in those woods. We really want to know what the consequences are for the ecosystem services. Right. So how is our carbon going to change? How is biodiversity going to change? Where is forest cover going to change? What about water? And then most importantly, as I alluded to, we want to do this all while building a community of practice with decision makers so that there is intimate exchange both ways. We can directly inject the science and decision making quickly because we know that that science is needed fast, but we can also be responsive to evolving decision maker needs. Because five years from now we have no idea what needs decision makers are going to have, given the change in this space.
Joshua Ginsberg 35:02
One of the challenges that I have was when I was courting Winslow to come to Cary Institute, I promised him 40 supercomputing nodes because he told me he needed 40 supercomputing nodes; of course, at the time, I had no idea how we would get that level of access. And to this day, it's still one of our greatest challenges. But I think there's something deeply ironic, this massive computing power that allows you to create these models that scale up from the individual tree all the way up to the entire region of the forest West.
Somehow there's a both a humor and an irony that Gordon and Betty Moore, the man who gave us Moore's law, is funding this work, because it is this power of massive computing that allows us to start making predictive models and then start playing with them, so that you get one of the managers out in California who says, "Could you add this variable in order? You know, this isn't working for us." And so you can have that interaction back and forth. And as you said, it's a group of rockstars. Do we have the slide, Leslie, that has the pictures of people? Because I like seeing the pictures of people. I don't know if it made it or not. But it's a really remarkable group of men and women that are moving this forward. And how did you decide? Or how did you find this remarkable group of people, and when are you first going to all get together and talk about this more?
Winslow Hansen 36:22
So one of the beautiful things about starting a collaborative is you get to pick your team, right. And so we looked for folks that we knew were some of the best scientists in the space, right, they are doing the groundbreaking work in their respective disciplines. But we also wanted to find people that were responsive, that were engaged, and that were enthusiastic, because if this is going to be successful, it's going to be about the synergies and the interactions; it's not going to be about the accomplishments of any one individual.
And so we've really tried to tailor it in a way that we're going to be able to collaborate, we're going to enjoy collaborating, and we're going to have insights because we're working together rather than side by side. We're really excited; actually, tomorrow I'm heading over to Los Angeles for a kickoff town hall meeting. So we have 40 brilliant people coming to a room together. Eric Holst of EDF, who's in the audience tonight, is going to join us; we're super excited about that. And we have 20 people who are in the decision making space and about 20 people in the science space. And we're going to lock everybody into a nice room for a day and a half. And we're going to talk about and start to figure out where are those gaps that constrain decision making, and how can we bring science to bear to fill those gaps? So I'm just super excited to kick that off.
Joshua Ginsberg 37:49
Well, you know, we talk about social ecological processes, and science itself is a social ecological process. And I love the fact that, you know, if you sent an email to somebody, and they didn't answer, it was not a good sign, right? When they answered, if it was like, "Well, I want to do this, I want to do this, I want," it was not a good sign. And you have a full set of filters that help build prospective collaborations that are more effective. And I think that is something that's a hallmark of the institution as well. We love to play in other people's sandboxes. And we like it when everybody plays nicely. So I'm really glad to hear that it's working well.
We've got a few minutes more than we can get some questions. And I'm curious, you know, mere mortals, right? You've got these policymakers, you've got Indigenous people with deep knowledge, you've got scientists trying to mesh this all together...what can mere mortals do to try and effect change in these systems, other than, of course, thanking Congress for giving the Forest Service enough money; that they're not spending half their budget, on fire suppression.
Winslow Hansen 38:53
There's a lot that individuals can do in a variety of different dimensions. So just a couple that I wanted to highlight tonight—we talked about that shift in mindset to embracing fire where it's ecologically appropriate. And that's something that I think we all as individuals can really work on and think about. Fire is something that we're going to have in our landscapes. And it's something that's really critical to use to reduce the risk of these high-severity catastrophic fires in the future. So being encouraging and supportive of ecologically responsible prescribed burning, of mechanical thinning when the risk is too high to burn; super important.
Of course, I'm biased here, but I think it's also really critical to advocate for the science so that we have science that underpins this decision making that we're going to need to be doing over the next few decades. And then also, I think, calling up your congresspeople and saying, you know, thanks for investing in fire science, thanks for investing in proactive solutions; do more of it, because it's gonna take more to solve this problem. So being supportive of people for taking those steps is critically important.
Joshua Ginsberg 40:11
And I would say one of the odd things about the early part of the mid part of the 20th, 21st century, is I never thought we would have to advocate for science. I think it is a little frightening but also wonderful that we are taking it, taking it back and really getting people to understand the importance of science underlying solutions. We don't, you know, science alone; solutions have policy, they have financial implications, they've got social implications. But I like to think that at least with science, we can give people some options and then all those other things can come in.
And you know, I think it's also an indication of the scale of this problem that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has given us generous seed funding, but we've got to go out and raise more money. And so if anybody knows anybody who loves forests, and wants to understand fire resilience, do get in touch.
But Winslow, thank you so much. That was remarkable. I wanted to leave, like 10 or 15 minutes, because we've got hundreds of people out there and somebody will feed questions from them. But let's give privilege to people in the audience for questions, and we'll take as many as we can before we run out of time.
Speaker 3 41:29
Hi, my name is Valkyrie. I've been in the wildfire space for about three years; I have a company that builds software for wildfire prevention. And my biggest question is, you know, when I was looking through the events for wildfire, you know, with the catastrophic events we've had this summer, this was one of maybe three that had wildfire in the title. And so I think it's important to bring, you know, like homeowner interest, just regular individual interest to the space.
And one thing that I've struggled with, in terms of just getting people into wildfire prevention, is not just education, but making it really simple—kind of implementing this false choice system where, you know, for something like recycling, it was really easy. Neighborhoods just started giving people recycling cans, and they were like, "oh, yeah, it's easy for me to recycle now, because I have a can." So is there something that you've kind of like seen in your work that is the equivalent to that, where we can give people kind of that false choice system? And make it easier for people to implement that into, like, their yard work, or, when they're buying a house, making that a priority?
Winslow Hansen 42:27
Great question. Thank you so much for that. There is a tremendous amount of really interesting social science focused on understanding how communities can adapt to fire at the individual level up to the community level. And it's an essential part of the equation.
So home hardening is one of the terms that we're starting to hear a lot about. And it's all about thinking how we build new homes and renovate existing homes and ways to make them much less prone to burning if a fire were to come through. And I think that's a really promising next step.
The other thing that that I think we don't talk about enough but has been a part of the conversation for a long time is thinking about creating defensible space around homes. It's a very simple step, at least in theory, to remove the fuels around your home and create that buffer so that if a fire does come up; now, of course, in extreme events, you can do this type of thing, and your home might still be burnt. But in many instances, creating those buffers around your home of reduced fuels can really have a large impact. And that kind of action has been happening for a long time. But it's something that we could continue to expand on.
Joshua Ginsberg 43:56
And that would also have the interaction with aridity. Correct. So you've got California southeast, sorry, the southwest, where things are getting drier and drier. And so from an ecological perspective, there's a move to zero garden and having gardens that don't need a lot of water. So you have a sort of a double win there by having less fuel and also using less water.
So, other questions, microphones going around so that the people out there, somebody's gonna come around; I think we had two people in the front row raise their hands. So here and then we'll move it over there.
Speaker 4 44:33
John Kramer from the Hudson River Foundation. Thanks for a really wonderful talk. My question is a bit of a follow up and it's an observation and it might be that the pictures you put up over your collaborators is not exhaustive, but what I'm struck by is, have you thought of behavioral scientists; People who think about the salience of information at the wildlife urban interface, and to have those folks involved with some really tremendous work in that area as well.
Winslow Hansen 45:01
Great point. So the list you see up there is not complete. We started with thinking through some of the core folks that we needed for the mission that we're facing. And we wanted to leave ourselves flexibility to start having these meetings with decision makers like we're doing next week at UCLA to understand where we're missing expertise. And that then allows us to figure out where those gaps are, and then we can go out and fill those gaps. So I have a bunch of ideas, you know, like, churning around there. But I want to make sure that we do it in a way that allows us to maybe find perspectives that we hadn't anticipated to bring into the group.
Joshua Ginsberg 45:48
So question in back. And then Maribeth, there's another question up front.
Speaker 5 45:54
Can you guys hear me? Okay? Yeah. So I don't know who invited the accountant, but I'm an accountant. And so I think about this, I'm in the sustainability space, from the business perspective. And so on the policy side, I'm hearing a lot of policy advocacy in the prevention suppression. But I think about the business side so that the idea of a defensible space around your home has a potential policy implication on the insurance side. And so I'm wondering to what extent do you guys have explored—I think about California, that's super cool—in this policy, advocacy, policy, redesign space, so maybe there's an opportunity there. And I'm wondering if you guys have thought about that as an avenue for change?
Winslow Hansen 46:40
Absolutely. I think insurance is going to play a critical role in shaping the dimensions, like we've seen with flood insurance, for example, and how that shapes home patterns. And there's indicators of that playing out already; I'm hesitant to go as a forest ecologist too far down, providing opinions about insurance, given that it's not my area of expertise, but it's one of these threads that has been bubbling around the fire space for many, many years. And I think it's only going to increase in terms of the amount that we're hearing about it and the impact that it has.
Joshua Ginsberg 47:21
And early in the Cary—Cary is 40 years old—early in our history, we had a big grant from Swiss Re, you know, reinsurance people, because they see the value of these long-term ecological studies to understand the threats to their insurance underwriting. So I think it's a great idea. And, you know, I would love to see if we can partner with some of these groups, because in the end, they may well actuarially be the users of some of these models, right? That they should have value if we can understand on a probabilistic way, we can't, you know, like insurance, we can't tell you which house is gonna burn or which community's gonna burn. But we can give you a probability and as people make changes, how that probability changes, I think it's a great suggestion to try and form partnerships as we develop the models and make them better. Next question.
Speaker 6 48:22
Okay, I grabbed one from the virtual. Can folks hear? Okay, super. I just wonder; we have a virtual audience also tuning in, so I'm just going to grab a question from that audience. So someone asks, the Rim Fire burned hundreds of thousands of acres near Yosemite in 2013. Ten years later, the area is still scarred and doesn't seem to be recovering; not like the photos of Yellowstone. Are there special challenges there? Why isn't recovery obvious?
Winslow Hansen 48:43
So that ties in with the forest resilience topic that we talked about earlier, right. So as conditions are drying, as fires are getting larger, as fires are getting more frequent, what we're starting to see is forests not coming back after fires. I saw a recent study that a colleague—it was an amazing, amazing study that a colleague did—showed that roughly 20% of the conifer forests, forests of the Sierra Nevada, if they were to burn today, would likely not regenerate as forests.
So we're talking about quite a large amount of area; now maybe they won't burn or parts won't burn, right. But the template is set, and there's a couple of reasons why that can happen. So, one of them is that the fires have burned so frequently that the trees hadn't reached reproductive maturity when they burned and so there was no seeds. Another reason the fire was so big that you can't get seed from the unburned edge into the middle. And then the third reason—we see it a lot and I did quite a bit of work of this on my PhD in Yellowstone—is that even if you have seed, if it's too dry, if it's drought, then this tree seedlings aren't going to establish anyways. And that can lead to this conversion to non forest. So Rim Fire is an example. But there are many other examples across the West, and it's likely to continue to grow in how common it is.
Speaker 6 50:15
And then one more from the virtual audience. Okay, thank you. So we had a few questions coming together on a common theme about how will we be using Indigenous methods of fire management in the work that's happening? What what will that look like? And how will that be incorporated that knowledge?
Winslow Hansen 50:33
It's really an inspiring space to be in. You know, cultural burning has been excluded for 100 years or more, 150 years, and we're starting to see it reemerge and be supported at quite a rapid rate. And that traditional knowledge is so critical for how these forests were managed before pre-Euro-American settlement.
So there's all of these examples of collaboration starting to inform where indigenous communities are being empowered, and they're co-developing fire management strategies with agencies to get more fire on the landscape and the places where it was historically and where it is ecologically appropriate. The Moore Foundation and the initiative that they're doing has really put a lot of emphasis on this as well. And so there are a number of different examples of instances where that's coming up. And as we continue to develop our specific collaborative, we're really enthusiastic to think about how we can start to forge those relationships in an intentional and respectful way. So it's not something that you rush into; it's something that you do right. And we're really enthusiastic to be able to do that over the next several days.
Joshua Ginsberg 52:08
And the foundation's initiative is very much sort of three different pieces, one of which is understanding this, the fire, which is the science that you're leading, and the second is the policy and advocacy in the space of how you manage it. And the third is the people on the ground manage. And I think the iteration that you're talking about, because this is a, you know, initially a five-year study, but I think it'll probably go for 10 or 15. And that iteration will probably happen after the first phase; everybody gets their work done in the first phase, and then they come together and say, Okay, what are the gaps? And how do we do that?
We have a couple more questions up here Maribeth. There was one here, one here, and one there. Okay, make your rounds; I can't see, you're in the sun as it were, I can't see you.
Speaker 7 52:56
So this goes a little bit off the question related to Indigenous practices. I work in disaster relief. I live in Oakland, California, where a lot of the forests are filled with flammable invasive eucalyptus trees. And I just got back from a month on Maui, where a lot of the burn land came from invasive, flammable grasses from the plantations. So how do you manage a resilient WUI community when the forest itself is in a balanced forest?
Winslow Hansen 53:28
Yeah, so invasive species are a really tricky piece to this, right. So we have a number of invasive species in the western United States. So cheatgrass is another example that really can be challenging for fire management. And so you have this collision of the wicked problem of invasive species with the wicked problem of a fire. And I don't, you know, I think it's going to be a challenging one to tackle, especially when we consider how fast our forests, our native forests, are changing. And I think there is going to be a need for some pretty innovative solutions of how we deal with that at the scale at which it's unfolding. I don't have the solutions on me in my back pocket here. Otherwise, I might be somewhere else rather than sitting in front of you, but it's a really thorny issue.
Joshua Ginsberg 54:25
So we've got a couple more questions up front, and I think we've got time for them. One here, one here, and one there, and then we'll have to close up.
Speaker 8 54:32
I'm from Center for International Forces Research, which works mainly in the tropics. You said prescribed fire, and selective removal of small trees, is one of the solutions to reduce wildfire. I was wondering if you have considered the impact on biodiversity, including the stress, you know, the soil microorganisms. Would you say something about that?
Winslow Hansen 55:03
Thanks for that question. Well, to be clear, you know, these tools that we have in our toolkit—prescribed burning, mechanical thinning—they are not appropriate for all forests. So that's not a silver-bullet solution; they're appropriate for specific forests types, where this legacy of suppression has led to an accumulation of fuels that was not there historically.
So it's gonna work potentially in some places, but it probably won't work in other places. And if done correctly, it's not done in a way where you're eliminating species from your species pool. It's reducing biomass of individuals in moderate and modest ways, and fostering growth of larger individuals to become those big trees that we saw in that video. And what that can also do is facilitate the reintroduction of low-severity fire to these ecosystem types that can actually foster biodiversity, foster microbial communities. There's, I don't know a ton about it, but I've been interacting and collaborating with some microbial ecologists and there's actually a number of microbes that are also fire dependent, that disperse in smoke, for example. So it can play quite an important role for fostering those things as well.
Joshua Ginsberg 56:28
Two more questions, gentleman here, and then the gentleman there, or...Dr. Adeney.
Speaker 9 56:38
Thank you so much, Winslow and Josh, for this amazing conversation. This is Marion Adeney from Conservation X Labs. And I, just like probably many of you out there, I have now burned in my brain the graph that you showed of the increase in burned area over the next 100 years, or whatever it was. And yet, at the same time we keep hearing, you know about how we need more good fire on the landscape. And we have policy and regulatory and agency systems that make it very difficult for agencies to sometimes let those fires burn. So my question then, is, in terms of the science side, how far along are we in using these kind of predictive models and also looking at past fires at making a decision about whether a fire or acres burned is good fire or bad fire? And how can we apply that kind of science to the systems that we need to let decision makers make good decisions about letting the good fires burn?
Winslow Hansen 57:49
So in anticipation of the town hall meeting at UCLA, my colleague, Kristina Bartowitz, (who's online and moderating the online questions), did interviews with 20 managers at state and federal levels in the Western United States, and one of the three knowledge gaps that emerged was that how do we differentiate between good and bad fire across broad geographies and at different scales? And that's exactly the types of questions that we hope to and think that we can address with the team we're bringing together.
And then the separate question, that's so important is: but what do we do about it? And we know that we have these toolkits, and there's some no-brainer places where we know we can get fire on landscape, and it would be a good thing. But from a logistics perspective, from a risk perspective, liability perspective, that's very, very hard. And I don't have good solutions to that either, per se, but as a modeler, one of the things I think a lot about doing is running counterfactual scenarios. So you know, we're basically recreating a representation of the system over and over again. And so we can ask ourselves, well, what happens if we do this? Or what happens if we do that? How does that compare to our baseline? And so we can run scenarios of, what if we try this really bold management strategy in this place and this one in this place, and see what the outcomes are in silica on the computer, where the risk is non-existent because we're burning CPUs, we're not burning forests, and and then at least use that as some kind of information and evidence for how these might play out in the future and their relative efficacy. So we think that is one potential strategy to help support decision makers in making the case for this being really important.
Joshua Ginsberg 59:58
Can, do we have time for one more question? Or are you gonna...it's eight o'clock and I'm wondering, is it okay if we do one more question? Yeah. Okay. Lori...and then we'll do one here. Maribeth, can you...this gentleman's waited very patiently, so can you bring the mic up to him? And then we'll do that? Or do we only have one working mic? Go ahead, Lori.
Speaker 6 1:00:20
So this is another on-the-ground question. The goal of this collaborative research is to connect science to policy and management. But what are some of the challenges and opportunities associated with the patchwork of policies at different levels, management agencies on different lands, and forests with different burn regimes? So how does it all come together?
Winslow Hansen 1:00:41
What a challenging question, right. And that's something that we're just as a group starting to scratch the surface on and start to learn the landscape and to learn the keystone people. I think, if we're going to be successful, that's going to be the approach that's going to work is to identify who are the bridgers? Who are the people that span those very complex dimensions to policy to land management. Who are the people that everybody talks to because they're known to be the person that can make things happen? And, of course, that's not easy to do. But that's the process we're starting; is to figure out how do we identify those folks.
Joshua Ginsberg 1:01:29
Okay, one more question up here. And then we'll be done. If we've got a mic, do we have a mic? Thank you for being patient. Right here. Thanks very much.
Speaker 7 1:01:41
Hi, Winslow, thank you. Appreciate the work you're doing. Given the trajectory that we're seeing in forest fires, given the drought we're facing, I understand the logic of what your folks are trying to do and it makes all the sense in the world. But one box that doesn't seem to be there is suppression in terms of complementing your efforts, given what we're looking at and given drought at the same time?
Winslow Hansen 1:02:10
That's a great question. And thanks for the opportunity to talk about that. So suppression is actually a really valuable resource and strategy in particular contexts, right. So we've talked a lot about prescribed burning, we've talked about mechanical thinning, but as I just mentioned, and answering a previous question, that's not always the appropriate strategy. And the strategies really have to be tailored to the local fire regime, to the local forest dynamics.
So in our Yellowstone example, for example, those are forests that for the last 10,000 years have have always burned every, you know, 100 to 300 years in big stand-replacing crown fires, surface fire that was very frequent, because of you know, low fuel densities was not normal there. And so those are contexts where going in and doing prescribed burning, or mechanical thinning, would likely not have meaningful outcomes. And so we might have really a lot of flexibility to use suppression strategically, when, you know, conditions allow for us to do suppression to project values at risk. Another example of where there's actually quite a lot of momentum building for using suppression is in boreal forests of Alaska that similarly have had these really big stand-replacing fires every 100 years.
And there, we are already starting to see management experiments with using suppression to protect carbon. And to treat it as a value at risk. And there was just recently a Washington Post article that came out a week ago that summarizes that; wonderfully written, I suggest you read it if you're interested in that topic. So it's gonna be really exciting to see how that unfolds. It's kind of a management experiment at a scale that I've never seen before. And I am fascinated to see how it unfolds. I'm actually currently writing a proposal like, right today, I was working on the car ride down, to be able to study that and to be able to understand what outcomes might be in coming decades using our modeling approaches.
Joshua Ginsberg 1:04:28
Thank you very much. Great question. Winslow, thank you so much. Thank you all for coming to one of the three official Climate Week events that actually talks about fire. Thank you for that fact. And if you have any other questions, you can find us at caryinstitute.org. Or come up to Millbrook and visit. So thank you very much and have a great evening.