FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What’s Really Fueling the Western Fires

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

One of the often repeated remarks used to explain the large fires we are experiencing around the West is that a hundred years of fire suppression has led to unnatural accumulations of fuels.

Yet such assertions assume that fire suppression was always efficient and effective—a questionable assumption especially in the early days of the Forest Service.

Secondly, it assumes that if fires were not “extinguished” they would have burned massive amounts of forest and fuels.

The first assumption is doubtful. A hundred years ago most of the mountainous parts of the West were still largely inaccessible wilderness. There were fire lookouts to be sure, and young men with shovels and mules trying to put out flames across millions of acres of roadless lands. But the ability of these enthusiastic men working with technologically primitive methods to really influence fire spread across those millions of acres is dubious, especially in light of the failure of modern fire-fighting equipment to do the same with much greater technological advantage.

Effective fire suppression did not really begin until after World War 11 with the advent of helicopters, smoke jumpers, tanker bombers, bull dozers and modern fire weather predicting and so on. This, combined with a massive logging road network that is the result of years of over cutting of national forests, greatly improved access and “may” have improved the ability of humans to control fire ignitions and spread. As we shall see even with this massive technological advantage, fire suppression may not have had as great an influence as commonly assumed.

As I have often argued, weather/climate controls fire ignition and spread more than fire fighters. Weather also largely controls when fires actually are extinguished. One point to consider is that between the late 1930s and the big fires of 1988, a time when most fire ecologists assume fire suppression had its greatest influence, much of the West experienced cooler, moister climatic conditions. Cool, moist weather tends to thwart ignition in the first place, and limits fire spread.

So did fire suppression extinguish flames or did a period of moist, cool weather create conditions that naturally reduced fire ignitions and spread?

Cool, moist conditions also favors greater seedling survival which in turn creates denser forest stands—exactly the conditions some attribute to fire suppression, but is more reasonably explained by climate/weather.

However, since fire suppression is the standard response to nearly all fires, we don’t really have many control areas where we can judge how effective fire suppression has been and how it may or may not have influenced fuel accumulation.

One test did occur, however. Prior to the extensive fires of 1988, Yellowstone National Park had implemented what is sometimes called a “let burn” policy. During the years between 1972 and 1988 there were 235 wildfires that occurred within the 2.2 million acre park. None of the 235 fires were suppressed or fought–they were merely monitored. Most of those fires burned less than a few acres. Only 15 of those 235 fires burned more than a hundred acres and all 235 of them went out on their own without any assistance from humans.

I repeat for emphasis–all of them went out without a single fire fighter, smoke jumper, tanker retardant bombing, and/or helicopter water drop!

If we assume that Yellowstone is not that different from most of the rest of the West’s high country, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of fires that fire fighters “control”, “contain” and “suppress” are also destined to self extinguish.

What we see outside of places like Yellowstone is the public perception that fire fighters are putting out most fires–fires that are destined to go out on their own whether we do anything or not. Keep in mind that even with the large amounts of fuels that littered Yellowstone Park in the 1970s and 1980s (there had not been a large fire in several hundred years) nearly all fires went out without burning more than a few acres.

Since the vast majority of all fires go out without burning a significant amount of acreage, it is difficult to argue that fire suppression has significantly contributed to “fuels build up” except perhaps in the lowest driest forest areas dominated by species like ponderosa pine that may have had more frequent fire. However, even within those pine forests you won’t get large fires if the weather is not conducive to fire ignition and spread.

The important point is most forest types in the West are not ponderosa pine. Even if fire suppression has altered these ponderosa pine forests to some degree—an assumption that is increasingly being challenged as well–that does not explain the large fires we are now experiencing around the West.

Blazes occurring in other forest types like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and other tree types naturally have long fire rotations and are dominated by mixed to high severity fires that kill a significant amount of the trees.

Even if fire suppression were effective as claimed, most of these forests would still be within their historic fire regime due to the naturally long intervals where fuels accumulate for decades or hundreds of years in between fire events.

The other thing that the Yellowstone record demonstrates is that it is only a few fires get large when weather/climatic conditions are conducive to burning as in 1988. When those conditions occur, fire fighters are unable to extinguish blazes.

So we have a situation where the vast majority of all fires extinguish themselves and we exaggerate the influence of fire fighters on fire spread, but we take “credit” for  for putting out fires that are going to self extinguish. (And waste a lot of money putting “out” fires that are not going to burn much.)

By contrast, a few fires are impossible to extinguish. We cannot suppress these large blazes even with our massive technological advantage—again wasting large amounts of money in a largely fruitless effort to contain or control them—until the weather changes and puts them out for us.

These kinds of scientific findings also call into question the common assumption that Native American burning significantly altered fire regimes across the West. Not discounting that the Indian influence around their villages and other high use areas may have seen more fire, one has to remember that you can’t get a fire to burn much, or at all, if the weather/climate is not conducive to ignition and fire spread. And outside of the immediate high use areas that may have burned more frequently as a consequence of Indian ignitions, it is questionable whether Indian burning significantly altered the majority of natural fire regimes across the West.

Most of the forest ecosystems in the West had naturally long fire rotations–often along the lines of hundreds of years–that is not because there was no fuel to burn or even ignitions–there was always lightning. However, you can’t get moist forests to burn. And many of these ecosystems do not dry out sufficiently to carry a large fire except under extreme drought conditions that occurs intermittently over the millennium.

Even with ignition sources, combined with drought, without corresponding low humidity, and wind, you will not get a significant fire. It takes all those things operating in the same place at the same time to get a large blaze. Those particular combinations do not occur very often in any one geographical spot.

Thus there certainly was just as much fuel in Yellowstone in 1986 or 1987 as in 1988. There were lightning strikes. Why didn’t large fires occur in any of those previous years? Simply put, most of the times in the lodgepole pine forests that dominate Yellowstone conditions aren’t conducive for fire spread.

In 1988 all the factors lined up in a row. There was the driest year on record since record keeping in the park began in the 1800s. There was the lowest humidity ever recorded in the park area—some days as low as 5 percent or less. As a result of low humidity the internal moisture of some living trees was less than kiln-dried lumber. And most importantly, you had some strong winds of 50 mph or more on some days that drove the flames through hundreds of thousands of acres.

Finally, despite the 10,000 fire fighters that were attempting to control the blaze, what finally extinguished the fires was snowfall in early September.

Most of the large fires burning across the West in recent decades are not a consequence of fire suppression or abnormal fuel buildup. Rather they are the normal consequence of changing climate and the natural fire pattern found in those forest types.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

 

 

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

More articles by:
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail