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The Myth That Logging Prevents Forest Fires

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The Forest Service solution to large wildfires is more logging, but this prescription ignores the growing body of scientific research that suggests that logging/thinning/prescribed burning does not work under severe fire conditions.

Why is this important?

Because the vast majority of all fires self-extinguish whether we do anything or not. However, all large fires — the ones that are a threat to communities — burn under what are termed “severe fire weather.” These are fires burning under conditions of low humidity, high temperatures, persistent drought and, most importantly, high winds.

If you get these conditions in the same place as an ignition source, you cannot stop the fire until the weather conditions change. Blazes under such conditions regularly burn through fuel treatments — even clearcuts. In fact, fuel treatments can even make fire spread quicker by opening the forest to greater drying and wind penetration.

Here’s a small sample of conclusions that cast doubt upon Forest Service policies.

“Finally by current standards, even our best fuel reduction do not appear to be adequate to provide much assistance in the control of high intensity wind-driven fires. If fuel treatment is the answer, it will need to be done on a level that is far more extensive (area) and intensive (fuel reduction) than we are now accomplishing — even on our best fuel breaks.” Source: Wildfire Cast Management

“fuel treatments … cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.” Source: Gedalof, Z., D.L. Peterson and N.J. Mantua (2005). Atmospheric, climatic and ecological controls on extreme wildfire years in the northwestern United States. Ecological Applications 15: 154-174.

“Extreme environmental conditions … overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects…. This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning…. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

“It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes; rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are vulnerable.”

“The majority of acreage burned by wildfire in the US occurs in a very few wildfires under extreme conditions (Strauss et al., 1989; Brookings Institution, 2005). Under these extreme conditions suppression efforts are largely ineffective.”

Source: Objectives and considerations for wildland fuel treatment in forested ecosystems of the interior western United States Elizabeth D. Reinhardt *, Robert E. Keane, David E. Calkin, Jack D. Cohen.

We cannot halt large fires through fuel treatments. The best way to save homes is not by logging more of the forest, but by implementing fire-wise policies in communities that reduces the flammability of homes.

I suspect many in the Forest Service, and especially firefighters, know this, but the agency is continuously under attack from politicians, rural communities, and the timber industry to increase the amount of subsidized timber from federal lands. Fire prevention is the excuse used to justify these sales.

Plus, logging/thinning gives the agency reasonable deniability. When a fire overwhelms firefighting efforts, the Forest Service can always say we did what we could to protect the community.

It is easier to log the forest than face the wrath and accusations from ill-informed community members that if only the FS had logged more, than the “disaster” could have been avoided.

The truth is that the responsibility for avoiding disasters lies not with the Forest Service, but with individual private landowners, and county commissioners who continuously approve new subdivisions in the Wildlands Urban interface.

But the Forest Service can’t say this publicly.

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

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