FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Effective is Fire Suppression?

According to the US Forest Service and many others with a financial interest in logging and firefighting, prior to the settlement of the West, wildfires were more frequent than today. These frequent fires kept fuels low, and therefore, reduced fire severity of wildfires.

Since its inception, the Forest Service has had a policy of putting out nearly all blazes, and therefore, we now have a crisis of “too much fuel” and large “uncontrollable wildfires.”

So, the story goes, the occurrence of large wildfires in the past few decades are a direct result of this fire suppression policy.

The Forest Service justifies a lot of its logging programs to reduce fuels based on the presumption that “one hundred years” of “fire suppression” has radically altered the “historic variability” of western ecosystems.

There is, no doubt, a bit of truth to the contention that in some plant communities, a dearth of wildfires has contributed to changes in tree density, forest structure and species occurrence. But there are reasons to believe this argument does not apply to much of forest types in the West.

Fire Suppression for a Hundred Years?

First, the idea that fire suppression has been effective for 100 years can be questioned. In the early 1900s men on mules, armed with shovels, traveling through miles of wilderness lands of that era, barely made a significant different in acreage burned annually.

Only after WWII when helicopters, planes, smoke jumpers, combined with a greatly expanded logging road system provided rapid access to wildfires, did suppression begin to influence some forests.

Climate Effects Wildfires More Than Suppression

However, the fire suppression theory ignores the role of climate/weather in fire ignition and spread. If you don’t have the right weather conditions, you won’t get a large fire. All large blazes, pejoratively termed “catastrophe wildfires”, burning since 1988 have occurred during periods of extreme drought, low humidity, and most importantly high winds. Under such fire-weather conditions, even modern firefighting equipment and knowledge cannot slow wildfires.

Those favoring more logging of our forests tend to compare the past few decades with the preceding decades of the 1960 and 1970s. That comparison is invalid.

Between the late 1930s and late 1980s, the overall climate in the West was moister and cooler than at present. Moist, cool conditions reduce ignition, and any fires that start do not spread rapidly, and are easily controlled. So, to the degree that” fire suppression” had any effect, it has primarily influenced fires burning under less than ideal fire weather conditions. These tend to be small, easily controlled blazes.

If you were to compare the acreage burned during the past few decades with say the early 1900s where there were decades of drought, you would find that we have fewer acres burning today than at that time.

Why is this important?

Because all large high-severity fires are driven by climate/weather, not fuels.

Most Forest Communities Never Burned Frequently

Even more important, the idea of fire suppression is misapplied to the vast majority of forest types in the West. Most of the forest communities across the West naturally burn at long intervals of many decades to hundreds of years.

Plant communities that tend to naturally have long fire-free interval include forests dominated by lodgepole pine, spruce, various fir species, hemlock, aspen, juniper, larch, and most Douglas fir types.

Their natural growth pattern results in dense forest stands, with a lot of dead fall on the ground.

The natural fire pattern in such forests is mixed to high severity burns where a significant amount of the living trees is killed.

Therefore, it is totally inaccurate to suggest that fire suppression has contributed to denser, biomass laden forests and/or larger high severity blazes. Suggesting the occurrence of high severity wildfire is “unnatural” in such forests is ecologically flawed.

Ponderosa Pine the Exception?

In short, the only exception to this generalization of infrequent wildfire occurrence is ponderosa pine, a tree commonly found at lower, drier, elevations.

Yet even among ponderosa pine, there is growing evidence that in some areas, ponderosa stands experience decades of fire-free periods and occasionally burned at mixed to high severity. For instance, 80% of the ponderosa pine in Colorado’s Front Range historically experienced some degree of high severity stand killing wildfires.

In short, attempts to cut forest density, short-circuit natural events like wildfire, beetles, and disease, impoverishes forest ecosystem. And logging is not restoration, but forest degradation.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail