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Wildfire Myths: Logging the Forest Won’t Save It

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Recently a bunch of older foresters wrote a letter that has been published in a number of Montana papers advocating more logging and other fuel treatments of our forests to reduce wildfires. These foresters all seem to be influenced by the Southwest ponderosa pine model which has infiltrated so much of the thinking of foresters about wildfire.

The basic idea is that in the past, frequent low severity fires that mostly burned up grassy understory and did not kill mature trees were the dominant fire regime in forests.  However, this idea doesn’t apply to the majority of all forest types in the Northern Rockies where ponderosa pine has a very limited distribution, not to mention, that even ponderosa pine occasionally burns at mixed

The basic idea is that in the past, frequent low severity fires that mostly burned up grassy understory and did not kill mature trees were the dominant fire regime in forests.  However, this idea doesn’t apply to the majority of all forest types in the Northern Rockies where ponderosa pine has a very limited distribution, not to mention, that even ponderosa pine occasionally burns at mixed to high severity.

If you start with this assumption, then you believe the large fires burning across the West are due to “fire suppression” not a natural outcome of the normal fire regimes of forest types, and/or changing climate. Below is my response to these foresters.

The August 27th editorial in the Missoulian supporting more “fuel reductions” by Dave Atkins and 11 other signers, demonstrates some common confusion that is associated with wildfire ecology.

While the authors acknowledge there are times when fuel reductions do not appear to work due to extreme climate/weather conditions, they argue that it’s worth doing them.

Even though we have treated tens of millions of acres of forest with “fuel reduction” the acreage burning annually continues to grow.

It’s not fuels that is the problem. It’s warming climate. Advocates of fuel reduction are misdiagnosing the problem.

Like Medieval physicians who bled the “bad blood” to cure sick people, logging advocates think removing the “bad vegetation” is the reason we are seeing larger and larger fires. However, bloodletting didn’t cure people because it was the wrong treatment, fuel treatments aren’t the solution to large wildfires either.

We cannot cut enough trees, do enough prescribed burns, and other treatments to make any significant effect on the occurrence of large fires because climate change is the driving force in wildfires, not fuel.

The authors offer up a number of red herrings. For instance, they suggest that thinning dry ponderosa pine forests is effective at reducing large fires.  This ignores the fact that ponderosa pine makes up only 4% of the forest cover in the northern Rockies. Even if we thinned all pine forests, we would not make an appreciable difference in acreage burned.

Most wildfires, especially the larger fires, are burning in other forest types like larch, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and spruce. These species burn infrequently and often many decades to centuries between fires. When they do burn, they naturally tend to burn as large, mixed to high severity fires.

A further problem with their analysis is that most wildfires burning under less than severe fire weather “red flag” conditions tend to be easily controlled, and in fact, if left alone, would self-extinguish.

It’s a difficult concept for some to understand, but fuels don’t drive fires. If you don’t have the right weather conditions, you can use a flame thrower on trees and you still won’t get a big fire.

Look at the Olympic Peninsula in Washington where heavy rains produce some of the largest trees in the country. The biomass here is extraordinary. If fuel were the primary reason for large fires, we would expect far more large fires in that area. But the Olympic forests seldom burn. Why? Because it’s too wet.

The only fires that are really a problem for society are the ones burning under red flag or extreme weather conditions, exacerbated by drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds.

Indeed, research shows that these red flag fires are responsible for more than 95-98% of all the acreage burned annually. And these are the blazes where “fuel reductions” are largely ineffective.

Even if these fires are not common, they are the ones that are responsible for burning the vast majority

Worse for the advocates of more fuel reductions is a failure to acknowledge that high-severity fires are an ecological necessary.  Many plants and animals live in mortal fear of green trees, not fires since they depend on snags, down wood, and the regrowth that follows a large high-severity fire. In their attempt to control large fires, these foresters are helping to degrade and impoverish our forests.

The way to protect our communities is to reduce fuels at the home. Non-flammable roofs, green lawns, screens on attic vents, and other measures are proven to safe guard most homes. We can never treat enough vegetation to make a serious difference in the occurrence of large fires.

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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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