FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wildfire Myths: Logging the Forest Won’t Save It

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.

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
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail