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Megafires, Climate Change and Industrial Logging

Recently Dr. Paul Hessburg gave his “megafire” presentation in Helena, Montana. Dr. Hessburg’s message has some excellent points of agreement such as the need to limit home construction in the Wildland Urban Interface, and the ecological necessity of allowing fires to burn in backcountry areas. He gives a passing nod to many other subjects that are mentioned, but not emphasized like the value of wildfire in creation of habitat for some wildlife or how climate change is challenging our ideas about wildfire.

However, Dr. Hessburg’s program gives far too much attention to ponderosa pine forest fire regimes of low severity but high frequency (i.e. fires every 10-20 years).

Most forest cover in Montana as well as the rest of the West consists of lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, and other species that have naturally long fire intervals. Why is this important? Because fire suppression to the degree it might have been successful in low elevation forests of ponderosa pine, has not significantly affected higher elevation forests.

When you have extreme fire weather—that is drought, high temps, low humidity and especially wind—you have conditions where fuel reductions cannot effectively slow or stop fires.

Most acreage burning in any year occurs during extreme fire weather conditions because of a few very large blazes.

Since one can’t predict where a fire will occur, most fuel reductions, even if effective, will never encounter a fire. We do know what we don’t want to burn. Our communities. The only places fuel reductions might make sense is immediately around our towns.

The third problem with Hessburg’s talk is he essentially downplays the role of climatic conditions in past and present fires. During the period from late 1930s to mid-1980s, it was moister and cooler in the West due to climate. We did not have any significant wildfires. But this is the era of “successful fire suppression.”

However, in the late 1980s the weather changed to warmer and drier. Droughts became common. Winds blew harder. And not surprisingly we have larger fires.

Finally, Hessburg suffers from the Industrial Forestry Paradigm. He continuously characterizes large fires as “damaging” or “destructive.” He has a green tree bias.

Ecologically speaking dead trees are critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Many species of wildlife and plants depend on large, high severity fires for their existence. They live in mortal fear of green forests. And one of the most important ways dead wood is created is the result of wildfire and bark beetles.

In fact, the clear majority of “ecological work” done by wildfires occurs during the so-called “megafires.” If Hessburg really believed that wildfire plays an important ecological role than he and others must learn to love them or at least accept them.

Climate change is exacerbating the weather factors that drive large fires. Fuel reductions and other “solutions” prescribed by Dr. Hessburg and his employer the Forest Service are doomed to failure. Long term we need to deal with human caused CO2 sources, and reverse the global warming. We also need to cease building in WUI and recognize that we need to accept large wildfires both for its ecological value and simply because we can’t do much about it.

Unfortunately, most of Hessburg’s talk reinforces what people think they know about wildfires. While his presentation has some positive aspects, he misses the chance to change attitudes about fire.

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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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