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Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests

We often hear that our forests are “unhealthy” and among the indicators of forest ill-health are large acreages burning in wildfires. However, if you look back a few centuries or more, you find that we have a fire deficit.

Many paleoclimate studies document major wildfires long before there was “fire suppression.”

Indeed, one study by Martin and Stephens estimated that in pre-contact days, between 5.5-19 million acres burned annually in California alone. That is more acreage than typically burns in the entire United States, except for particularly dry years.

Or how about the 1910 Big Burn that charred 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana, long before there was any effective firefighting ability?

The very time when many suggest we had “successful” fire suppression is also a period between the late 1930s and 1980 when the climate was cooler and moister. What happens when you have cooler, moister conditions? Well, you have fewer ignitions and less fire spread.

Basically, when the climate is cool and moist, Nature puts out fires and we take credit for the deed. When the climate is dry, hot, and windy, Nature defeats our best efforts to control blazes.

Any fire scientist will tell you that major factors in large fires include major drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. These factors are driving large wildfires, not fuels.

The same factors are also responsible for the beetle kill and other natural agents of change.

Furthermore, dead trees are less flammable than live trees. Most of the acreage burned annually occurs in green forests which have an abundance of flammable resin soaked fine burnable materials like needles and cones. The bole of trees does not readily burn which is why you have snags left after a fire. So, a forest of dead snags is less combustible than a green, drought-stressed forest.

Another misleading idea conveyed by proponents of logging is that fire suppression has affected all forest stands. To degree that fire suppression has played any role in expanding fire acreage burned, it only applies to the lowest, driest ponderosa pine forests. All other plant communities including lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, even juniper and sagebrush naturally have long intervals between blazes, often running into the hundreds of years.

Therefore, even if fire suppression were effective — an increasingly contested assumption — most forest types are well within their historic fire regimes and do not need “restoration.”

Finally, logging the forests does not restore our forest ecosystems. Forest ecosystems depend on episodic and periodic high mortality from wildfire, bugs, drought and other factors. Many plants and animals depend on the dead logs and down wood for their survival and live in mortal fear of “green” forests.

A healthy forest ecosystem is one dominated by occasional large high severity fires, major beetle outbreaks and high mortality from occasional severe drought. Assertions to the contrary demonstrate a failure to understand science and ecology.

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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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