We Can’t Log Our Way to Fewer Forest Fires

In a meeting in Bozeman, Montana, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) once again opined that more “active” forest management (read logging) would reduce wildfires.

This may make “intuitive” sense to some, but I can also show you that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and “intuitively” argue that the sun circles the Earth. We all know that the Earth circles the sun despite the daily apparent movement of the sun across the sky.

What Daines and other “active” management supporters fail to realize is that climate/weather, not fuels, is what drives large fires. When we have drought, with the right combination of low humidity, high temperatures and especially wind, you get fires.

If you have cool, moist conditions, you don’t get fires. This is why the coastal forests in Alaska where it rains nearly all summer almost never experience wildfires despite the fact that they harbor far more biomass (read fuel) than anything here in the Rockies.

Furthermore, live trees, particularly in a drought when fires occur, are more incendiary than dead trees. Green trees have fine fuels of flammable, resin-packed needles and branches, which are what burns in a blaze–the main tree bole typically does not burn well which is why we get snags after a fire.

This is not hidden science. There is much in the scientific literature that finds under extreme fire weather thinning and active management either make no difference in fire occurrence, nor will reduce the likelihood of fire spread.

For instance, when I Google bark beetles and wildfire, I immediately come to a study published by the Ecological Society of America titled “Does wildfire likelihood increase following insect outbreaks in conifer forests?”

The article states: “research shows that high-severity blazes typically occur under extreme fire weather, where research again suggests, logging and other “vegetation treatments” like prescribed burning are ineffective at halting wind-driven fires.”

Another study concluded that “Managing forest fuels is often invoked in policy discussions as a means of minimizing the growing threat of wildfire to ecosystems and WUI communities across the West. However, the effectiveness of this approach at broad scales is limited….the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming”

A paper published by forest service researchers concluded: “Extreme environmental conditions . ..overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. . .. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

A study published in 2016 looked at the relationship between “active” management and wildfire severity. “We investigated the relationship between protected status and fire severity applied to 1500 fires affecting 9.5 million hectares between 1984 and 2014 in pine (Pinus ponderosa, Pinus jeffreyi) and mixed-conifer forests of western United States… We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”

I could go on with numerous examples that conclude that “active” management (read logging), yet many politicians continue to harp on the idea that we need more logging, and almost never acknowledge that climate/weather is what drives our wildfires. In the era of warming climate and drought is it any wonder we are seeing more fires. Not if you know much about fire science.

Instead of hiding behind the false assertion that they are improving forest health and the flawed idea that logging will reduce wildfires, politicians like Senator Daines would serve us all better if did what he could to reduce Greenhouse Gases and climate warming, along with helping communities to protect themselves by reducing the flammability of homes. We cannot log our way to fewer 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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