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Climate, Not Fuels, Drives Forest Fires and Logging Only Makes It Worse

The Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon with the blessings of the Deschutes Collaborative is busy cutting and degrading our forest ecosystems based on several flawed premises.

First, they assert that 100 years of fire suppression has led to higher, denser stands, and secondly that has created what they term are “unhealthy” forests. Both are used to justify questionable and destructive logging projects.

The idea that a few young men riding around on mules with shovels in virtual wilderness (which almost all national forests were back in the early 1900s) had any influence on wildfire spread begs credibility. Indeed, fire suppression was so “successful” that between the 1920s and 1930s an average of more than 30 million acres burned annually and a few years more than 50 million acres burned. (Today if 10 million acres burn we call that “historic”).

Fire suppression advocates also ignore the fact that for nearly 50 years between the late 1930s and late 1980s, the West was cooler and wetter than now. What happens if it’s cooler and moister? You have fewer ignitions and the fires that do start seldom spread.

Yes, we had fire suppression, but for the most part, nature was doing the suppression.

Since 1988 we have had decades that are considerably hotter and drier than the previous 50 years.

Indeed, under extreme fire conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and winds, you cannot stop wildfires. And that, rather than fire suppression, is why we are seeing larger fires.

Climate/weather, not fuels, drive large fires. If dense forests led to large fires, the biggest fires should be occurring on the Oregon Coast where there is more biomass per acre than in a hundred acres east of the Cascades. But since the Oregon Coast is cool and moist, wildfires are rare despite the abundance of “fuel.”

Under extreme fire weather conditions, no amount of thinning is going to halt or even slow fires. And this is one of the myths that the Deschutes collaboration is selling.

Recently more than 200 pre-eminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived. To quote from the scientists’ letter: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. … However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The letter goes on to say: “Thinning large trees, including overstory trees in a stand, can increase the rate of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased wind velocity, damage soils, introduce invasive species that increase flammable understory vegetation, and impact wildlife habitat.”

By contrast, logging/thinning impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Many wildlife species rely on dead trees for food, home and shelter. Dead trees store carbon and nutrients. When these trees fall into streams, they create habitat for fish. Natural ecological processes like wildfire, bark beetles and so on are essential for healthy forest ecosystems.

The scientist letter goes on to say: “Thinning also requires an extensive and expensive roads network that degrades water quality by altering hydrological functions, including chronic sediment loads.”

If we wish to protect Bend and other communities a greater investment in reducing the flammability of homes and structures is the only measure that has been proven to work. Plus, such work doesn’t damage our forest ecosystems.

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.

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