We Must Change Our Medieval Approach to Wildfires

In medieval societies, if someone were sick, the common solution was to bleed the patient to rid the body of “bad” blood. If the patient recovered, then obviously bleeding was the cure. If the patient died, it was because not enough of the “bad” blood had been removed.

In many ways, our approach to wildfire and smoke is like medieval blood-letting.

People are desperate to curtail the smoke, fires, and inconvenient created by wildfire so they grasp at anything that promises a “cure.”.

The common refrain we hear over and over is that we only “actively managed” forests to reduce fuels than we would “cure” the perceived smoke and fire problem.

Yet despite the millions of acres we have already treated thinning/logging and “active” management like prescribed burns we continue to see large wildfires across the West.

Most “active” management proponents believe the failure of the logging cure is mostly due to insufficient treatment—just like the medieval doctors whose patients died because they didn’t remove enough of the “bad” blood.

But just as medieval doctors had little understanding of the disease and how to treat it, most “active” management advocates fail to appreciate the cause of our large fires.

What drives large wildfires is climate/weather, not fuels. When you have extreme fire weather conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, almost nothing short of a change in weather will stop a blaze.  With climate change, all of these factors are exacerbated.

When we have fires that regularly jump across major rivers (like the Eagle Fire in Oregon that jumped the Columbia River) or the Thomas Fire by Santa Barbara, California that was only halted when it reached the Pacific Ocean (the only firebreak that held), one recognizes that fuel treatments are a placebo at best. They may make us feel good, but they don’t do much to halt large conflagrations across the landscape.

Not only do we spend tax money on inefficient and ineffective treatments, but there is also collateral damage that results from the thinning/logging. Essentially, we lose native forests, and the biodiversity they support and replace them with domesticated human-created landscapes.

Logging/thinning removes nutrients, biomass, carbon, can harm forest stand genetics, and disrupts watersheds, disturbs wildlife, helps to spread weeds, and compact soils. Not to mention that wildfire is critical to many plants and animals which depend on episodic mixed to high severity fires.

Furthermore, most federal timber sales lose money as well, so we are spending tax dollars on a “cure” that at best is questionable, if not futile.

Thus, there is really only two workable solutions. The first is learning to live with fire by making our homes and communities less vulnerable to blazes. This has been shown repeatedly to be the most cost-effective and efficient means of coping with wildfire.

The second part of the solution is more long-term. Since warming climate is contributing to increased fire on the landscape, reducing human-caused CO2 inputs will significantly reduce wildfire over time.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy