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Climate Change is Responsible for Devastating Wildfires

Photograph Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – CC BY 2.0

With large fires still raging around the West, we can all feel empathy for those who lost their homes and even entire communities, as well as all of us suffering from the smoke.

Still, there is a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors about the blazes and their cause.

The timber industry, Forest Service, and forestry schools are quick to suggest that logging can reduce large blazes. Rushing to log more of the forest will not solve the problem, indeed, it can worsen it. Subsidized logging takes funds away from solutions that can protect communities.

First, we must address many of the misguided information.

1. Climate change is driving the larger blazes we are experiencing in the West. Higher daily temperatures, extreme drought, low humidity, and high winds resulting from climate change exacerbate flammability of the vegetation. Extreme fire weather is driving large blazes, not fuels.

2. Fire suppression has not altered fire regimes in most plant communities. For instance, the Douglas fir forests on the west slope of the Cascades now burning in Oregon tend to have natural fire intervals of 300-500 years. Fire suppression has not altered the natural fire cycle at all.

Most plant communities including lodgepole pine, aspen, sagebrush, juniper, high elevation fir forests, and so on tend to experience fires hundreds of years apart. During this period, they are accumulating fuels, but that is the natural consequence of their ecology, not a result of fire suppression.

3. Forests are not destroyed by high severity fires. They rejuvenate them. Large fires create much needed habitat for numerous species. Consider some studies suggest up to 2/3 of all wildlife species depend on the snag habitat and down logs that result from such blazes.

4. Winds are the driving force in all large fires. When you have high winds, it blows embers over, around and through any “fuel reduction” projects. That is why fires like the 2017 Eagle Fire in Oregon was able to cross a mile and a half of the Columbia River to ignite fires in Washington. There are many other examples of fires crossing 16 lane freeways and other areas with no “fuel”. The idea that we can preclude large fires by more “active forest management” is pure delusion.

5. Indeed, active forest management can contribute to larger and more severe fires because it opens up the forest to greater drying and more wind penetration. One recent study reviewed 1500 fires around the West and found the highest severity blazes occurred in areas with “active forest management” while protected landscapes like wilderness where presumably fuels were higher, burned less intensely.

Plus, after logging, you enhance the growth of shrubs, grasses, and small trees which are the fine fuels that carries fires. Removing large trees as advocated by the timber industry is a false solution since large trees do not readily burn—rather is it is the fine fuels like needles, small branches and cones which are the main fuel for fires. That is why you have snags left after a fire—the large boles do not burn easily.

6. Much of what is burning in the large California fires as well as elsewhere in the West is not forest at all, but chaparral, grasslands, sagebrush, and non-forested habitat. So “active forest management” would have no influence upon much of the acreage currently in flames.

7. We cannot preclude large fires through forest management, but we can reduce the impacts on humans. A shift from logging the forest miles from communities to an emphasis on reducing the flammability of houses and communities, planning evacuation route, burying power lines, zoning to reduce sprawl, and other measures can help.

8. The ultimate cause of these large conflagration is climate change. We need to address the causes of global climate change and make this a national priority.

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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