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How the West Burns and Why Logging Only Makes It Worse

The wind-driven pattern of fire in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Photo George Wuerthner.

A new documentary titled The West is Burning continues to promote a flawed narrative that large blazes are a consequence of “fire suppression” and “fuel build-up.”  Starting from this perspective, it promotes policies like thinning the forest and prescribed burning to counter the large blazes occurring across the West.

1) Fire suppression has created unnatural fuel build up in all plant communities.

2) Fuel reductions are required to “restore” our forests to some presumed “historical” condition.

3) That such fuel reductions are the way to reduce fire impacts on homes and communities.

While all the above are questionable assertions, the documentary gives little emphasis to reducing the fire susceptibility of homes to wildfire, which should be the dominant paradigm driving public policy.

Another problem is that except for Greg Aplet of the Wilderness Society, none of the featured speakers in the film have any special background in fire ecology. Interviewees include forestry professor Jerry Franklin, WELC lawyer Susan Jane Brown; Nick Goulette, a community organizer; Shirlee Zane, a California county Supervisor; and Mark Webb, a former judge, and promoter of mills in John Day, Oregon. All these people, to one degree or another, are advocates of thinning the forest.

Greg Aplet comes to the closest to explaining the relationship of climate to the larger fires and how people building in the Wildlands Urban Interface are part of the problem. Nevertheless, he still holds on to the idea that fuels are the problem.

There are no interviews with anyone who might disagree with the dominant narrative that fire suppression and fuel build-up are the main reason for large blazes in California, Oregon, and elsewhere.

The documentary starts out with the false assertion that the West’s forests are too dense, overgrown, and more flammable, primarily due to fire suppression. It does not acknowledge that many scientists dispute this narrative.

And throughout the film, the people interviewed, and the narrator uses pejorative terms like “catastrophic” to describe these blazes insinuating just because a fire is large, that somehow it is “destructive” and outside of historical conditions.

Yet from an ecological perspective and a historical perspective, none of the above assertions are accurate.

If one reviews past wildfires from a historical perspective, long before there was anyone to practice “fire suppression,” large wildfires were the norm. In the 1700s, there was a summer in Washington where over 10 million acres burned, and the 1910 Big Blow Up in Idaho/Montana charred 3-3.5 million acres in two days. So it is simply inaccurate to suggest, as the movie does, that a blaze of even 750,000 acres is somehow outside of the historical condition. Large fires are infrequent but not abnormal anymore than category 7 or 8 earthquakes is abnormal just because most quakes are under a category 3 on the Richter scale.

Large wildfires had always tracked significant climate/weather change, including long before anyone suppressed fires.  Extreme drought equals extreme fire weather. The film acknowledges that climate change has extended the fire season but fails to connect that extreme climate drives large blazes we are witnessing today. The primary reason for large fires is not fire suppression; instead, climate change enhances fire spread.

The factors that create large blazes are high temps, low humidity, drought, and high winds. If you have these ingredients with an ignition, you get an uncontrollable wildfire until the weather changes. If you don’t have these factors, you don’t get a big blaze, and any ignition is easy to suppress.

Is it more than a coincidence that as we have had some of the warmest and driest summers in recent history that we also have some of the largest fires in recent history? Not if you study Paleo fire ecology.

There is a direct correlation between major drought periods and large blazes. The West is experiencing some of the most severe droughts, record temperatures, and higher winds than in the past. And not surprisingly, we see some of the most severe fires.

This gets back to a critical point ignored by the documentary. If you go back in time, we find that climate always controls fire size and severity. There were massive fires that burned across the Sierra Nevada during the Medieval Warm Spell. And during the Little Ice Age, when temperatures were cooler and moister, very few large fires occurred.

Another factor that is not acknowledged directly is that many forest types have very long fire-free intervals regardless of aggressive “fire suppression.” The movie treats all plant communities as if they follow the same fire regime. Old-growth Douglas fir forests on the western slope of the Oregon Cascades or chaparral about Santa Rosa are not the same fire regime as, say, a ponderosa pine dominate forest in eastern Oregon.

To the degree that fire suppression may have influenced some forest types, primarily the lower elevation drier ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests, it does not apply to most plant communities across the West.

Old-growth Douglas fir forests naturally tends to be fire-free for centuries. Photo George Wuerthner.

The large blazes that charred the old-growth Douglas fir forests on the western slope of the Oregon Cascades mentioned in the film naturally have fire-free intervals of 300-600 years or more. The dense shade and overall cooler temperatures in these forests inhibit fire spread.

The higher subalpine fir forests throughout the West and other plant community types like aspen, juniper, and sagebrush all experience long fire-free periods without significant fires.

During these long periods without extensive fires, fuels accumulate, but this is entirely within the natural fire regime and not a consequence of “fire suppression.”

Burn mosaic typical of larger fires. Photo George Wuerthner.

Another scientific fact overlooked by the documentary is that most wildfires, particularly larger fires, have a great deal of heterogeneity in burn severity. In most larger blazes, the bulk of the acreage within the fire perimeter burns at low to medium severity and creates a mosaic patchwork that makes greater ecological diversity.

For all these reasons, the “solution” advocated in the documentary of doing prescribed burns and thinning doesn’t’ work. When there is severe fire weather, these “active management” proposals fail to influence fire behavior most of the time.

A further nuance is that in most instances where significant home losses occur, the wildfires never directly touched the homes, rather embers tossed aloft by winds, ignited the structures. A close observer would note that when the filmmakers panned the housing losses in Santa Rosa, green trees surrounded the foundations of burnt-out homes. The fire never reached the community, but embers lofted by high winds did.

Under such extreme fire weather, the influence of prescribed burning and thinning is minimal. Wind drives fire through, over, and around any obstacle like a prescribed burn or thinned forest patch.

One of the things that all of the people interviewed in the movie appear to misunderstand is that fire “suppression” to the degree it was successful only put out the small fires burning under less than extreme fire weather conditions. Most fires burning under less than extreme fire weather conditions are 1-5 acres in size.

The influence of fire suppression does apply to most plant communities in the West, including the majority of areas burned in recent years. For example, in California, a substantial acre of the larger fires were in chaparral, which naturally has longer fire-free intervals. When it burns, they tend to be at high severity.

Two points that the above fact signifies. First, it would take tens of thousands of small blazes to reduce any significant amount of fuel across the landscape.

Second, large extreme weather-driven fires are the only fires we want to control since they pose the greatest threat to communities. Still, by definition, blazes burning under these conditions are impossible to suppress.

While the film producers go out of their way to suggest that vegetation removal by thinning or prescribed burning is the way to preclude large fires, they don’t acknowledge that there is much debate within the scientific community about the overall effectiveness of this strategy. We have numerous examples of the failure of prescribed burning, thinning, and other fuel reductions to preclude or even slow large fires burning under extreme fire weather.

The documentary featured one snippet of a representative from a Watershed Center showing a map and declaring how a prescribed burn “appeared” to stop a fire. Maybe it did. But I am willing to bet the blaze was not burning under extreme fire weather conditions, or the weather may have changed just as it reached the prescribed burn. The wind may have died down. The humidity may have risen. The fire may have got the prescribed burn in the middle of the night when temperatures are cooler.

In many cases, the presumed success at stopping a fire because of vegetation and fuel reduction projects can be explained by other factors. One needs to look closely at such claims. Even if, in this example, prescribed burning did halt the fire’s progress, the consensus of scientists who have looked at this issue is that such tactics do not work most of the time.

“The belief people have is that somehow or another we can thin our way to low-intensity fire that will be easy to suppress, easy to contain, easy to control. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist who pioneered research on how homes catch fire.

More than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress to find 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.”

Another research paper reached similar conclusions: “Mechanical fuels treatments on US federal lands over the last 15 y (2001–2015) totaled almost 7 million ha, but the annual area burned has continued to set records. Regionally, the area treated has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”

A third study by fire ecologists at the Forest Service’s fire lab suggests: “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.”

Another problem with the “active forest management” as a solution to large fires is that one can’t predict where a fire will occur. And most wildfires never encounter a fuel reduction project during the period of time when they might assist fire-fighters.

The Camp Fire burned most of the town of Paradise, California despite numerous fuel reductions. Photo George Wuerthner.

 

There are many anecdotal examples of the failure of “active forest management” to stop large blazes. The Camp Fire, which destroyed 95% of the homes in Paradise, California, in 2018, was driven by high winds through clearcuts, previous burns, fuel treatments, and other fuel reductions. None of these had any effect on slowing the fire.

Furthermore, there is scientific evidence that “forest management” can exacerbate fire severity. For instance, thinning a forest can result in drier fuel conditions and greater wind penetration. One study that looked at 1500 fires across the West in dry pine and mixed conifer forests found that the highest severity blazes were in places with “active management,” meaning thinning, logging, and so forth. While the least severe fires were in protected landscapes like parks and wilderness areas, which had more fuel, but burned at lower severity than areas under active forest management.

Chainsaws will not slow the wind; they will accelerate the wind penetration in the forest and exacerbate fire spread.

A careful viewer will notice that in numerous parts of the documentary, you see homes burnt to the ground with green trees in the background. This indicates that the wind-driven embers pass over forests to ignite homes.

Remains of home surrounded by green forest, Paradise California. Photo George Wuerthner.

This is why treating the home, not the forest, is the only reasonable solution.

The movie goes out of its way to feature a number of conservation groups that have bought into the idea of thinning the forest to “restore” it. They argue that small trees must be removed to retain the larger trees in the name of forest health. But many forest pathogens focus on different species and different size trees.

For example, bark beetles often attack the largest trees in a stand. If all the small trees are removed, In “restoring” the forest, the forest’s resilience is reduced. You need all size trees and species as a means of hedge betting.

The climate that produced the forest structure that thinning proponents are trying to emulate no longer exists. The climate that is driving forest structure today is significantly warmer and more drought-prone than the conditions that created the forest stands that exist today.

Chainsaw medicine will not recreate a “healthy forest ecosystem.” We need bark beetles, wildfire, drought, and other natural processes to select the best-adapted trees to the conditions that prevail today and likely into the future. Removal of a significant amount of the trees may dimmish the forest’s genetic diversity, and thus its ability to adapt to changing climate conditions.

Increasingly people recognize that logging won’t preclude large blazes.

Unfortunately, The West Is Burning continues to promote the out of date paradigm that logging and other management can preclude large blazes.

The best way to cope with the West’s changing fire regimes is to build resistance into human communities, not attempt to modify the forest ecosystem. Strategic thinning and prescribed fire may have a role in the immediate area around a town, but the emphasis should be on reducing homes’ flammability. Much could be done to homes to reduce the vulnerability to wildfire, which should be the priority instead of the flawed emphasis on forest management.

The Burning of the West is another documentary that presents simplistic solutions that have not been effective because it fails to appreciate the real problem—human-caused climate change. Until we effectively address climate warming and associated changes in fire weather and fire seasons, the reliance on forest management will continue to be a sideshow that will not make our communities safer or reduce the costs of fire suppression efforts.

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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