Logging is Not the Cure: More Misguided Wildfire Legislation in Congress

Thinned lodgepole pine forest on Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. As often is the case, thinning puts more “fine” fuels on the ground which can promote fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner.

Montana Senator Daines announced that he intends to reintroduce wildfire legislation co-sponsored by California Senator Diane Feinstein that, among other things, would speed up and expand logging on public lands.  The presumption is that our forests are “sick” with too much “fuels” that are driving large blazes, and the “cure” is to reduce fuels through chainsaw medicine.

The continued emphasis on “fuels reduction” as the cure for large blazes reminds me of Medieval doctors who practiced bloodletting to cure illness. If a patient lived, it was because the “bad” blood had been removed. If the patient died despite bloodletting, then obviously not enough bad blood was drawn.

Bloodletting typically failed because it did not address the real medical issues causing illness. Similarly, thinning does not address the real cause of large fires.

Under most weather conditions, fires do not spread rapidly nor become large. Most fires burn less than 5 acres and typically self-extinguish or are easy to suppress.

Clearcuts and thinned forests did nothing to halt the wind-driven Jocko Lakes Fire in Montana. Photo George Wuerthner.

However, the fires that everyone is concerned about are the relatively few enormous blazes that burn tens of thousands of acres. These blazes all burn under “extreme fire weather conditions,” including drought, high temps, low humidity, and most importantly, high winds. Under extreme conditions, none of the logging “solutions” work.

Thinning/logging can exacerbate fire spread because it opens the forest to greater drying of the soils and ultimately vegetation and allows penetration by winds which drive all large blazes.

Thinning project Shasta Trinity NF CA. Removal of large trees does little to preclude fires that burn primarily in “fine fuels” consisting of pine needles, grass, shrubs, and small trees. Photo George Wuerthner.

Nearly all western forest and vegetation types, including lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, spruce, aspen, sagebrush juniper, and chaparral, tend to have “long” fire rotations.

Red fir in Mount Shasta Wilderness, CA. Most higher elevation forests in the West including lodgepole pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, and other species have long fire rotations (intervals between fires).  These forests do not dry out enough to carry a blaze in most years. However, under “extreme fire weather” including drought, such forests do burn readily. Photo George Wuerthner.

They go many decades, often hundreds of years, between burns. The chances that any fire in these plant community types will encounter a “fuel treatment” before trees or other vegetation grows back after thinning is very low—practically zero.

Needles, small branches, shrubs, grass, and small trees make up the bulk of all fuels that carry blazes. Chaparral in the San Bernardino Mountains of California. Photo George Wuerthner.

It is fine fuels like needles, grass, and shrubs that burn in wildfires, not the larger trees. That is why we have snags after a blaze and why logging large trees will have little effect on fire spread during extreme fire weather.

Roads are a major impact to forest ecosystems. Sediments from road surfaces degrade aquatic ecosystems, road traffic disturbs wildlife, and weeds invade along Forest Service logging roads. Photo George Wuerthner.

Logging is not benign. The logging roads created to cut trees are a significant source of sediment in streams impacting fisheries, vectors for weeds, disturb sensitive wildlife, are natural corridors for mountain bikes, dirt bikes, and other mechanical access even if “closed.” Plus, dead trees are habitat for many wildlife species.

Larger trees typically do not burn up in a blaze. They continue to store carbon in the snags, soil, and roots remaining after a high severity fire. Photo George Wuerthner.

Logging also releases carbon that is otherwise stored in trees. Keep in mind that even after a fire, most carbon remains on-site stored as a snag, charcoal, roots in the soil, etc., so thinning reduces the stored carbon now, contributing to the climate warming that is exacerbating fires.

Home that is ready to burn in South Lake Tahoe, CA. The emphasis of federal fire policy should be on making homes fire-safe. Photo George Wuerthner.

Are we going to be like Medieval Doctors and just prescribe more chainsaw medicine? If the probability that a fire will encounter a fuel treatment is nearly zero, are they worth the costs?  A more effective cure is to focus on making homes fire-safe, not trying to “fire proof” the forest.

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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