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Good Fire / Bad Fire: a False Paradigm

Active forest management on private timberland just west of Chester, CA which was overrun by the Dixie Fire. Photo George Wuerthner.

There has been a spate of pronouncements from politicians as different politically as Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines to California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom arguing that we need more “active forest management” to reduce “fuel” as a means of precluding large blazes.

The assumption is that fuels are the problem is widespread and repeated over and over by the media and agency folks so this mantra is nearly internalized in the public mind.

A new twist on the same theme is the left’s social justice movement new found interest in Native American burning, which many suggest was a “good fire”that reduced fuels and thus prevented large fires.

All of these themes whether from the political right or the left assume there are “good fires” that burned frequently or logging that can reduce fuels to “save” forests from “bad” fires that kill trees and burn tens of thousands of acres.

An example of what “active forest management advocates call a “good fire” which consumes fuels, but does not kill trees. Photo George Wuerthner.

But it’s not a “good fire” vs. “bad fire” issue. There have always been large high severity fires in the past. For instance, the 1910 Big Burn that charred 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before there was any effective “fire suppression” fuel build-up. And during the summer of 1710 it is estimated that up to 10 million acres (or a third of what is now the state of Washington) burned. I might note this occurred even with Indian burning.

This reflects paleoclimate studies that show a strong relationship between decades, even centuries of severe drought, warm temperatures, and low humidity overlapping with significant evidence of burning.

We have evolutionary evidence for the occurrence of large high severity blazes in the numerous species of wildlife and plants like the blackback woodpecker that flourish in the snag habitat created by such fires.

Could fire suppression and fuel buildup exacerbate the situation? Perhaps a little, particularly in dry pine forests, but not in most forest types which typically have long fire rotations of many decades to hundreds of years.

Most of the acreage burning in the West is occurring in tree and shrub communities that naturally burn significant acreage when climate/weather conditions are favorable for a large active fire.

But we don’t need to look at the paleoclimate fire studies to know that climate is the driving force in the current fire. And we have ample evidence of the failure of “active forest management” to preclude large blazes.

Despite thousands of acres of “active forest management” the Camp Fire burned down 19,000 homes and was responsible for 87 deaths. Photo George Wuerthner.

The community of Paradise, California was almost entirely surrounded by clearcuts, hazardous “fuel reductions”, and even recent fires, that presumably reduced fuels.  Yet the Camp Fire destroyed more than 19,000 structures in the town.

The Holiday Farm Fire that overran the western slope of the Oregon Cascades last September burned almost entirely in commercial timberlands and heavily logged public lands.

Map of Bootleg Fire. All of the colored areas on the map were actively managed in one fashion or another. Map by Byant Baker.

This summer, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, has chewed through over 413,000 acres so far. Mapping of the fire’s footprint suggests that 75% of these lands have been treated with active management that includes logging/thinning, prescribed burns, or grazing. In other words, the area is a poster child of “active forest management” and yet continues to blaze away unabetted.

Map of the Dixie Fire near Chester, CA. The colored area previously experienced “active forest management.” Map by Bryant Baker.

Similarly, the Dixie Fire in northern California has charred over 435,000 acres with again most of the lands under “active forest management.”

Thinned timber stand I photographed in May of 2021 since overrun by the Dixie Fire near Chester, CA. Photo George Wuerthner.

There are common factors in all these fires. They are places that have experienced significant “fuel removal” by “active forest management” And they are burning under severe drought, with high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. This is the recipe for large, unstoppable fires.

So why do we continue to hear assertions that active forest management is the solution?

The politicians and agencies are responding to the public demand that something be done to curb large blazes. Logging is something tangible. You can see it on the ground, and even if it doesn’t work, it gives the perception that the government and agencies like the Forest Service are responding. When you are desperate you are willing to try anything that “might” work. Indeed, a survey in May of adults found 4% admitted to drinking diluted bleach to fight covid.

My response is to follow the money. There is a famous line from the writer Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Many forestry schools get a portion of their funding from the timber industry. Forestry schools were established to serve the timber industry. If you are a forestry professor, you know enough not to bite the hand that feeds you.

Similarly, the Forest Service, like all bureaucracies wants to grow and thrive. Promoting logging and fire fighting are two things the agency can do and activities that Congress will fund.

And the politicians don’t know anything about fire ecology, so they are taking their cues from the presumed “experts” namely the foresters and agencies and of course responding to their constituents.

None of these people are evil or dishonest. Many probably believe that active management is effective. But at the same time, they are often reluctant to admit that something they have been promoting for decades doesn’t work. If active forest management of 75% of the Bootleg Fire area didn’t stop the fires, well it’s just that we didn’t’ log enough. We are all that way.

Fuel build-up or limited logging, grazing, or even a lack of Indian burning is not the issue—all of these are in one form or another part of the “fuels” are the problem and “good fire-“bad fire” paradigm.

The ultimate force driving large wildfires is a warming climate.

Either we learn to live with large blazes, or we must get serious about reducing climate warming.

If we don’t deal with climate change, fuel reductions will only exacerbate the situation. Remember another famous quip: Nature bats last.