The Dixie and Bootleg Fires: Examples of Failed Forest Policy

The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon spread across 400,000 acres, burning in a mosaic pattern of burned, lightly burned and unburned areas. Photo George Wuerthner.

As another summer of large fires spread across the West including the Dixie Fire in northern California and the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, advocates of “active forest management” have declared that we need more vegetation manipulation (i.e. prescribed burning, logging, and thinning–a slightly less severe form of logging) to control large blazes.  In light of the numerous examples around the West where thinning/logging did nothing to halt fire spread, proponents of logging are now hedging their bets somewhat by arguing this active management will only influence fire behavior. Joining in the chorus for more “active management” are proponents of the social justice movement who argue that we need more “cultural burning” by Native Americans.

All of these proposals are based on the idea that due to fire suppression a build-up of fuels is the problem, and hence a reduction in fuels will solve the issue. There are reasons to believe fuel build-up due to fire suppression is greatly exaggerated. I can’t go into it in detail here, but you read more on this topic here, here, here, and here.

The major problem with these assertions is that most of the West’s vegetative communities including higher elevation pines like west side Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, aspen, most fir and spruce species, sagebrush, juniper, and chaparral to name a few plant types that naturally have long fire rotations of decades to hundreds of years. Fire suppression, to the degree it may have been effective, has not influenced these communities.

Fundamentally,  all the above management options suggest that our ecosystems require human manipulation to “fix” or “sustain” as if the western plant communities somehow were a real mess until humans (including Indigenious people) came along to fix the forest problems.

In the face of climate change, all of these appeals for more “fuel reduction” will fail. What drives large blazes are extreme drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and wind.  We know from paleo climate research there is a strong correlation between extended drought and wildfire.

This past summer, when California and parts of Oregon were under the most extreme drought in a thousand years, a number of large fires raced across the western landscape. The Dixie Fire charred nearly a million acres of northern California west of Susanville, CA and the Bootleg Fire affected more than 400,000 acres east of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Most of this landscape consisted of green forests under “active forest management”.

One estimate is that 75% of the Bootleg Fire had experienced some form of active forest management.  A similarly high percentage of the Dixie Fire also raced through lands under forest management of some sort or another.

One would think given the overwhelming failure of “active forest management” to curb large blazes under extreme fire weather conditions, logging advocates would begin to show some humility.

You would think given that the West experienced some of the hottest continuous high temperatures in recent history, combined with one of the most severe droughts in a century, that proponents of logging might begin to understand how climate/weather, not fuels, controls large blazes.

This diagram shows how even a small increase in wind speed, from 15 to 20 mph significantly accelerates fire spread. Most large blazes are burning under high winds which makes fire control impossible–until the weather changes.

To cure what ails (by their definition) our forests, the proponents are proposing chainsaw medicine.  You have to wonder how our forested lands ever survived before there were humans to come to the rescue and save them from wildfire, bark beetles, root rot, and a dozen other ailments—real or imagined.

Instead, they are doubling down on the “fuels” is the problem, and the cure is more logging.

I had a chance to examine the aftermath of both the Bootleg and Dixie Fires. While I did not examine every corner of these burns, I did see a representative segment of each.  There was a significant amount of what fire ecologists call “high severity burns” where the majority of all trees within an area are killed. However, there was also mixed-severity with some tree mortality as well as light underburn which mostly killed shrubs. And as with all large fires, there was a significant amount of unburned forest within the larger fire perimeter.

The outstanding feature for me was how little “active forest management” appears to have altered the outcome of these blazes. As luck would have it, I happened to visit a portion of the Dixie Fire area this spring. And I saw miles of “thinned forest and even clearcuts” primarily on private lands owned by Sierra Pacific Corporation. There was also past thinning and logging on Lassen and Plumas National Forest lands as well. I wind up photographing some of these “managed” forests which burned in the following summer.

The following photos illustrate the failure of these prescriptions. I’m sure proponents of logging will claim I am cherry-picking a few spots to photograph that confirm my assertions. But maps made by Bryan Baker of Los Padres Forest Watch show how much of the burn perimeters were within areas with past logging.

The following photos were taken near Chester, CA along Highway 36. In each case, the first photo was prior to the fire, and the second after the fire.

In this photo taken about four miles west of Chester, you see the thinned forest, and a clearcut in the background. This is a pretty severe fuel reduction. No shrubs. No grass, No small trees left on the site.

Here is the same location as best as I can find it. Salvage logging has already removed some of the burnt trees. But note that even the clearcut in the background did not halt the fire spread.

Here’s a large sugar pine that cut as part of a “thinning” operation. Typically when you thin, you leave the larger more fire resistant trees.

Here’s the same stump. I wasn’t able to reproduce the exact angle as in the previous photo due to the logged tree that has fallen exactly where I stood when I took the above photo. But obviously from the background, it is apparent that “active forest management’ did not halt the Dixie Fire’s progress.

It’s difficult to see in this photo, but both sides of the highway were thinned. Note the green highway sign on right back corner of this photo.

Here’s the same spot where I took the previous photo–though the previous shot was a telephoto—note the green highway sign in the background.

Same spot a few months later.

 

Here’s the map of the Dixie Fire in late August. All the tan/orange colored areas experienced some active forest management. The green in the upper left is Lassen National Park.

Some are more general photographs of the Dixie Fire. Note that even clearcuts had no effect on restricting fire spread.

And some views of the Bootleg Fire, Oregon.

We are not going to log or prescribe burn our way to a reduction in large blazes. These kinds of fire events are entirely the result of climate/weather. Until we address climate warming we can expect to see large fires each summer. It should also be mentioned that logging/thinning is not benign. Logging roads spread weeds, displace wildlife, are a chronic source of sediment into streams, remove biomass that is wildlife habitat, and reduce carbon storage on the site. Most fuel reduction projects never encounter a wildfire, but under extreme fire weather, they typically fail to alter the outcome of the fire spread.

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

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