The Holiday Farm Fire and Industrial Logging

The Holiday Farm Fire began on September 7, 2020. The fire charred 173,000 acres along the McKenzie River Valley in western Oregon’s Cascade Range, possibly due to a fallen power line. The fire destroyed over 400 homes.

Clearcuts along the McKenzie River wihtin the perimeter of the Holiday Farm Fire.  Look at the lower right corner for the blue color of Cougar Reservior in both images. Note the green (unburned or lightly burned) in the northeast corner of the burn perimeter where ther is no significant logging evident.

Most of the area within the fire’s perimeter had been extensively logged, providing an excellent actual life model of why “fuel reductions” and “active forest management” are ineffective when there is extreme fire weather. Between September 8 and 9th, the fire grew to over 105,000 acres, driven by high winds. Here is a link to a video taken on September 10 of the community of Blue River, which was destroyed by the blaze.

Labor Day fire smoke filling the valleys below the high peaks of the Three Sisters Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

Ironically, I was backpacking in the nearby Three Sisters Wilderness when the fire blew up. I recall how the night before, the winds were approaching gale force where I was camped and given the extended drought conditions, I was not surprised to wake up and find smoke filling the valleys.

We are continuously besieged with assertions that if we only logged more and treated more area for fuel reductions, large blazes like the Holiday Farm Fire would not occur.

There is a widespread perception, especially among rural residents, that “active forest management” or logging can be used to preclude large fires.

Kim Greene, mayor of the nearby town of Weed, which saw similar destruction during the Boles fire in 2014, shared a similar sentiment.

“Our slogan in Weed is, ‘You can log it, you can graze it, or burn it down,’” she said. “The state of California chooses to burn it down.”

The 2021 Dixie Fire charred more than 900,000 acres in northern California. Much of the land was private timberland that had been previously logged. Here a clearcut did not appear to slow the fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner 

The problem with such assertions is that it isn’t supported by science or simple observation. If more of these residents traveled to view the large blazes that dot the state, they might come to the conclusion I have, which says logging doesn’t stop large fires. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest there is higher burn severity in previously logged areas.

Logging along the McKenzie River and Holiday Farm Fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

One might wonder why that is. There are a host of reasons if you understand fire ecology principles.  Extreme fire weather negates treatments that might work under moderate fire weather conditions. For every 1-degree rise, we see a 25 times rise in fire spread. The same rapid increase in fire spread is also due to higher wind speeds.

A blaze raced across clearcut within the Biscuit Fire in Southwest Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

First, logging opens the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to dry out vegetation.

Second, opening up the forest with logging permits greater wind penetration, and the wind is one of the most critical factors in all large blazes. Wind’s effect on fire spread is not linear but exponential.

Third, what burns in a forest fire isn’t the forest. That is why you have snags left after a blaze. What burns in all fires are the “fine fuels” or grass, shrubs, small branches, cones, and the like.

Opening up the forest with the logging not only stimulates the growth of such vegetation but logging itself tends to favor the spread of highly flammable weeds.

In addition, logging roads become linear corridors for hot air to race through a forested area, preheating vegetation before flames arrive to burn it.

The stimulation of burnable vegetation by “active forest management,” including prescribed and cultural burning, is frequently overlooked.

Here is an area treated by prescribed burning two years ago, and what it looks like today. The abundance of grass fine fuel would easily carry a flame under wind-driven conditions. Photo George Wuerthner 

While prescribed fire can reduce fine fuels temporarily, usually 2-4 years.  Research has documented that the biomass of fine fuels tends to increase after prescribed burning. Unless you treat the area with additional burning every few years to reduce the new growth, you often wind up with more burnable material after treating it with prescribed fire than before. The probability that a fire will actually encounter a treated area is also extremely low—so most treatments have no influence on wildfire spread.

Peak completely shaved of trees burned during the Holiday Farm Fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

For all these reasons, numerous studies have shown that high severity fire is more likely in Industrial forests than in untouched lands such as wilderness or parks. In particular, the plantations that the timber industry planted after logging are especially vulnerable to fires.

Here are some photos of the area charred by the Holiday Farm Fire. Note the abundance of clearcuts and logged areas. If logging made anyplace resistant to wildfire, the McKenzie River Valley would be exhibit A. But instead of slowing fires, the past logging and active forest management fed a wind-driven blaze across tens of thousands of acres.

I have similar images from many other large blazes across the West: the Dixie Fire, Bootleg Fire, Jocko Lakes Fire, and even the Camp Fire that overwhelmed Paradise, California. All fires burned through extensive areas of past logging.

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