Sprawling Into the Inferno

Photograph Source: Oregon Department of Transportation – CC BY 2.0

One of the most significant factors in wildfire home losses is unrestricted development outside of communities. The attitude that it’s my land, and I can do whatever I want with it dominates Western land use philosophy and policies.

Resistance to land use planning and zoning has complicated effective community protection.

Inappropriate development in the hinterlands, in turn, drives federal logging programs. Traditional fire risk reduction almost invariably relies upon fire suppression and hazardous fuel reduction (euphemism for logging) as the primary mechanisms for safeguarding communities.

The problem with logging as a community safety strategy is that one cannot predict where a fire may start, and wildfires seldom encounter most “fuel reductions” during the period when they might potentially slow a blaze. In some cases, logging even enhances fire spread by opening the forest to greater drying and wind penetration, which promotes fire spread.

Despite the huge investment of federal dollars in fuel reductions, wildfires continue to burn individual homes and even entire communities. The Camp Fire, which reduced to rubble 19,000 structures in Paradise, California, is a case in point.

The forestlands surrounding Paradise had been commercially logged, including “hazardous fuel reductions,” which still failed to slow the Camp Fire propelled by hurricane-force winds. Most structures destroyed by wildfire result from embers lofted over logged areas, prescribed burns, and other fuel reductions.

As Dr. Jack Cohen explains, wildfires and extreme fire conditions are inevitable, but losing homes to wildfire is not. Cohen’s research suggests that fuel reductions of more than 100 feet from a house provide no additional benefit.

Nevertheless, Congress has embraced the logging juggernaut. The Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction bills devote substantial funding to prioritize logging as the dominant wildfire policy. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has gone further and introduced into Congress the “Wildfire Resilient Communities Act,” which allots $30 billion to fuel reductions.

In the end, the public gets no benefit from logging projects but gets all the negatives, which include disruption of wildlife, spread of weeds, sedimentation into streams from logging roads, loss of biomass, reduction in carbon storage, and numerous other impacts, not to mention most Forest Service timber sales lose money.

One of the most cost-effective ways to reduce home losses is to limit house construction in what is known as the Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI). Houses built in low-density areas along the border of woodlands or even grasslands are difficult for firefighters to defend and are most vulnerable to human-ignitions which are the primary source of fire starts.

One study found that of the three major ways residential development occurs—infill, expansion, or leapfrog— Infill offered the best and most cost-effective means of reducing vulnerability to wildfires. Infill drives development towards vacant land within existing urban areas. Not only does this reduce the costs of providing services to scattered subdivisions and isolated homes, but infill lowers fire risk, particularly compared to “leapfrog development.”

Researchers have concluded that “human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.” We can expect climate change to increase wildfires. We cannot log out way out of this situation. Climate warming, particularly vapor deficit, rapidly dries vegetation, enhancing fire spread.

In essence, the Forest Service logging juggernaut is misguided at best and corrupt at worst.

The best way to safeguard communities isn’t spending billions on logging. Instead, our best strategy is to emphasize land use planning, limit development in the WUI, and invest in home hardening of communities.

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