The Fire Suppression Myth

Air tanker dropping flame retardant. Photo: US Forest Service.

The notion that fire suppression is the reason for large mega fires ignores the influence of climate/weather on blazes and thus leads to poor public policy.

We are continuously bombarded with the message that 100 years of fire suppression and lack of logging drive large blazes. The fire suppression myth is a convenient excuse for the timber industry and the Forest Service to justify logging and prescribed burning. However, it is questionable whether such policies significantly influence the occurrence of large blazes.

Considering that most firefighting before World War 11 consisted of men riding mules in remote wilderness areas armed with a few shovels and axes as the main fire suppression force, the actual influence on wildfire was insignificant.

Early fire fighters armed with shovels and axes, traveling on mules, had little significant influence on the spread of wildfires.

It was only after WW11 that fire suppression was possible. Armed with helicopters, air tankers, bulldozers, and smoke jumpers to allow humans to control smaller wildfires. However, these blazes typically burn a few acres and have little impact on the landscapes.

Though modern fire suppression efforts may have reduced the spread of some fire, it has not reduced the occurrence of the 1% of large and extreme wildfires that are responsible for 90% of the total damage caused by wildfires.

What drives large blazes isn’t fuel. You can have all the fuel in the world, but you will not get a significant blaze if you don’t have the right climate-weather conditions. The conditions that create large fires include severe drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and, most importantly, high winds.

One study found that high winds were the main factor in 90% of the large fires. The Camp Fire that charred the community of Paradise, California burned the equivalent of one football field a second.

And wind tossed embers are responsible for 90% of the structural losses across the West.

I have visited dozens upon dozens of large blazes across the West, and I know of no exceptions to the generalization that climate/weather is the driving force behind significant wildfires.

The recent wet winter in California is a perfect example of the influence of climate/weather on fire. According to state data, California received 141 percent of its average annual rainfall during the most recent water year. The state’s snowpack this spring reached the deepest level recorded in at least 40 years. Not surprisingly, only 317,191 acres have burned in California this year compared to the five-year average of 1,509,952.

Consider the long-term effects of climate/weather. The 1910 Big Burn that charred 3-3.5 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana occurred long before significant fire suppression occurred. The large fire during the summer of 1910 was driven by severe drought and high winds. A forester wrote of flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air, “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”

In 1929, at the beginning of the Dust Bowl era, an astounding 50 million acres burned across the West. Today, officials declare that a season total of 10 million acres is a “record year.”

We often hear officials declaring that there has been a hundred years of fire suppression. Yes, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, the Forest Service sought to limit fires, but statistics suggest this wasn’t particularly successful.

Statistics verify there were fewer large blazes between the 1940s and 1980s. But before humans take credit for our ability to suppress fires, one must consider that the 1940s-1980s was one of the wettest periods in centuries. It was so wet and snowy during those years that glaciers in the Pacific Northwest grew more than ever since the Little Ice Age.

Then, beginning in the late 1980s (think Yellowstone fires of 1988) the climate, likely due to human carbon emissions, grew hotter and drier with prolonged droughts. Under those climate-weather conditions, large blazes occurred across the West. The shift in climate is a much better explanation for the increased fire and acreage burned.

Given the current climate regime, we can expect large blazes to continue, and no amount of fuel reductions, prescribed or cultural burning will have a landscape influence on fire. For one thing, few wildfires encounter fuel reduction efforts.

The only sensible response is to promote home hardening and to stop building in the Wildland Urban Interface and zone lands. Other presumed “solutions” like logging only enhance fire spread, degrade forest ecosystems and waste taxpayer funds.

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