The Forest Service’s Misguided Approach to Wildfires

Smoke from a prescribed burn, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recent federal announcements declare that millions of federal dollars are coming to the West to “restore” forest health and “reduce” the risk of large-scale wildfire, primarily through logging and prescribed fire.

However, the underlying assumptions of this flood of dollars are misguided.

First, large-scale wildfires result from climate/weather conditions, not fuels. Climate change is fueling the larger blazes. Nearly all the acreage burned annually occurs during the relatively few weather conditions that promote fire spread. Nearly all fires self-extinguish or are easily suppressed if these conditions are not present.

We have numerous examples where fuel reductions failed to stop a fire under extreme fire weather. For example, the Holiday Farm Blaze that raced down the McKenzie River burned through enormous clearcuts, which failed to halt the blaze.

Second, the agency doesn’t count the trees it kills with chainsaws as losses. But research has shown that in many instances if you add the trees removed to “save” the forest lost to insects, disease, or fire, the total is greater than what any of these natural processes would kill.

Third, thinning and prescribed burning are not benign. They often require roads (which, incidentally, are one of the major places for human ignitions) that disturb wildlife and cause sedimentation in streams.

Prescribed burning often increases the growth of fine fuels like grasses and shrubs that carry fires. To preclude them from being a means of fire spread, prescribed burns must be repeated every few years. To be effective, such burns should be immediately adjacent to communities and maintained FOREVER.

Fourth, keep in mind the bias of the timber industry, forestry schools and the Forest Service, they are all committed to logging the forests. Their assessment that large high-severity fires are undesirable merely demonstrates their bias.

These wildfires are ultimately rare events. Of the 1.5 million wildfires that have burned since 2000, only 2% are considered “large” though they contribute to the bulk of the acreage charred. These large blazes are essential to maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. The snag forests that result from such blazes are critical to numerous plants and animals who live in mortal fear of green forests.

These snag forests support more mushrooms, bees, wildflowers, many bird species, small mammals, and even fish (when the logs fall into creeks) than so-called “healthy” forests.

Fifth, while it is accurate to say that all the forest types in central Oregon periodically burned, what is not said is that most of the plant communities in the region only burned at long fire rotations of many decades to hundreds of years. They are not “unhealthy,” nor do they require “fuel reductions.” This includes sagebrush, juniper, spruce-fir, aspen, and all other plant types. The only exception are dry forests of ponderosa pine; however, even in these forests, occasional high-severity blazes occur, so they are not “unnatural.”

Even dead trees killed by wildfire or insects store carbon. Logging removes the carbon from the site and releases it immediately into the atmosphere, contributing to climate warming, which is driving large wildfires. In Oregon, logging contributes more to Greenhouse Gas Emissions than transportation.

Protecting all public lands from logging is the most cost-effective means of reducing large wildfires. The Biden administration recent effort to protect old-growth forests is a step in the right direction. Still, we also need to protect mature forests which ultimately transition to old growth over time.

Finally, the best way to protect communities is not to log the forest but to harden them and prepare for evacuations.

Home hardening means removing pine needles from roofs and gutters, keeping flammable vegetation away from home foundations, and installing devices like roof sprinklers.

These and other methods are proven to work even with high-severity blazes.

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