As large fires have spread across the West in recent decades, we hear increasing demands to reduce fuels—typically through logging. But logging won’t reduce the large fires we are experiencing because fuels do not drive large fires.

You can have tons of fuel per acre as occurs in Oregon’s Coast Range or the Olympic Mountains of Washington, and have virtually no fires because they are too wet to burn. On the other hand, we have seen some huge acreage charred on overgrazed grasslands that have little more than stubble to burn if there is a major drought and wind.

What makes the difference is not the available fuel, but the climatic/weather conditions. Logging forests does not change the climate/weather.

The ingredients found in all large blazes include low humidity, high temperatures, and drought. Assuming you have these factors, you can get an ignition if lightning strikes. But even an ignition won’t lead to large fires.

The final ingredient in all large blazes is wind.

Wind’s effect is not linear. In other words, increasing wind speed from 10 mph to 20 mph does not double fire spread, rather it leads to exponential fire growth and increases the burn intensity.

We all know this from common experience. Think about the smoldering campfire you have encountered on a wet morning. Pile on more wood, and the fire only goes out. But fan that struggling blaze, and it will leap into flames.

Most large fires have wind speeds of 30-50 mph or more. Wind makes fire fighting difficult since embers are blown miles ahead of the burning fire front. It is also the reason why wind makes fuel reduction projects ineffective.

Wind drives flames through and over fuel treatments. Even clearcuts with little or no fuel will not halt a wind driven fire. The wind driven fire just dances around and over any fuel breaks.

The biggest problem with fuel reductions is that one can’t predict where and when fires will occur. The likelihood of a wildfire will encounter a treated forest in the time scale when fuel reduction are effective is incredibly low.

The vast majority of acreage burning around the West are occurring in higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine and various fir species that naturally burn at infrequent intervals, often hundreds of years apart. As a consequence, a fuel treatment in such forests is a waste of time because the probability of a fire occurring at all in the time when fuel reductions are effectiveness is extremely low.

Even in drier forests like ponderosa pine that burn more frequently the chances that a fire will encounter a fuel treatment while it’s most effective is around 1-2%.

SO WHERE SHOULD FUELS TREATMENTS OCCUR?

There is a role for fuel reduction projects. The best ones are targeted near communities and other areas of interest. The idea being one cannot predict where a fire may start, but one can predict what you don’t want to burn up in a fire. So focus fuels reductions adjacent to those places.

The most important fuel reduction projects should occur in the communities themselves. Removal of wood piles from adjacent to homes. Clearing pine needles from roofs. Getting rid of flammable building materials like cedar shake roofs.

Reducing the flammability of homes are the kinds of “fuel reductions” that work and should be encouraged. If these fuel reductions were implemented religiously, we wouldn’t have to worry about wildfires in the hinterlands, and we could permit these blazes to do the important ecological work they perform without continual interference from humans, yet feel secure in the knowledge that our communities were safe from wildfires.

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

36 Responses to Wind Drives All Large Blazes

  1. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    I don’t know if anyone remembers, but during the Yellowstone Fires of ’88, they were cries for bigger and bigger firebreaks. However, winds blew embers right across the deep and wide Lewis River Canyon gorge igniting the opposite bank’s forest and think maybe the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as well.

  2. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Large fires, I would think, due to convection, help create their own wind.

  3. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    From what I have read regarding the several repetitive Tillamook fires, the first in 1933, they certainly created their own winds. In an unusually hot, dry summer, in logging duff, a fire started and was fanned by summer winds that were intensified by the fire itself. It resulted in the largest forest fire often mentioned for western Oregon which is usually humid and lightning free.

  4. avatar SmalltownID says:

    I forgot why I haven’t been back to this site in over 5 months. George reminds me.

  5. avatar Kathleen says:

    Our house is, today, in the path of this
    http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/lolo-complex-fires-at-acres-after-overnight-burnout/article_ced732ee-0995-11e3-b3f1-001a4bcf887a.html

    It started Saturday night at midnight when a short, seemingly insignificant lightning storm blew through in 15 minutes. Yesterday’s red flag warning (wind!) caused a blowup and a merging of two small, seemingly insignificant wildfires. We have a steel roof, Trex decking, HardiePlank siding, and yes, some wood railings, spindles, and support beams. Too many large pines/firs too close to the house. A couple of beloved sagebrushes (also too close) that I’m prepared to cut if need be. We’re on voluntary evac, the fire is still a few miles away, and there’s no red flag warning issued for today…keep your fingers crossed.

    • avatar Immer Treue says:

      Thoughts are with you. MN not dry like where you live, but so many balsam fir. Like solid gasoline. Pretty in Winter, deadly during “fire” season.

  6. avatar IDhiker says:

    A number of years ago, east of Florence, Montana, was a fire named the Cooney Ridge Fire. Much of the land in this drainage belonged to Plum Creek Timber Company and, in recent years, been clear cut. After these very large clearcuts, the hillsides were largely replaced by brush. Needless to say, he fire went through the area like a flamethrower. There was no advantage to slowing the fire due to Plum Creek’s logging. I lived only a few miles from this fire and worked on it for several weeks. Thinking logging will slow fires is a nice theory, but in practice only that.

    • avatar Kathleen says:

      Yes, we were just talking about that. A lumber company did a “cut” in our area several years ago–it looked like god took a scraper and scraped the hillsides. Dumped all the slash in the bottom of the gulch. I called Plum Creek to complain and they made sure I knew that it wasn’t their cut but someone else’s…even *they* didn’t want to own it. Well, I’m evacuated now and the Lolo Creek Complex fire is at the head of that side gulch and heading for my home. Not that I’m laying blame anywhere, specifically. We all share it–we chose to live in a rural, wooded gulch. I suppose it was a matter of time. Immer, danke for your good thoughts.

      • avatar SaveBears says:

        Kathleen,

        I have been through it a couple of times, and do wish you well, and will keep you in our thoughts. My wife has family in your area and they are evacuated as well.

        • avatar Kathleen says:

          Thanks, SB. Attended the latest community meeting in Lolo last night. Yesterday was a good day on the fire line–very little wind, hence, little fire growth. They hammered it, dropped 160,000 gallons of retardant. The front edge is one mile from our home now, and they’re going to hit it again this a.m. before dry t-storms and erratic winds (!) move in later in the day. Ground crews have done mitigation around our houses, and today the National Guard arrives. Yesterday, the Lolo Creek Complex was the nation’s #1 priority fire.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      ID hiker and Kathleen,

      Thanks for making this point because the timber country politicians and right-wingers repeat this lie like a mantra — logging clears out the old big trees that support fires and are replaced by “thrifty,” fast growing, green, hard to burn, pretty little conifers that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

      It’s too bad some folks only learn the truth when they are threatened or burned out.

      Please use as many forums as you can to call “bullshit” when they start pushing this lie when the fire season is over.

  7. avatar Kathleen says:

    Thanks JB, & everyone.
    RAIN this a.m. and the high, erratic winds never arrived! The red flag warning is in effect until 3pm today. The fire is 30% contained at its back end, tremendous effort being poured into stopping it at our gulch. Once it gets past that, it’s a clear shot to Lolo. We’re off to get a permit to visit our house.

    http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/crews-work-to-halt-wildfire-from-pushing-east-across-sleeman/article_db7dd30a-0b8d-11e3-976d-001a4bcf887a.html

  8. avatar Kathleen says:

    We have a home, and we’re in it. Still under evac standby, but the fire was stopped one ridge away. The eastern line is secure and holding. Western end and southern flank are in mop-up. Northern perimeter is still burning into wild, heavily fueled, difficult terrain (toward BPA transmission lines). The chopper traffic over our house is constant–they’re loading their buckets & tanks at the bottom of our road. Amazing work these people have done–couldn’t help but hug the firefighter who came to our door today. We watched this Huey dip its snorkel in the tank and load up today (video, under 2 minutes).
    http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/fire-managers-say-helicopters-play-vital-role/-/14594602/21629220/-/1dk2mkz/-/index.html

    We are so grateful.

  9. avatar Kathleen says:

    Maybe this was posted somewhere else today, but it speaks directly to Ralph’s comment above to ID Hiker & me…

    “Many of the fires burning in Montana this year, like those in Gold Creek and near Lolo, are in areas “managed” to death by the timber companies and the Forest Service. There’s nothing for miles and miles up Gold Creek but knapweed and stumps in massive old clearcuts, yet that’s where the fire was burning. The area west of Lolo has also been severely logged, by Plum Creek Timber Co. and the Forest Service, making it obvious that logging as the solution to wildfire is, at best, a myth. Or how about the Copper Creek fire by Three Forks that burned through grass and juniper? There’s no forest there to “manage.” ”

    http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/throwing-billions-more-at-logging-wrong/article_d7a5a562-0e5a-11e3-89a8-001a4bcf887a.html?comment_form=true?comment_form=true

  10. avatar Dan says:

    I don’t get it…you guys want lots of wolves and no logging…how does that add up? Clearcuts feed elk. The majority of the forests in North Idaho would be absent of elk if it were not for the browse producing clearcuts. In Northern Idaho look at where elk are getting hammered by wolves the hardest. It’s in areas that have lower densities of clearcuts. The Lolo and the upper St. Joe are mostly Forst Service lands with low densities of clearcuts. The elk could not take the increased wolf predation and their numbers plummeted which. Look at the Lower St. Joe, the CDAs and Palouse. Large densities of clearcuts and the elk have been able sustain wolf predation without a drastic fall off of total herd size. Look at Yellowstone even with the huge fires. The elk herd has collapsed and so too has the wolf population. So if you want a lot of wolves in these areas that have had a lot of elk you had better support what supports elk – clearcuts!

    • avatar Lee says:

      Dan,
      The argument here isn’t against clear cutting cart blanch, but rather it is against the idea that timber felling is an effective tool in fire control. In fact, the much broader background argument is that long and short-term climate cycles are more important in fire behavior than fuel loads alone.

      As per your math-the reason it doesn’t add up is because you have the wrong variables. “Lots of wolves” is at best an unquantifiable and vague idea, and it’s not really the goal. The goal is a return to intact, functioning, self-sustaining ecosystems that are managed with long-term sustainability in mind. That is not automatically at odds with some logging, but it is why clearcutting is undesirable. Elk and wolves existed just fine before the ax, and there is no reason from a landscape perspective to believe that they can’t again if critical habitat and corridors for both species are protected. It’s not as though elk just sprouted up from the crust of a bygone clearcut.

      • avatar JB says:

        Good points, Lee. I also take issue with the word “collapse” in reference to the northern Yellowstone herd and wolf population. From what I’ve heard, a number of folks estimated the carrying capacity for the northern herd at around 5,000 animals–and there were close to 20,000 when wolves were reintroduced. So there was no question regarding what was going to happen (major reduction in elk), only a question about the mechanism. In fact, those who have modeled the situation find that other variables (i.e., human harvest, precip.) explain all but an insignificant portion (less than 1%) of the variance in the elk population over time.

        And I agree with both you and Dan–clear cuts are not always objectionable.

      • avatar Dan says:

        “It’s not as though elk just sprouted up from the crust of a bygone clearcut.”

        Lee, you are wrong. In many areas elk did sprout up through the movement of man after the ax. Much of Northern Idaho is this way.

        “The goal is a return to intact, functioning, self-sustaining ecosystems that are managed with long-term sustainability in mind.”

        Why does everyone here think there exists an utopian ecological state. Everything is in consistent change with or without man. The earth is based on change and evolving. Your idea of sustainability is based only on your culture and values. A felled tree is an opportunity for something else, heck, a large scorching fire is an opportunity for something else. The only question is, “Does it fit into your ideals?”

        • avatar JB says:

          “Why does everyone here think there exists an utopian ecological state…The only question is, ‘Does it fit into your ideals?'”

          That’s just another way of saying the same thing–i.e., their exists a Utopian state and I know what it is. The only difference is one group is defining their Utopian state based upon history, while the other is defining it based upon their ideas about what the land should produce (e.g., elk).

          I think the fundamental difference of opinion here revolves around people’s views about nature intervention. One group generally opposes intervention except for restorative purposes, the other embraces intervention (so long as that intervention is designed to bring them what they want).

          • avatar Dan says:

            “The only difference is one group is defining their Utopian state based upon history, while the other is defining it based upon their ideas about what the land should produce (e.g., elk).”

            Based on what history? There’s not enough known history to base it on. Fire scars? Is this the history? Fossil record? It’s about 98% subjective and 2% best guess of what was. I find these “historical ranges” intriguing. Historical range based on what. A couple old fur traders? an expedition up and down a river corridor. The history is loose to say the least. I think there is several groups. I live right in the middle of it and I hear every kind of theory on it you could imagine. I think there are extremes on both ends. The only thing I know for sure is nature keeps on plugging away no matter what’s there or what isn’t there.

            • avatar JB says:

              Dan:

              I used ‘history’ as a catch-all meaning the historical, geological, fossil etc. record. I think Lee’s response (below) only bolsters my original point–that the real difference of opinion is regarding one’s tolerance for human intervention and the conditions under which people believe intervention is desirable.

              Lee says: “…elk existed fine before clearcutting which suggest that they can exist and thrive without it as well.” Implicitly, he’s suggesting a policy of non-intervention, or ‘let nature take its course’.

              You, on the other hand, clearly value elk and would promote clear cuts (a form of intervention) to provide for more of them.

              Seems pretty cut and dry to me.

              • avatar WM says:

                JB,

                Have you read Michael Crichton’s essay on environmentalism as religion?

              • avatar JB says:

                WM:

                Yes. Crichton makes some valid points, but loses on the whole for making several disingenuous claims–some that are downright irresponsible. The presence of DDT, for example, is associated with a higher risk of cancer in direct opposition to Crichton’s claims. His essay reads like Julian Simon’s science essay claiming that there is nothing to worry about because people are the ‘ultimate resource’.

                It’s really too bad because, again, he makes some good points.

              • avatar Immer Treue says:

                Michael Crichton was entertaining, but knew enough to be dangerous.

              • avatar WM says:

                JB/Immer,

                I was looking at Crichton more for the overall analytical framework than the details, which he invariably got wrong, in this rather short piece. Too bad he’s gone, and can’t answer to some of the assertions to which we object.

                What I found had most traction was the assertion that “religions” including adherence to an “environmental religion” know it all. And I thought we could all pretty much agree with his last paragraph: “…it’s time to abandon the religion of environmentalism and return to the science of environmentalism…”

              • avatar JB says:

                WM, Immer:

                I can’t disagree with Crichton’s overall conclusion, though I would quibble with his label. Rather than a ‘religion’, environmentalism (for some) is just another form of ideology that can lead to biased processing/reasoning and decision-making. So, for example…

                Teel et al. 2006. Society & Natural Resources, 19(5):447-463

                “The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which individuals process natural resource-related information in a biased manner. Data were gathered using surveys administered to students enrolled in undergraduate classes at Colorado State University. Students’ attitudes toward Arctic drilling were evaluated both before and after they were exposed to exaggerated information about both sides of the issue. Consistent with initial expectations, respondents’ attitudes did not change as a result of exposure to new information. Respondents defended their initial attitudes in rating the quality of the information. Those who expressed initial support for drilling evaluated pro-drilling arguments more favorably and discounted anti-drilling arguments, while those in opposition to drilling tended to favor the anti-drilling arguments in their evaluations. Evidence of biased processing suggests that the provision of factual information may not be enough if the goal of education programs is to change attitudes toward controversial natural resource issues.”

                http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2006_teel_t001.pdf

              • avatar Immer Treue says:

                WM/JB,

                “Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.”

                His rambling on about “edens” is not much more than a rehash of Dryden’s /Rousseau’s concept of the “Noble Savage”, which in an analogical fashion is newly embraced by many with paleo/grain free diets.

                “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”

                This smacks of the religious right claiming that science is a religion to those who embrace science. I don’t know all that much about Crichton other than he was creative, articulate, and adaptive. I think he was also becoming very conservative and a bit reactionary during his later years. He had the opening for pandering to his audience, and in so doing, as JB points out, was irresponsible with some of his conclusions. (DDT, second hand tobacco smoke ( Huh)…)

                • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

                  Immer Treue and all,

                  Right wingers have a long history of trying to achieve some of their goals by manipulating the word “religion.” Sometimes left wingers have tried this too, but not very often. At any rate, if science or anti-relgious views can be redefined as religions too, then the idea of teaching science, but not religion in schools, collapses. Adam and Eve are religion, but the wingers will argue so is the fossil and genetic record of humankind some sort of religion. Therefore, lets teach Adam and Eve to children.

                  Of course, if all collections of beliefs are religions, there would be no need for the word “religion,” but this is nonsense. Science and atheism are not religions. People can have very strong beliefs, but strength of belief alone does not make the beliefs religious.

              • avatar JB says:

                Good points Immer & Ralph. I think environmentalism and religions are similar in that they both provide followers with principles regarding how one should behave toward others. Likewise, they both come with narratives regarding what ‘is’ and how it came to be. The key difference is that environmentalism derives most of its narrative about how the world works from science, whereas religions derive their narratives from some type of religious leader (e.g., gurus, apostles) who claims ownership of the truth. Science is skeptical, self-correcting, and driven by data, whereas religion requires adherence to old ideas–and faith that the gurus got it right the first time.

              • avatar WM says:

                Immer, JB

                I won’t claim to know all that much about Crichton, other than he is a medically trained (read as in science is no foreign topic to him), prolific author, with superior intellect. I have read most of his books over the years. I do not believe he had leanings of the religious right (let me repeat that for effect).

                I think as a scientist/anthropologist and perhaps visionary (he made predictions about computers back in the early 1980’s), he drew some conclusions about the risks of strict adherence to religious “environmentalism” and the companion desire to go back to Eden (or “Utopia” on this thread which is what got me to thinking of Crichton’s theory). He would say there never was a Utopia/Eden, the way we want to think of it, romantically. That is why I brought up the topic.

                I won’t post the link, but you can find an interview on Youtube in which he discusses this – search words (Crichton + unpopular truth), should get you to it. Listen carefully to what he is really saying. I think an interesting conversation would have resulted between Crichton and the late Joseph Campbell, theology professor at Sarah Lawrence college, and author of the PBS series “The Power of Myth.” I think they would have agreed on many points.

                By the way, I am still trying to make up my mind about how I feel about Crichton’s characterization, as an early disciple of “environmentalism.” I do acknowledge there is a strong temptation to rush to a “fundamentalist view of environmentalism.” It appeals to a lot of folks on this forum. It is a shelter from change, and I too feel comfortable there, but I know that is not possible in a world of 7 billion people. Note Crichton’s critical summary comment about national parks (He doesn’t elaborate but I would suggest there is a conflict between preservation objectives and excessive visitor use and land use impacts).

                By the way, I bet Crichton would have adjusted his views on global warming/climate change (he acknowledged it was happening, but questioned causes,how much and whether we have the ability to change it) from 2008 to present, as more information (objective and science based) has become available.

        • avatar Lee says:

          ““It’s not as though elk just sprouted up from the crust of a bygone clearcut.”

          Lee, you are wrong. In many areas elk did sprout up through the movement of man after the ax. Much of Northern Idaho is this way.””

          Dan, I meant this in a much more fundamental manner and should have clarified; elk populations certainly increase due clearcutting in many circumstances, but elk existed fine before clearcutting which suggest that they can exist and thrive without it as well. In fact, there is plenty of reason to suspect that population increases of this nature are bad for herbivores and the systems they rely on. I will point to eastern white-tail as an example.

          As per utopia, I never intimated that this has anything to do with the such. But fine, I am willing to admit that there is an aesthetic component. I would rather have clean gravel beds full of redds, and aspen groves that aren’t decimated by out of balance herbivores. But, it’s also about more than aesthetics because we are also biological entities and we also fundamentally depend on these systems. Any good restoration ecologist is willing to admit that identifying reference states for restoring systems is difficult and somewhat objective, but it’s only about our culture and values in so far as we love this landscape and don’t want to see it turned into an industrial wasteland. As for the argument that massive human disturbance on the landscape is simply a part of evolution…well, everything may change with or without humans, but we have the collective ability to at least try to ensure that it keeps changing with us rather than without us. Also, my idea of sustainability is at least, in part, based on math and I think that’s fine.

  11. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who don’t know any better.

    I think he exaggerated – but he did make this good point.

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Quote

‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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