This article is full of misinformation, untested assumptions, and pejorative language It is so typical of the way the timber industry and U.S. Forest Service have “framed” the issue of wildfire to justify more logging. I added my comments afterwards highlighted in bold

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Grant will fund work to reduce wildfire risk in northeast Washington

 The Spokesman-Review

Steve Parker had two reactions to last summer’s wildfires in Central Washington: a deep empathy for the people who lost homes and businesses, followed by the thought, “What if that happened here?”

It wasn’t hard for the Stevens County commissioner to imagine a catastrophic wildfire sweeping through northeast Washington. (Catastrophic is a pejorative word–large fires are natural and necessary). 

In northern Stevens County, where he lives, Parker has walked through forests so crowded and unhealthy that “it looked like a dead zone,” he said. “If a fire started, it would burn all the way to the Canadian border.” (Dead trees are less flammable than live trees and dead trees are ecologically important) 

Over the next three years, a federal grant will help reduce the risk of explosive fires on 30,000 acres near rural communities in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties. The work also will protect critical infrastructure, such as transmission lines. (use of “explosive” pejorative words–large fires are necessary and needed–and failure to mention the best way to protect communities is not thinning forests, but to reduce the flammability of homes-and zone so homes are not built in the forest-but I guess I would not expect a county commissioner (likely a Republican) to suggest people take responsibility for their culpability in fire hazards)

The Colville National Forest is getting $2.5 million to accelerate ongoing thinning of dense stands of trees and to reintroduce fire to the forest through controlled burns. Up to $3 million also will be available for similar restoration work on adjacent state and private lands over the three years.(This is characterized as “restoration” when in fact it is creating entirely new forest conditions–it is not restoration but degrading forests)

“We all know that fire doesn’t respect political boundaries on a map,” said Franklin Pemberton, a Colville National Forest spokesman.

The collaborative program, called the Landscape Restoration Partnership, is intended to prevent wildfires from spreading across jurisdictions, he said. And when wildfires do occur, less fuel in the forest will result in smaller, patchier blazes, according to land managers. (Again this mythology that thinning will preclude large fires (quite a bit of research refutes this assumption and that severe fires are somehow bad–logging will not result in small fires–no evidence to that–indeed, contrary evidence that thinning does not significantly affect severe fires).

A century of fire suppression has altered northeast Washington’s forests, said Scott Brogan, a Forest Service silviculturist. Dry, ponderosa pine sites evolved with small, creeping fires that frequently burned through the forest, clearing out the small trees and underbrush. Mature pines, and even Douglas firs, had thick enough bark to survive most of those fires, Brogan said. (Another distortion of the situation–first, there has not been a “century” of fire suppression–guys with shovels riding mules did not affect fire size or frequently–only after modern equipment came into use in the 1950s would you argue that fire suppression may have occurred–and a fifty or sixty year fire free period is not outside of the norm for ponderosa pine, and certainly not for Doug fir. Most of the Colville Forest is not ponderosa pine–but other species that have naturally longer fire intervals–but no distinction is made by this FS “authority” And finally quoting a forester whose job depends on logging about fire ecology is like quoting a uranium mining engineer about nuclear safety). 

Excluding fire has led to denser forests, prone to disease and insect attacks. When the stands eventually burn, the wildfires are more destructive. (Disease, insect, and large fires are all necessary for a healthy forest ecosystem–again this represents the timber industry bias of the FS and timber industry). 

The restoration work will convert those drier sites to more natural conditions by clearing out small trees and brush, Brogan said. After the thinning and burning, the stands will be back to about 40 to 60 trees per acre, instead of 200, he said. (How ironic they say they are going to create more natural conditions by eliminating insects, disease and wildfire that would naturally thin the forest–and do so better than any forester marking trees or a logger with chain saw–but they really do not want “natural”.) 

“We’re trying to take it back to what it would have looked like a long time ago,” Pemberton said.

Studies show that treated acres are more resilient to wildfires, said Susan Prichard, a University of Washington research scientist. (Again why should we want to make forests more “resistant to fires–though her statement can be questioned in the first place–which kinds of fires–small fires or fires burning under severe fire conditions and for how long–the first few years after thinning or 20-30 years out?)

After the Tri-Pod fire complex burned 175,000 acres in north-central Washington in 2006, Prichard studied how the restored acres had fared.

Where tree stands were thinned, fires tended to stay on the ground, which made them easier to put out, she said. Where the trees were thinned and the underbrush was burned before the wildfires hit, a higher percentage of trees survived the blaze. (Why is higher percentage of tree survivial the rubric to judge fires? likely we need more dead trees.)

“There were these green islands in a sea of black,” she said. (again the sea of black may be the ecologically desirable condition–greater biodiversity, recruitment of snags and down wood into the forest ecosystem,etc.) 

Prichard is eager to study last summer’s Carlton Complex fires for comparison. Severe weather conditions, with 100-degree temperatures and gusting winds, fueled a fast-moving blaze that destroyed more in its path. But there are still things to be learned about how the fuel treatments performed under catastrophic conditions, she said. (Talk about the use of pejorative words–and this from someone who is supposed to be an “ecologist”) 

About 9.5 million acres of dry forests in Washington and Oregon need thinning to restore it to more natural conditions, according to a recent study by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service. (But letting insects, disease, mistletoe, fire reduce density is not permitted–i.e. TNC doesn’t want “natural” it wants to justify logging). 

About 40 percent of the 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest is at risk for high rates of tree mortality over the next 15 years, according to a recent Forest Service designation. Over the past five years, about 63,000 acres of the forest have been treated. (Mortality of forests occurs in pulses–often separated by decades with low mortality–again this demonstrates a fundamental bias against Nature, and a lack of ecological understanding). 

That’s a start but more work remains, said Parker, the Stevens County commissioner.

“Four hundred thousand acres needs to treated, and treated aggressively,” he said. “We’ve let things get way out of control.” (This is the telling statement–we let things get out of OUR control–we need to domesticate our forests and eliminate the wild)

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

9 Responses to Pejorative journalism spreads wildfire myths

  1. avatar Ernie Meyer says:

    it seems the people is Stevens county and its neighbors consider the rest of the population to dumb to read. they have the same type of attitude towards the destruction of wildlife to benefit the ranchers.

  2. avatar Larry K says:

    You just gotta wonder how our forests ever survived for millennia to grace us now considering saws and logging is only about 100+ years old. I wonder if Parker, Stevens County Commisioner ever walked into a natural old growth forest and noted the temperature difference from the “treated” forest. The only thing driving “treatment” is $$$ (money). Fires are only a diversion or a shield to hide from to avoid using the “M” word.

  3. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    You just gotta wonder how our forests ever survived for millennia.

    Ha! +1 Larry. And the same goes for wildlife too.

    And how do ‘live’ trees (and everything supported by them) = a ‘dead’ zone? Propaganda is dangerous!

  4. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    Thanks for the informative article.

    At the rate they are doing their improvement cuttings it will only take another 30 years to clear the desired acreage.

    Most of the area under consideration appears to be logged in the not too distant past. 50 years does not grow a forest but perhaps a tree farm full of puppy trees.

  5. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    I believe the author included misinformation as well and I will tell you why. First I believe the word “catastrophic” was used to describe the burning of homes and had nothing to do with “ecological processes”.

    While dead trees are less likely to carry crown fires (leaves are gone) they will continue to carry fire much longer than live trees. Dead trees have significantly lower fuel moisture than live trees which allows them to burn longer and therefore continue to spread fire to the surrounding area. In addition, dead trees will sooner or later fall to the ground creating additional fuel buildup and thus more intense ground fire.

    “Parker has walked through forests so crowded and unhealthy that “it looked like a dead zone”. If anyone has walked through a forest that is uncharacteristically dense with trees there is little undergrowth, thus a “dead zone”. Why a forest stand is uncharacteristically dense can usually be attributed to over-planting when it was originally logged, and or fire suppression. Proper thinning promotes understory development and species diversity and reduces the risk of crown fires by creating greater distances of tree crowns.

    “The best way to protect communities is not thinning forests, but to reduce the flammability of homes-and zone so homes are not built in the forest.” The author I’m sure is aware of a nearby community (Camp Sherman) that was spared any loss of structures due to the reduction of fuels (thinning) not just adjacent to homes but within a 1/2 to 1 mile perimeter of structures. The wider berth of defensible ground, the more likelihood that structures will be saved. I agree that homes should not be allowed in non-defensible locations, and that if built, the homeowner should pay through the roof for homeowners insurance, but for existing homes, thinning should be a tool to reduce fuel loadings, ultimately reducing the risk for loss of homes and infrastructure.

    “The restoration work will convert those drier sites to more natural conditions by clearing out small trees and brush. After the thinning and burning, the stands will be back to about 40 to 60 trees per acre, instead of 200. Again, these stands are uncharacteristically dense (see above) and by thinning them the stand densities would be returned to more natural conditions. Natural stands typically develop under fairly low tree densities and at the time some of these stands were created, foresters believed a high density of tree planting was appropriate. Federal foresters have learned this practice is counterproductive in trying to mimic natural conditions and now thin to fairly low densities. We could wait for nature to take its course (hundreds of years) or do our best to speed up the process through thinning appropriate stands. Federal thinnings do not “sanitize” the stands but take care to reserve dead trees and down wood since they are important to plants and animals and provide important components for natural processes to continue. In addition, prescribed fire would further the enhancement for natural processes to occur.

    “About 9.5 million acres of dry forests in Washington and Oregon need thinning to restore it to more natural conditions, according to a recent study by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service”. The Forest Service in the western US is currently treating (thinning) ~0.5% of its land base each year resulting in millions of acres being left untreated and allowing nature to takes its course. Apparently the Nature Conservancy is in bed with the timber industry as well!

    “About 40 percent of the 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest is at risk for high rates of tree mortality over the next 15 years, according to a recent Forest Service designation. Over the past five years, about 63,000 acres of the forest have been treated.” So far 17% of the total land base has been treated and another 3% of the total base is proposed for treatment in the next three years (20% total treated) leaving 80% of the total land base untreated.

    God help us should we be responsible and attempt to reduce the risk of fire to existing homes and infrastructure while treating a insignificant amount of the total land base. The fact that very few federal thinnings are litigated is a tell tale sign that apparently the federal agencies are doing something right.

    • avatar Larry K says:

      I am certainly not a fire expert and I know it is a thoroughly complex science. I would like someone to tell me about my single focused element with regard to flammability of forests as this thought applies: Doesn’t thinning, given it’s mechanical disturbance to the soils and terrain; increasing direct sunlight to topsoil and vegetation; thus greatly(?) increasing evaporation result in some measure of offset with regard to flammability? And is it significant enough to say evaporation has a dog in this fight or is it inconsequential? Just a nagging question that I have always had. I have cruised timber on hot summer days and dreaded having to walk across a clearcut where you can smell the evaporation coming directly out of the stomatas of underbrush and have found the neighboring mature plot was very welcome to walk into for its temperature change as well as moss laden logs. Thanks for any expert critique.

      • avatar Ida Lupines says:

        I’m no expert either just a hiker andn observer who loves that cool, humid, scented environment – I hadn’t read your post before I posted. I wonder the same things. I have the same questions.

  6. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    I still think to describe a dense forest as a dead zone is inappropriate. Forests are in a constant state of change with trees dying, damaged from storms and natural fires, animals and birds. Forests are never dead zones – I would think that the dark and cool forest animals and plants that have evolved over millions of years to live in these cool, dark, damp conditions, and leaf litter which would seem to be discouraging of fires, beside contributing to decomposition and healthy soil! When humans interfere, and want to ‘speed up’ nature, this is when we make things worse.

    It sounds like this terminology actually means ‘not useful for human uses or in the way of development’. We should discourage home building that continually encroaches into deeper forest, and that introduces the fire risk. We should direct our concern about dead zones to the oceans where there are many of them.

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‎"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."

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