Politicians complain of cost then support the wrong solution — more logging

The timber industry, politicians and others bemoan the growing cost of firefighting in the West. The proposed solution is more logging of forests in the belief that thinning will reduce the occurrence of large fires and protect communities. However, there are a host of reasons why more logging will not achieve such goals.

Climate/weather drives large fires, not fuels. When you have drought combined with high temperatures, low humidity and most importantly high winds, you get large fires. Under these conditions, winds can drive burning embers miles ahead of a fire front, making containment efforts impossible. A wind-blown fire easily skips over, drives through or slides around a fire line, and any fuel reduction thinning projects. Wind-driven blazes are impossible to stop under most circumstances. You just have to wait for the weather to change.

Most fires self extinguish. By contrast to the conditions that spurs large fires, some 99 percent of wildfires simply do not burn much acreage because the conditions for rapid fire spread do not exist. These fires, if left alone, would self-extinguish or are easily contained. Monitoring such blazes would be far more cost-effective than outright suppression.

Firefighting wastes money. While politicians and others complain about the cost of firefighting, most firefighting costs could easily be avoided. Large fires can’t be stopped, so pouring money on them is analogous to throwing dollar bills into a blaze, while most small fires will never grow to be a threat so we need not fight them either.

Fuel reductions require maintenance. Even if one granted that fuel reductions “might” be useful in some situations such as immediately adjacent to communities, to be effective they requires constant maintenance because trees, grass and shrubs all grow back rapidly. But instead of putting money into this kind of maintenance the forest service spends the bulk of its limited resources thinning trees miles from any community.

Thinning can exacerbate fire spread. Thinning can actually increase fire spread. Thinning opens up the forest to greater solar heating, reducing humidity, drying soils and fuels. Thinning also allows more wind to penetrate. Any camper knows on a smoldering campfire can often leap to life if you blow on it to increase the circulation of air.

Thinning/logging costs money. Most timber sales lose money — they are big subsidy to the welfare timber industry. Yet there are many additional unaccounted costs that are seldom in any timber sale cost evaluation. Logging roads are a major source of sediment that has harmed fish populations throughout the west. The spread of weeds by logging equipment and their subsequent control is yet another cost of logging. The removal of biomass and the resulting loss of down wood from the forest impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Logging also reduces the carbon storage benefit of forests — and even dead trees if left on site (as opposed to so called “salvage sales) store a considerable amount of carbon.

Fuel reductions don’t interact with fires. The probability that a fire will encounter a fuel reduction during the short period of time — five to 15 years — when it’s most effective is infinitely small. Thus the vast majority of thinning projects are simply a waste of money and cause unaccounted environmental damage.

Large fires are ecologically valuable. Large fires do the bulk of ecological work. One large 100,000-acre blaze will affect more of a forest than hundreds, if not thousands of small creeping low-intensity fires. Most ecologically valuable contributions of dead wood are added by episodic inputs from the occasional large blazes. Even if we could halt large blazes, it would destroy our forests to do so.

Protect homes and let forests burn. A rational economically and ecologically sustainable forest program would confine thinning immediately adjacent to homes, discourage rural sprawl, and allow most fires to burn themselves out naturally.

 

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

4 Responses to Current wildfire policy is a waste of money

  1. avatar Garry Rogers says:

    George, thanks for the story. It is past time that we gain control over forest harvest and abuse. I featured your article on the NatCon News (http://garryrogers.com/natcon-news/) and elsewhere.

  2. avatar Jim Hammett says:

    Great article. The name of the game in fighting project fires is to throw money at it and wait for the weather to change. When it does declare victory. It is amazing to me how few people get this. All one needs to do is compare money annually spent on fire versus acres burned each year. The more money spent, the more acreage burns.

    Tragically, lives are lost each year in the futile attempts to deny natural forest dynamics.

    Not a good investment. Few forest types in the west are not fire dependent, yet we humans ignore that. Protect homes and infrastructure, let fire do its thing.

  3. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    “Climate/weather drives large fires, not fuels.”

    The fire triangle (basic requirements for any fire to burn) consists of heat, air and fuels. Typically when one of those three are reduced so will fire intensity. We do not have control over the first two but we do the third and it has been shown time and again that reducing fuels adjacent to homes and other structures can be effective in protecting communities and other infrastructure. It’s not a guarantee but together with the use of foam engines and other firefighting tools its certainly worth the effort to protect current structures. Totally agree that rural sprawl must be discouraged.

    “Most fires self extinguish”. “Monitoring such blazes would be far more cost-effective than outright suppression.” Couldn’t agree more. Having worked on ~50 “project fires” it became obvious that firefighting is a business to the local economies and saves labor costs from FS and BLM districts when they send employees to work on “off-district” fires. The money magically gets spent using emergency firefighting funds (like its not taxpayer money!). Overtime, extra hazard pay, long hours, paying caterers big money, aircraft etc. all adds up to billions of dollars each year with little to show for it. Never once did I hear the fire chief ask how much has this fire cost to date?

    “Most timber sales lose money — they are big subsidy to the welfare timber industry”.

    Not true on the west coast but probably the case in the Inter-mountain and southwest states. Timber sales do provide logs for local mills (jobs, income, taxmoney) who process them into wood products (since all federal timber sale purchasers must process the logs and not sell them as raw logs”. Trees are renewable and federal timber sales today are a very small footprint on the landscape. If you do not believe me go visit a federal timber sale a few years after completion of activities and check it out.

    “Logging roads are a major source of sediment that has harmed fish populations throughout the west”.

    Vehemently disagree with the word “major”. Today with the use of best management practices and the decommissioning of hundreds of miles of logging roads there are very few instances where sediment is an issue.

    “The spread of weeds by logging equipment and their subsequent control is yet another cost of logging”.

    Weeds tend to be a short term impact of logging (~5 to 10 years) as the native vegetation crowds out the non-native species. There are a few species (i.e. scotch broom) that are persistent and that may need to be treated repeatedly but those are the exception to the rule.

    “But instead of putting money into this kind of maintenance the forest service spends the bulk of its limited resources thinning trees miles from any community”.

    After working for and reviewing documents, it has been my experience that the purpose of ~90% of FS and BLM “thinning projects” are NOT to reduce fuel loadings but to restore and/or enhance forests/meadows for a wide variety of wildlife, plant and aquatic species. Reducing fuel loadings are certainly included in the projects but as a mitigation measure, not a objective. The majority of federal projects with the main objective of reducing fuel loadings are located near communities, major highways and recreation areas. Some are located in wilderness areas and those should not occur!

    “Protect homes and let forests burn”. Totally agree but unfortunately 99% of federal managers do not have the political and social will to allow it. The Yellowstone NP Park Supervisor did in 1988 and he was basically run out-of-town, but look at the healthy ecosystem today those fires provided.

  4. avatar CT says:

    “Protect homes and let forests burn. A rational economically and ecologically sustainable forest program would confine thinning immediately adjacent to homes, discourage rural sprawl, and allow most fires to burn themselves out naturally.” Great last paragraph. Similar to homes in flood plains needing to be built to responsible codes, defensible space and prudent building standards should be a requirement in areas exposed to wildland fire risk. As should be the Aussie “stay and defend, or leave early” policy, rather than the expectation that firefighters should be deferred to and counted on to “save” structures where the owner was irresponsible.

    I have no issue with logging where it makes economic sense. Just as I have no issue with corn farming. But, one particularly irksome argument for me is when people advocate logging after fires, as opposed to recognizing burned trees as both valuable habitat for a range of species, and as aesthetically different but in many cases quite beautiful in their own right.

    There are some areas, such as around Tahoe right now, where I appreciate that there is a gardening, aesthetic driver to fuels reduction, because people just prefer the forest around the lake to look a certain way. As an accommodation to tourism in specific areas, I also have no real issue with that, but then the local areas should pay full freight for that aesthetically driven gardening work.

    One final issue that needs to be acknowledged is that fighting wildfires is a huge economic phenomenon, for everything from the firefighters themselves to the caterers etc. etc. When so many people get paid to “do something,” there will naturally be loud voice from them to do that thing. Caterers should be serving weddings. Wildland firefighters in general don’t “defeat” fires but primarily wait for natural features/fuels and/or weather to put fires out, so again while they individually deserve a great deal of respect, it is unclear why millions are being spent to “fight” something that you can’t “defeat” that will then extinguish when it is good and ready to.

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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."

~ Edward Abbey

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