The Forest Service solution to large wildfires is more logging, but this prescription ignores the growing body of scientific research that suggests that logging/thinning/prescribed burning does not work under severe fire conditions.

Why is this important?

Because the vast majority of all fires self-extinguish whether we do anything or not. However, all large fires — the ones that are a threat to communities — burn under what are termed “severe fire weather.” These are fires burning under conditions of low humidity, high temperatures, persistent drought and, most importantly, high winds.

If you get these conditions in the same place as an ignition source, you cannot stop the fire until the weather conditions change. Blazes under such conditions regularly burn through fuel treatments — even clearcuts. In fact, fuel treatments can even make fire spread quicker by opening the forest to greater drying and wind penetration.

Here’s a small sample of conclusions that cast doubt upon Forest Service policies.

“Finally by current standards, even our best fuel reduction do not appear to be adequate to provide much assistance in the control of high intensity wind-driven fires. If fuel treatment is the answer, it will need to be done on a level that is far more extensive (area) and intensive (fuel reduction) than we are now accomplishing — even on our best fuel breaks.”

Source: Wildfire Cast Management

“fuel treatments … cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.”

Source: Gedalof, Z., D.L. Peterson and N.J. Mantua (2005). Atmospheric, climatic and ecological controls on extreme wildfire years in the northwestern United States. Ecological Applications 15: 154-174.

“Extreme environmental conditions … overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects…. This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning…. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

“It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes; rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are vulnerable.”

“The majority of acreage burned by wildfire in the US occurs in a very few wildfires under extreme conditions (Strauss et al., 1989; Brookings Institution, 2005). Under these extreme conditions suppression efforts are largely ineffective.”

Source: Objectives and considerations for wildland fuel treatment in forested ecosystems of the interior western United States Elizabeth D. Reinhardt *, Robert E. Keane, David E. Calkin, Jack D. Cohen.

We cannot halt large fires through fuel treatments. The best way to save homes is not by logging more of the forest, but by implementing fire-wise policies in communities that reduces the flammability of homes.

I suspect many in the Forest Service, and especially firefighters, know this, but the agency is continuously under attack from politicians, rural communities, and the timber industry to increase the amount of subsidized timber from federal lands. Fire prevention is the excuse used to justify these sales.

Plus, logging/thinning gives the agency reasonable deniability. When a fire overwhelms firefighting efforts, the Forest Service can always say we did what we could to protect the community.

It is easier to log the forest than face the wrath and accusations from ill-informed community members that if only the FS had logged more, than the “disaster” could have been avoided.

The truth is that the responsibility for avoiding disasters lies not with the Forest Service, but with individual private landowners, and county commissioners who continuously approve new subdivisions in the Wildlands Urban interface. But the FS can’t say this publicly.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

6 Responses to Wildfire Policy ignores science

  1. avatar Brett Haverstick says:

    The systemic approach toward wildfire policy has slightly improved over the decades but for the most part it continues to be a (costly)failure. While we allow more fires to burn (under certain circumstances in certain areas) we have a long way to go in educating people about forest function before and after a fire.

  2. avatar Real Nice Guy says:

    These Forest Service, industry, and state/local fire studies all seem to start with the premise that we want to justify more logging.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      And all wild places seem to managed these days (including wildlife) for the benefit of just a few ‘stakeholders” RNG.

      “a person with an interest or concern in something, especially a business”

      I’d strike the word concern from the definition of stakeholder because now a days, interest, followed soon after by greed, trump it.

      Abbey got it right and these words appear at the bottom of the page every time you bring up the WN site:

      “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 behavior.”
      ~ Edward Abbey

  3. avatar snaildarter says:

    Ed Abbey is my hero, but lately these moron public land stealing anarchist have used his words in a way I’m sure he would not approve of, so lets add
    “Our ‘neoconservatives’ are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell.”
    Also Thoreau (bless his heart) accidentally caught the woods around Walden Pond on fire and burned over 300 acres. I’m not sure what this did to the ecology of the area but it proves that humans even with good intentions manage nature poorly. No management should be the Forest Services policy except maybe to keep other humans from doing damage to the woods and wildlife. Fire should neither be suppressed or encouraged.

  4. avatar Nancy says:

    “Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources–everything from cigarettes on the highway to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California”

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160428152318.htm

  5. avatar Dan Lynch says:

    This excellent post should be bumped up in light of the Fort McMurray fire.

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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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