Montana GOP Senator Daines recently published a simplistic and misleading guest commentary on a wildfire in the Washington Post.
In that editorial, Daines, like many other misinformed logging proponents claims more logging would reduce large wildfires and he blames “environmental extremists” for delaying the forest reduction projects.
Most of the wildfires burning under low to moderate fire weather conditions either self-extinguish or are easily controlled.                                                                       The majority of all acreage burned in any summer is the result of very few wildfires that are burning under extreme fire weather.
Indeed, the bulk of all wildfire acreage burned is the result of less than 1% of all fires, and indeed, in a typical year, 0.1% of fires are responsible for half or more of the acres reinvigorated by wildfire. These wildfires burn under what is termed “extreme fire weather” conditions.
Many studies show a correlation between extreme fire weather and extreme wildfires. When you have high temperatures, low humidity, drought, and in particular wind, you cannot stop a blaze. And they will burn through any forest reduction, prescribed burning, and other forms of “active forest management” that are designed to slow or halt such blazes.
Witness how the Eagle Creek Fire jumped the Columbia River–talk about a fire break. If the Columbia River cannot halt a wind-driven wildfire, neither can any amount of forest reduction projects.
What Daines also does not acknowledge is that such large fires do the bulk of all ecological work. High severity burns are critical to forest ecosystem health, and productivity. Our western forests are adapted to and have been subject to wildfire for millennium.
However, they are not adapted to the ecological impacts associated with the removal of trees by logging which includes chronic sedimentation from logging roads, the spread of weeds, displacement of wildlife, loss of nutrients, structural components (snags and down wood) and carbon when logs are removed from the forest, as well as potential losses in genetic adaptations to changing climatic conditions.
In addition, like so many in the GOP, Daines is unwilling to admit any connection between climate change and wildfire. Again, there are many studies looking back over tens of thousands of years at the relationship between climate and fires that shows warming temperatures and droughts are conducive to major episodes of wildfire.
Today human-caused climate change is exacerbating the normal variation in weather/climate that over decades and centuries cause wildfire episodes to wax and wane is climate change.
The authors of a recently released Montana Climate Assessment concluded in a recent op-ed: “While it’s impossible to tie any one weather event or wildfire directly to climate change, what we can say with certainty is this: increases in temperature in the last decades have set the stage for drier conditions and more fires. In a given year, warmer weather and less precipitation dries out fuel loads and creates conditions for rapid fire spread. Fire records dating back decades to millennia show a clear link between warmer temperatures, lower precipitation and an increase in the number of fires and acres burned. This situation is precisely what we expect to see from climate change.”
Plus, contrary to Daines assertion, logging often increase fire spread. A recent study of 1500 wildfires in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest found that fire severity was highest in lands under “active management” meaning logging, while protected areas (like wilderness and parks) with the greatest biomass (read fuels) had the least.
The solution is not more logging of our forests. Most of the money spent annually on firefighting is to protect structures and homes. Since you cannot predict where a fire will occur, but you can predict you don’t want a home to burn, the most the most rational and cost-effective way to protect communities is by reducing the flammability of homes.
And immediately we must deal with the elephant in the room that the GOP and Daines are trying to distract attention from which is climate change. Until we make a serious effort at reducing human sourced CO2 emissions, all predictions suggest far more wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the East, and generally greater climate disruptions.

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

20 Responses to Response to Senator Daines Washington Post commentary on wildfires

  1. avatar SR says:

    Timber interests need to be honest that logging is simply extractive and not a forest improvement. I don’t even mind logging if it pays for itself, just like I don’t mind farming, but neither improves forest health. And yes, as noted fire is natural and actually needed by forests.

  2. avatar rork says:

    I suggest that people demonizing fire in order to obtain more roads and logging are wrong without having to bring up CO2, and that climate may detract from that argument. They can be wrong about CO2 on another day and we can let them know then.

  3. avatar rork says:

    By the way I very much think the climate is changing.
    Here was one good article from about a year ago – it’s summarizing a science paper that it links to. https://theconversation.com/wildfires-in-west-have-gotten-bigger-more-frequent-and-longer-since-the-1980s-42993
    Here’s an attempt at science by the other side, largely for your entertainment:
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2016/05/24/new-study-shows-no-wildfire-is-increases-due-to-global-warming-slight-decline-in-recent-decades-noted/
    They claim less fire globally, which could be true just cause land use patterns change. BTW: that web site is notoriously anti-climate-change, and that’s true of most other places that had stories about that article, but it’s the article itself I’d criticize.

  4. avatar Natalie Riehl says:

    Here in the Bitterroot Valley, we had a flock of thirteen Meadowlarks spend last winter at our place. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them in early December, and realized that they hadn’t flown south! When the temperatures dipped to zero, we started feeding them sunflower seeds on a piece of plywood.

    Picture them at first light, when the temps were below zero, huddled together on the snowy board, eating the seeds.

    They stuck around until breeding season, when they had to leave because there were virtually no insects for them to eat. I saw only four honey bees on the dandelions and in our garden; in past years, there had been hundreds of honey bees.

    Here, hay producers are cutting crops two to three weeks earlier than they used to. The old rule of thumb was to wait until after July 4 to begin haying. Even Montana Ag Live (Montana PBS) ran a ran a program called “Climate Change in the Ag World”!

    Daines and his ilk are lying by omission when they do not publicly acknowledge that months of no rain and temperatures near 100 set the stage for massive wild fires.

    Frankly, I think they are purposely burning the Wilderness Areas, so they can come back and say, “There is no wilderness left, so we will repeal the Wilderness Act.” And then they will open up those areas to unbridled resource extraction.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      Thank you for your input and insight, Natalie.

      Like me (in southwest Montana) you are also witnessing the changes firsthand; regarding climate change. Not near as obvious to people living in cities or on the outskirts of those cities.

  5. avatar Phil Maker says:

    George: Did you send all of your science to Sen. Daines so he would be more informed?

  6. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    To change Daines, Wuerthner needs to send Daines a bushel of campaign contributions.

  7. avatar Louise Kane says:

    Great analysis, again

  8. avatar Salle says:

    Tester is right there on that same yellowed page, he’s always been against the ESA so I think he needs to be better informed as well.

    Lest we forget that he was one of two Senators who broke the law by delisting gray wolves years ago by placing that rider in a must-pass budget bill.

  9. avatar Elk375 says:

    “Lest we forget that he was one of two Senators who broke the law by delisting gray wolves years ago by placing that rider in a must-pass budget bill.”

    He did not break the law; he voted to change the law.

    • avatar Salle says:

      The Endangered Species Act states that all remedial actions and disagreements with the Act or any part within are to take place in the federal courts, period. Read it, it’s only 45 half sized pages. You’ll find the info in the first five pages after the “definitions” section.

      The Act is law and making an endrun around the provisions stated in that law by slipping a tainted rider into a budget Bill is not a legal treatment of how the law states appropriate action should take place. Simple as that.

      • avatar rork says:

        I’m no lawyer, but that sounds wrong. It’s famous that you can pass a law that says “and no new law can alter what we just passed” (or that it must be done a certain way) but saying anything like that is just an error. It has no effect.
        Also, say what you are saying holds any water and it really is as simple as that – why no court cases trying to strike it down? Lawyers too stupid?

        • avatar Salle says:

          The rider states that there will be no remedy in the court system to dispute the rider’s decision or intent. If I recall correctly, there was a lot of discussion about it on this site regarding the clause to deny anyone the ability to dispute the rider after it was passed and so we have this ugly-demon-nightmare situation since 2010, I think it was… may have been earlier than that but I think you can find the text for the ESA and that rider which was slipped into a must pass budget Bill, Tester was co-author/sponsor on this site in the archives.

          Regardless of any other comment, I will forever hold Senator Tester accountable for that, not only for what it did then but also because it opened the door for what we are seeing now. That slippery slope is what we seem to be sliding down at this point.

          Research it, I don’t have the Internet time to go there.

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