This site by Chester, California was treated by thinning and even clearcutting (seen in the background) and later burned in the Dixie Fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times on November 8th  (Prescribed burns are crucial to reducing wildfire risks) Los Angeles Times highlights a California study that advocates suggest demonstrates the effectiveness of fuel reductions as a result of prescribed burns and thinning.

In the study, plots were treated with thinning, thinning in combination with prescribed burning, and a control with no treatment. According to the Forest Service, the area treated with thinning and prescribed burning survived a recent blaze with the most negligible mortality.

This area on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon was “thinned”(euphemism for logging) and prescribed burned three years ago. Note the lack of age diversity in the forest stand which makes it more susceptible to age-related diseases and insect attacks. Also, the rapid regrowth of grass has increased the “flashy” fuels that sustain fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner 

While numerous other studies have confirmed the basic findings that thinning combined with prescribed burns is the most effective means of reducing fire spread and severity, there is more to the story than acknowledged in the article.

First, we must acknowledge that wildfire is a natural ecological process, so any efforts to reduce wildfire should be limited to the “structure ignition zone.”

The study, Goosenest Adaptive Management Area, is a patch of old timberland that was heavily logged before it was turned over to the Forest Service in the mid-1950s. Previously logged forests are not the same as natural forest stands. They tend to have a higher tree density. Fire tends to burn with higher severity in tree plantations.

The second problem is that the study results which may be accurate cannot be “scaled up” readily due to costs and personnel shortage. The thinned/prescribed burn sites in this study were five acres in size and experienced two rounds of broadcast burning in 2001 and 2010. To do this kind of fuel manipulation over millions of acres is simply not practical.

Most national forests have trouble treating more than a few thousand acres per year. To expand such fuel treatments presents many problems. One is the amount of smoke that would occur annually during the prescribed burning season that would be added to the smoke resulting from the normal natural summer/fall ignitions. Not to mention, scaling up also scales up the potential for prescribed fires to get out of control and inadvertently burn communities and lands.

Plus the effectiveness of any fuel reduction, but especially prescribed burning, lose their effectiveness over time.

Thinning and prescribed burning fuel reductions often stimulate the rapid regrowth of “flashy fuels” like grass, small trees, and shrubs. This site by Helena, Montana was treated three years before, and already there is a dense regrowth of small trees. Fuel reductions require continuous maintenance and should focus on the immediate area around homes. Photo George Wuerthner 

Indeed, unless maintained (i.e., reburned on a frequent rotation), the prescribed burned areas are ultimately more explosive than before burning. One reason is that prescribed burning by removing or killing some vegetation and releasing nutrients permits the rapid regrowth of plants. However, this regrowth is dominated mainly by flashy fuels like grasses, shrubs, and small trees.

Secondly, think of the problem created by trying to maintain prescribed burning on a landscape scale. Since you can’t just burn an area once and expect it to remain effective, you must return over and over to re-burn sites. Over time, the more acreage treated, the more area you must re-burn.

The third issue not mentioned by the Forest Service researchers is that the likelihood of a fire encountering any treated area is small—most studies suggest a 1-2% probability. So most treated acres do not influence wildfires.

Fourth, no fuel treatment work under extreme fire weather conditions. Why is this important? Because the very fires that fuel reduction advocates are trying to influence are the larger blazes.  Thinning, or the combination of thinning and prescribed fire may work under low to moderate fire weather but fails under extreme fire conditions.

An experiment in Yellowstone permitted backcountry blazes to burn without suppression. Most of the fires remained under a few acres and self extinquished. Photo George Wuerthner 

For instance, a study in Yellowstone National Park, which allowed 235 backcountry ignitions to burn without any suppression, found that 222 of them burned less than an acre of land, and even the few that grew larger all self-extinguished. The same statistics still dominate all fires—the vast majority are small whether we suppress them because they ignite when climatic/weather conditions are not conducive to fire spread.

The Dixie Fire in northern California burned through lands that had experienced significant “fuel reductions” including the clearcut visible in the foreground. Under extreme fire weather, fuel reductions typically fail to slow or halt wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner

We have lots of evidence that fuel reductions, mainly thinning/logging, are ineffective at controlling wildfire under extreme fire weather conditions. For example, the two largest fires of the summer of 2121, the Dixie Fire that spread across more than 900,000 acres in northern California and the Bootleg Fire that raced across 400,000 plus acres in southern Oregon, both burned through lands where the majority of the landscape had experienced significant logging/thinning. For instance, it is estimated that 75% of the Bootleg Fire burned through “fuel reductions.”

Therefore, the majority of all acreage experiencing wildfire annually results from a small percentage of blazes burning under extreme fire weather conditions characterized by low humidity, high temperatures, drought, and high winds. Unfortunately, these are the very conditions that now dominate the western landscape due to climate warming. And paleoclimate studies and fire show that we have always had large blazes under such conditions, so the fires today are not unusual nor unexpected.

Burn mosaic from the 2020 Labor Day Blazes, Oregon Cascades. The Douglas fir forests of the Western Cascades are dominated by fire-free centuries during which fuels do naturally accumulate. Note that even past clearcutting did not appear to slow or stop this blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

Another issue seldom mentioned is that most of the wildfire acreage burning is not in ecosystems where wildfire was frequent. For instance, the Labor Day Fires that burned across Western Oregon Cascades in 2020 occurred in Douglas Fir forests where the normal fire rotation is 300 years or more. Similarly, much of the acreage burning in the Rockies is in higher elevation forests of spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine—all of which tend to have fire rotations of hundreds of years. Same for the range fires charring sagebrush where natural fire frequency is also often on the hundreds of years rotation.

Plus most of the “fuels are the problem” advocates are working under a flawed set of assumptions. One flaw is comparing the acreage burning today to fire acreage from the recent past when the climate was significantly different. This mistake is what some call a “sliding baseline.”

Extreme drought has affected the entire West. Here the pool level in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam has declined due to the regional drought. Photo George Wuerthner 

California and much of the rest of the West is experiencing the most severe drought in a thousand years. Does anyone seriously think that with such a severe drought, wildfires will respond the same way to fire ignitions they did when the climate is moist and cool, as was common between the 1940-s and 1980s?

The Jocko Lakes blaze burned rapidly through previously logged/thinned forest near Seeley Lake, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Logging can also increase solar radiation drying vegetation and permits greater wind penetration increasing fire spread.

The entire emphasis of the study and current Forest Service policy is based on the Industrial Forestry Paradigm that sees large fires as somehow abnormal and chainsaw medicine as the cure. The current Infrastructure bill will fund logging and fuel treatments of more than 30 million acres of public lands. Thirty million acres is nearly the acreage of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined!

The North Bridger “Restoration” project (which incidentally is supported by The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and other so-called conservation groups) is removing large commercial sized trees which are a major component for stored carbon. Logging and log processing is major source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Photo George Wuerthner

Logging is not benign.  Ecological impacts of logging/and fuel treatments include a reduction in carbon storage, the spread of weeds due to logging disturbance, impacts to aquatic ecosystems from the chronic sedimentation that results from logging roads, displacement of sensitive wildlife, and loss of genetic diversity in forests, and other effects. Treated areas are “sanitized” with low tree age class diversity and habitat diversity.

These ecological impacts are seldom considered or downplayed, in part, because many logging/thinning projects now occur under “Categorical Exclusions,” eliminating most environmental reviews.

The “fuel reduction” paradigm also downplays that increasingly larger blazes dominate current fire regimes due primarily to climate warming, not fuels. Thus, even if thinning/burning did reduce fire severity and spread, this is essentially a “fire suppression” mindset.

It is yet another example of human hubris that suggests humans know what is best for the forest and other plant communities, and we know enough to manipulate them for their “own” good.

Ironically, thinning/logging millions of acres of land, as fuel reduction advocates assert, will “cure” or “reduce” larger blazes ignores the fact that logging is a significant contributor to climate warming- the very factor responsible for larger wildfires. For instance, 35% of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions are due to logging and wood processing in Oregon. Thus, ramping up logging and thinning even more will only exacerbate climate warming.

A far better solution than more logging/thinning/and prescribed burning is to stop all logging on public lands, which will create carbon reserves that will reduce the climate warming that is propelling wildfires.

The coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. We must reduce the GHG emissions that are exacerbating climate warming. Photo George Wuerthner 

Instead of controlling the planet, we should focus on controlling the human behavior that is causing the problem. Ultimately this means a serious effort to reduce all sources of GHG emissions, from logging to the burning of fossil fuels.

It is the homes seen here in Paradise, California, not the forest that is most vulnerable to fire. We should reduce the flammability of homes, not try to fire proof the forest. Photo George Wuerthner 

Beyond that long-term goal, we can emphasize other measures that will reduce the negative impact of wildfire on humans, such as zoning to preclude more home construction in the Wildlands Urban Interface and reducing the flammability of homes. Such treatments more than 100 feet from structures provide no additional benefits.

avatar
About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

5 Responses to LA Times Fire Article Lacks Context

  1. avatar lou says:

    Please write an op-ed to the newspaper with these points.

    Preaching to the choir here, and it is an excellent message, but it needs to get a bigger audience, and give ammunition to ecologists to fight this. And bring in conservation organizations so they can help.

  2. avatar Martha S Bibb says:

    I lived near the Deschutes National Forest. I saw these prescribed fuel treatments.
    Huge equipment was brought in scarring and rutting the earth. The big trees, Ponorosa pine, were marked and logged out. Gigantic slash piles were stacked on the forest floor. More scarring, rutting. Small trees, mostly the same diameter were left. Then the “prescribed fires” were started pushing insufferable smoke into the air. That combined with the wildfire season polluted the air most of the year. Some “prescribed fire” escaped burning the few larger pondos along the “highway corridor of deceit” where a few larger trees were not marked so it looked, as one drove by, that there was a forrest of big trees.
    Just heart breaking to see.

  3. avatar rastadoggie says:

    Human hubris indeed. It’s nearly comical to see the burnable homes adjacent to big public land cuts with little to no defensible space – because they love their trees! Building in safe places and maintaining defensible homes should be the focus of money and education. Instead we’re bombarded with Forest Service pro-cut propaganda and many are drinking the Kool Aide, a waste of taxpayer money resulting in more impoverished land. I have to sneak onto private land, where someone trusted nature, to find the aged, intact places that I crave.

  4. avatar Oscar Mace says:

    As part of the US climate action plan, 30 million acres of public forests are to be logged; and yet, COP26 leaders proclaimed an end to global deforestation. How much of these 30 million acres of forest ecosystems will be deforested by destructive logging techniques reducing biodiversity, decreasing carbon sequestration and altering natural soil biogeochemical processes. Furthermore a discussion of deforestation must include impacts on watershed ecosystems because aquatic flora and fauna diversity are impacted as well. US politicians who are serious about reducing ghg emissions must realize that forest ecosystems are natural atmospheric carbon scrubbers acting as vacuum cleaners aiding to reduce earth’s temperature. The COP26 leaders acknowledged forest preservation as an effective means for reducing ghg emissions and reducing the rise of global temperatures. I know I’m preaching to the choir; so, what do I do now?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Calendar

November 2021
S M T W T F S
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

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

%d bloggers like this: