Wildfire and Forest Health: Myths And Reality

There are widely held assumptions that logging will reduce or preclude large wildfires and beetle outbreaks. The recent adoption of the Farm Bill categorical exclusion that will permit logging up to 45 million acres of national forests is based on flawed assumptions about forest health and wildfire.


Large fires are driven by climatic/weather conditions that completely overwhelm fuels. Changing fuels does not prevent large fires and seldom significantly reduces the outcome of these large fires. The climatic/weather factors driving large blazes are drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly high winds. High wind is the critical factor because winds will blow burning embers over, through or around any fuel reductions including clearcuts. When these conditions line up in the same place as an ignition, it is virtually impossible to stop such fires–until the weather changes.


Beetle kill actually reduces fire hazard once the needles fall off, so all this panic about dead beetle killed trees will lead to massive fires is myth. We may have large fires, (but it is due to climate) but the presence of beetle kill has little do with the fire spread.


Fuel reductions effectiveness is inconsistent. There are places where it appears to reduce fire spread under MODERATE fire weather conditions but it tends to fail under SEVERE fire weather which is when you have the big fires. Many of the larger fires in Oregon in recent years have burned through “managed” forests. The Biscuit Fire in SW Oregon burned through substantial sections of previously logged lands or the Barry Point Fire by Klamath Falls burned up about a third of Collins Pine managed private lands.


According to one meta-analysis of fuel reduction effectiveness, in about a third of cases reviewed, fuel reductions INCREASED fire spread. This is typically due to the movement of fuel from trees to the ground during logging operations as well as to the fact that logging opens up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration–both factors that favor fire spread. Other studies also question the ability of fuel reductions to influence LARGE fires under severe fire weather. And that is the key phase–severe fire weather. Even if fuel reductions appear to work under moderate conditions, they generally fail completely under severe fire conditions.


Fire is unpredictable. Most fuel reductions will have no influence on fires because the probability that a fire will encounter one in the time frames when fuel reductions are presumed to work (about 10-20 years at best) is extremely small. Statistically fuels reductions, except for those immediately next to communities and towns, are a waste of tax dollars.


New interpretations of forest historical condition are questioning whether our forests are really out of ‘whack” or outside of their historic condition. This is especially true for all forests outside of the lowest elevation dry forest of ponderosa pine. Thus logging to “restore” forests is an oxymoron because it is questionable that most forests are not in need of restoration.


Logging has many “externalities” that are a consequence of logging are not acknowledged by logging promoters. These include the spread of weeds due to disturbance accompanying logging operations and roads, sedimentation from logging roads into streams which destroys fisheries, reduction of wildlife security cover because of increased access from logging roads, disturbance of sensitive wildlife and so forth. When theses “costs” are internalized, logging would almost never make any economic sense.


The proven way to safeguard communities is to reduce the flammability of homes through the adoption of fire wise policies like installation of fire resistant roofing material, removal of burnable materials away from homes, zoning to prevent home construction in the fire plain (like flood plain of a river) and other measures.


Finally, wildfire and beetle kill are ‘RESTORATIVE” processes that are critical to HEALTHY forest ecosystems. Even if logging could preclude or limit the influence of fire, beetles and so on, it would not be desirable from an ecosystem health perspective. The ecological truth is that dead trees are critical to healthy forests. Indeed, the snag forests that result after severe wildfires are home to the second greatest biodiversity after old growth forests, but this phase is shorter lived as forests regrow, thus relatively-speaking scarcer.

Long-Term Fire History from Alluvial Fan Sediments: The Role of Drought and Climate Variability, and Implications for Management of Rocky Mountain Forests
Jennifer Pierce and Grant Meyer

Uncertainty in Fire History and Restoration of
Ponderosa Pine Forests in the Western United
William L. Baker1 and Donna S. Ehle1

Fire Probability, Fuel Treatment Effectiveness and Ecological Tradeoffs in
Western U.S. Public Forests
Jonathan J. Rhodes1 and William L. Baker

Fuel Treatments and Fire Severity: A Meta-Analysis: Erik J. Martinson and Philip N. Omi

Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky
Mountains? Implications from Recent Research
Author(s): Scott H. Black , Dominik Kulakowski , Barry R. Noon , Dominick A. DellaSala

The influence of mountain pine beetle outbreaks and drought on severe wildfires
in northwestern Colorado and southern Wyoming: A look at the past century
Dominik Kulakowski ⇑, Daniel Jarvis

Management for Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak Suppression:
Does Relevant Science Support Current Policy?
Diana L. Six 1,*, Eric Biber 2 and Elisabeth Long

Testimony of
Dr. Jason S. Sibold
Assistant Professor, Colorado State University
Before the
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation
on the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act (H.R. 818)



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  1. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    George, please provide references for this information. Thanks

  2. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Following heavy logging of the private lands west of the Cascades in Washington, and Oregon in particular, and California to some extent, there were extensive fires covering hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of acres of private and federal lands. The most recent of these was the Tillamook Burn which was started by logging during dry conditions. The lightening fire that caused the Biscuit fire of ten years ago burned mostly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and apparently burned the hottest in the controversial Silver Creek Salvage from a fire several years earlier.

    These lands became parts of the Siuslaw and Umpqua National Forests; the private lands reverted (non payment of taxes) to the counties who turned them over to the State; they are the Elliot, Clatsop, Tillamook, and Santiam State Forests of today.

    There are current discussions on methods for best management of these forests.

    My personal opinion is that the “takers” have been given future access to too much of the standing timber.

    1. alf Avatar

      Much to his credit — although I hate to give him any credit for anything — Idaho governor Butch Otter admitted during the much-publicized debate with the other 3 candidates for his office last week, when questioned by one of the other idiots about his position on “taking back”(?) the federal lands and the state “managing” them, that the state simply can’t afford to. As an example, he stated that wildfires in Idaho cost “the government” $200,000,000 last year, of which the state only had to pay $14,000,000, with the feds picking up the rest.

      BTW, Point #1 : Federal lands in the west were never the states’ (or territories’) to begin with; whatever public lands the states have or had, were granted to them by the U.S. government, not vice versa. Idaho’s constitution states that “…the people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof,…” (Article XXI, Section 19) I believe that the constitutions of all the other “Public Lands” states in the west have similar clauses.

      Point #2 : They don’t really want to manage them anyhow, they just want to exploit them for short-term economic gain. Then what, after they’ve slicked off all the timber and grazed them to bare dirt ? Turn them back over to the feds ?

      Point #3 : The debate between the gubernatorial candidates went viral : you might have seen a clip with the “turd-in-a-punchbowl” biker and the virulently anti-abortion jesus freak with a big Moses beard and 16 kids. it was as good as anything on Saturday Night Live since the days of John Belluchi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase ,and the rest of the original ensemble !.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      It is truly amazing how much of central and south central Idaho has burned since the year 2000. I think half the acreage has burned, maybe more.

      The Farm Bill amendment might not have much effect because there isn’t much to log profitably even when costs are not properly internalized.

    3. Zach Avatar

      The Elliot State Forest may soon be no more if the private sale actually goes through. Suprised not to see anything about it here.

  3. cobackcountry Avatar

    I don’t know that I’d agree with this article 100 percent. I’d have to see references.

    I would have to say that beetle kill does play a part, because once those needles fall, the forest below has more exposure to drying elements (sun, wind etc.). I’d also say that logging has an impact on beetle kill to the extent that beetles prefer older growth pines (or spruce depending on which beetles). I say ‘prefer’ because I have personally seen where they are eating younger trees when older trees are already diminished.

    I’d also say that fuel reduction can be systematic in slowing burns near dwellings, there by giving more time for wild land fighters to mount a defense to the fire.

    I’d also say that logging is necessary to humans. It is over done, yes, but necessary. Furthermore, we have already altered natural balances of ecosystems and have very few points of reference to validate a “leave it to burn so we can learn” theory. How many fires have been unchecked or in undeveloped areas? Even the Yellowstone fires were fought near dwellings. How can we prove logging did help in one area, and/or failed in another? How do we quantify the impacts?

    We have only just begun to ascertain the long term ramifications of logging. Mean while, we need to continue to practice reforestation in areas we have logged.

    I have never seen an account of clear cutting that made sense. But I also don’t believe I have seen an entirely old growth forest that wasn’t preserved or protected from human impact to some degree.

    1. Logan Avatar

      I agree, some references for further review would be beneficial.

      Logging to some extent is necessary to sustain our society, it is finding a way to log with minimal impact that we should focus on.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        “Logging to some extent is necessary to sustain our society”


        I disagree Logan, we should focus on recycling our waste, tons of sites out there with great ideas :0

    2. JB Avatar

      I agree; less fuel may not mean fewer fires, but it absolutely means less intense fires. There is definitely a role for fuels reduction in the management of fire risk, and (of course) harvest as one means of reducing fuels.

    3. SAP Avatar

      The beetle-kill = fuel load question is an interesting one. On the Eureka Fire in the Gravellies last summer, we saw older beetle-killed whitebark pine (killed sometime after 2005 in most cases — so probably somewhere between 2 & 8 years dead) standing untouched in acres of black ground. Key variables there include state of decay, and elevation (about 9000′ ASL) playing out as snowpack and temperature. That stuff just did not burn.

      Hypothetically change up those variables — let’s say we have three-years-dead lodgepole at 7000′. Would that burn? Likely, under the right circumstances. It’s probably slightly less flammable than a live tree under most fire season circumstances (fewer fine fuels once the needles and small limbs are gone compared to a live tree).

      Can’t overlook the role of those fine fuels — as anyone who has ever built a fire can attest. Without fine fuels, you can apply direct flame to kiln-dried wood and do nothing but turn it black. High radiant heat (as we experience during a big fire run) can change the outcome substantially, leading to ignition of even coarser fuels, especially as embers drift out ahead of the fire. But the fine fuels are still a huge part of the equation.

      Re: what age class the beetles “prefer”: basically, beetles have to attack older trees under most conditions. Each beetle is looking to drill into that tree to lay eggs and launch their offspring. A few beetles attacking a tree can’t do anything — they’ll easily get overwhelmed by the tree’s defenses — drowned by pitch and flushed back out the hole they drilled through the bark. To be successful, they need hundreds of beetles drilling holes all at once. The tree simply doesn’t have enough pitch to stop them all. Why not, then, attack young trees that are smaller? Because little trees don’t have enough room to support nearly as many beetle broods as big trees, and because young trees growing vigorously are producing far more pitch than older trees.

      To overwhelm a vigorously growing young tree, beetles would have to behave selflessly — they’d have to invest energy in a mass attack, but against a tree that could only support a fraction of the attacking collective’s offspring. They don’t tend to do that (they coordinate attacks by emitting phermones to recruit more attackers — but at a certain density, they switch to a “NO VACANCY” phermone that tells other beetles that there’s no room left).

      One might find beetles attacking very small trees in drought conditions, though — under stress, even small trees may not have the pitch flow to repulse beetles.

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        Thanks for a great analysis.

  4. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Yesterday, while driving along the I-70 corridor between Rifle CO. and Grand Junction CO., they were having controlled burns up on top of the Mesa (southside of I-70)in the Battlement Mesa area. It seemed odd to be focusing on fire mitigation at that elevation where there are no houses, the Colorado river runs at the base – but there is lots of energy exploration going on. I guess that is a consideration when deciding whether or not to do controlled burns? I hadn’t thought of that until I saw the rigs on top of the Mesa.

  5. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    As a forester for 37 years, I have seen and learned the difference between “environmentally sound” forestry vs “intensive” forest management. The federal government in Oregon and Washington has drastically changed their forestry practices (due to spotted owl) and today incorporate commercial thinnings on 80% of the land base. Seasonal restrictions (due to ESA listed fish) on timber hauling and harvesting minimize soil impacts. Our practices changed because laws (ESA) and input from environmental and conservation groups influenced our decisions.

    Recyling reduces some of the need for products but trees (renewable) are needed for the vast majority of construction.

    As a wildland firefighter I question the need and effectivness of suppression efforts on fires that are not threatening structures. Reducing fuels adjacent to structures and communities along with the deployment of foam engines will significantly improve their defensibility.

    I attribute one of the main reasons for suppression efforts is the continuining mentality that fires are inherently destructive. There is also a firefighting industry that is incorporated within federal and state agencies. When personnel are dispatched to wildfires, the home district is no longer paying for their costs and employees can earn three times their normal income, thus districts and the employees themselve are strongly encouraged to be dispatched.

    There is also a human cost to firefighting. Every year wildland firefighters are unnecessarily killed (usually deployed far away from homes or communities).

    If we adhered to a “let burn” strategy (unless homes or communities are threatened), hundreds of millions of dollars would be saved (instead invested in restoration of forests), lives would be saved and the ecosystems would be allowed to process naturally. The Yellowstone NP fires of 1988 have proven the resiliency of “catastrophic” fires. Ecosystems seem to be doing quite well when we allow fires to burn naturally.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner