Washington Post Fire Article Perspective

I sent the following note to reporter Sarah Kaplan responding to a news report in the Washington Post.

Hi Sarah:

Just read your piece in the Washington Post on wildfire.
You did a good job of capturing the grief that accompanies the death of fire fighters and people whose homes are lost, but there are parts of your article dealing with aspects of fire ecology and forest ecosystems that lacks ecological context.
As for background on myself, I’m a fire ecologist who has published several books on wildfire and I wanted to alert you to some of the misconceptions that were in the article in hopes that if you write any future piece, they will not be repeated.
But first I want to commend you for getting in some very critical ideas into the article–for instance, noting that many western ecosystems are “fire dependent” is absolutely correct. Fire is the agent of rejuvenation and restoration. It is commonly asserted that because we are seeing some large fires that there is a “forest health” problem. But in reality, wildfires burning large acreage demonstrates that our forests are very healthy–for many forest types, large fires are the “normal” way of forest rejuvenation. Wildfires are to the forest, what wolves are to the elk herd. Both are necessary ecological processes that keep both forest and elk herds healthy.
The second idea you got in that is great is how reducing the flammability of homes is key to precluding home losses. .” Information sessions on “firewise” home improvements — changes to buildings and the land around them that help keep houses from burning when fires do occur — have gotten so popular they’re standing-room only.”
This is critical for people to understand, we can’t stop fires, but we can protect our homes. And the fact remains that any thinning more than 200 feet from a house provides little added value in most ecosystem types–something that the FS seldom mentions.
Now for some of the parts of your article that I hope you can avoid in the future. I recognize that you were quoting folks–but many of these people have misconceptions themselves or they work for the FS. As a former federal employee myself, you need to understand that any FS employee has sidebars on what they can or cannot say in public They have to adhere to the party line. The party line may not be correct or have a hidden agenda–in the case of the FS to maintain its budgets as a fire fighting and logging agency, so in the future, it might be helpful to consult with non-agency ecologists.
The other point I will make below is the general tenor of the piece which promotes the idea that large fires are somehow undesirable. As I will point out later, we need large wildfires to support healthy forest ecosystems. That point should always be part of any article.
I would disagree with Susan Pritchard, whom you quoted, when she said  “years of misguided forest management that suppressed smaller, healthy fires have “made a less resilient landscape,” I think this misses some very important points.
Outside of the lowest elevation forests (primarily ponderosa pine) the natural fire rotation in lodgepole pine, fir forests, and other conifer communities is often hundreds of years between major fires. So the idea that fuels are unnaturally accumulating in these other forest types is just plain false. It is the natural way of these forests to accumulate fuels for decades, and hundreds of years, then to burn. Fire suppression has had little effect because under normal circumstances these forests do not burn very often.
The fact is that most small fires have little or no ecological impact. Most of them in fact are not suppressed at all–because they self extinguish if left alone. The reason they are small is because the climate/weather conditions for a large fire do not exist.
Just go to the Olympic Peninsula where there is more fuel than anyplace else in the PNW, but there are few large fires here because the conditions that let large fires seldom exist. But when they do occur, you will get fires even in the Olympic rainforest.
The important point is that weather/climate, not fuels, drives all large fires.
And for decades, the conditions for large fires were not common in the PNW. These conditions are low humidity, high temps, drought, and in particular, high winds. We had quite a few decades where the climate was generally much cooler and moister than at present. Under those conditions, fires did not ignite and the ones that did, burned very little acreage. It had little to do with “fire suppression.”
The reason “one lightning” strike can start a fire that can burn thousands of acres is because we have a changed climate/weather pattern in the West. Whether this is a result of climate change is still being debated–we have had exactly similar conditions in the past, and during those periods, there were large fires in the West–so whether due to climate change or normal climate oscillation–the fact remains that large fires are a consequence of weather not fuels.
The next misleading quote comes Meg Trebon. “Over the past two years, fires have burned so fast, hot and violent that even the soil dies, leaving mile after mile of trees as dark and lifeless as telephone poles. The land probably won’t ever recover, said Meg Trebon, an assistant fire management officer for the Forest Service. The idea clearly pains her.”
I don’t know Meg, but it would seem she doesn’t have much experience with large fires. I’ve traveled all over the West doing research for my book Wildfire; A Century of Failed Forest Policy where I have visited dozens of the largest and biggest fires, and I’ve yet to find anyplace where the soil “dies”. Visit any of these sites a year to several after a fire, and you find all kinds of new life. Indeed, there is some new research from Yellowstone that suggests the densest regeneration after a burn occurs in the areas where the fire intensity was most severe. The idea that soils are “sterilized” simply does not apply to the burned landscape, though you might find a few small areas where circumstances created unusual conditions.
The next misconception is about prescribed burning and thinning. “Wildfires in treated forests tend to be slower and more manageable, making survival more likely for the trees and the towns around them.”  This is another one of those opt repeated myths.
There is almost no evidence that prescribed burning and thinning can preclude large fires. They may work under moderate fire conditions, but under such conditions, you don’t get large fires. There are any number of review articles that have concluded that such treatments are relatively ineffective for a host of reasons.
Indeed, in many of the largest fires around the West, the areas with the densest forests often burn less severity than the more open forests. Dense forests have more shade and less wind penetration. In fact, thinning has been shown to increase fire spread because it actually exacerbates the conditions conducive to fires–namely drying out the forest and allowing wind to penetrate.
In addition, most thinning projects are seldom done properly in part, because the FS tends to make them commercial timber sales instead of designed for reducing fires so they often take out the larger trees (to make it profitable) that are most fire resistant. Then you have to do the maintenance. As soon as you think, you stimulate regrowth of trees, shrubs and grasses by opening up the forest to light and more water. Most of the time, the FS does not have the money or desire (once it has sold the trees to a timber company) to come back and do the maintenance.
Finally, one can’t predict where a fire will occur. You even get at that idea in your article where you quote JD Daniels “Fire is fire,” he said. “It happens every year here. It just doesn’t happen to you every year.”
And that is why most thinning projects are a waste of time. The chance that any particular fire will encounter a fuel break during the short period of time when it might be effective, is extremely small. Remember most of these forest types do not burn frequently. So if you put in a fuel reduction (thinning) in say a lodgepole pine forest which burns every 100-400 years, and the effective life of that project is 10-20 years because trees start to regrow and negate any fuel reduction, what are the chances that a fire will encounter that site? About zero.
That is why myself and many others recommend that any fuel projects be conducted immediately around homes, and that reducing home flammability is the only real options.
The reason we advocate for this policy is two-fold. The first is that thinning doesn’t really work under severe fire conditions and some review papers and a lot of real world observations support that contention.
However, the second reason is that we NEED large fires. They are the major source of snags and down wood which are critical to long-term forest health. Many, many species depend totally on dead trees for their survival or they are critical elements in their habitat. The idea that we should preclude large fires, even if we could, needs to be challenged.
I’m hoping that you consider writing a second piece on the ecological value of large fires and why we need these for healthy forest ecosystems. I can put you in touch with any number of ecologists you could interview for such a piece.
Hope to hear back from you if you write anything in the future on wildfire issues.
Thanks for reading.






  1. Nancy Avatar

    + 1 George.

    1. rork Avatar

      I second the motion.
      Although it must be at least the 10th fire article I’ve read here, I think I learned some new ideas today – to think harder about the actual durability of any treatment for example.
      Also: I have seen places that look “sterlized”, but only nearly, and they were very small areas compared to the area burned. Further, upon revisiting, it makes an interesting and rare area (cool plants). That’s out west in mountains. In upper MI there’s some places that look “bad”, but maybe it was jack pine and lichens on poor sandy soils for thousands of years.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan


    Educating journalists is, I think, one of the most productive uses of one’s time spent writing. Your open letter is a good reminder to me of the fact.

  3. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Thanks, George.

    The Kamiah Complex in north central Idaho this summer was in mixed farms and wooded draws along the Clearwater River. It affected my daughter south of Kamiah, my brother and his pine plantation north of Kamiah, my cousin on Lolo Creek a few miles farther NW, and my granddaughter in Orofino. They were more fortunate than many in the area that lost their homes. None of this was on USFS land. My brother’s house was saved by the large well watered yard he has maintained around it for years and the pruning of lower limbs on the ponderosa pines. The state of Idaho and local towns supplied the pumper trucks that helped save property.

  4. monty Avatar

    George, it is difficult to defeat mythology. In 2004 I was on the Two bee fire that burned on the Willamette and Deschutes NFs. On the Willamette side I watched a head wall forested with old growth Douglas-fir burn twice. The second burn produced a mushroom cloud that resembled a atomic bomb holoaust. That fall I walked threw the burn and was amazed at the number of live trees and small mammals that survived.

  5. Kyle Avatar

    Excellent per usual George. The craft of journalism has been in a tailspin for years and the original WaPo article is a perfect example of it. Worse than the inaccuracies, is the apparent inability to dig deeper, ask the tough questions, challenge the push button talking points of government and corporate PR. One would have assumed that the reporter might have scanned the horizon for different perspectives and input instead of playing the role mere scribe. I’d be curious if the reporter ever attempts to contact you, or merely continue to stumble along the existing sophomoric path. Fortunately, we have useful/insightful information sources like The Wildlife News, which at least give some more of a fighting chance in the battle over agendas and public policy. Thanks!

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