Reporting On Fire Sends Mixed Information

Please read the news article I have pasted below. Then come back and read my commentary.
 There are some great quotes from Chad Hanson and a few others that counter the industrial forestry perspective that we can and need to log our way out of large fires. However, the idea that most historic fires were small and did not burn up and kill trees may not be accurate.
There are two things going on.
One is the climate today is different than it was much of the last century so comparisons may not be accurate, and there is the problem of conflating different tree species that have very different burning histories.
The perspective, in particular, that dry forests were dominated by low severity high frequency fires that did not kill trees is based on a climate that is different from prevailed for much of the last century which was cooler and wetter than today. When you compare the historic role of fire, even in the drier forests, with fires that were burning under similar major drought conditions back through the centuries, you find similar occurrence of mixed to high severity fires burning–even in the dry forest ecosystems.
Also where species like ponderosa pine are at higher elevations mixing with other species as in the Colorado Front Range, you find ponderosa pine burning in mixed to high severity more than in lower, drier areas.
Swetnam is correct when he says that figures from the earlier part of the last century did include fires in the Eastern US that are no longer occurring or considered in the numbers. However, there are other indications that large fires were still common under certain climate conditions. And Swetnam certainly appreciates the role of climate in fires.
However, the total acreage figure also has a lack of precision in another way. It fails to make distinction of fire by ecosystem type. Most of the acreage burning across the West and in Alaska are in the higher, moister forests of lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, and other species–these forests have always burned in large mixed to high severity blazes. And since the natural fire rotation in these forests is so long, fuels naturally accumulate. So to use these acreages and these fires to terrorize the public to suggest “fuel build up” has occurred as an excuse to support a logging program is disingenuous. The FS should acknowledge that most of the acreage burning are forests that have historically always burned at high severity.
One of the assumptions behind current FS policy is that logging will reduce large fires. Yet the review articles that have looked at this issue have all concluded that under “severe” fire weather/climate, thinning/logging does not preclude large fires. So the starting assumption of most of the current FS work is not well supported by science. And of course, we have many examples of clearcut forests–areas with very limited fuels– that burn quite regularly when the weather conditions are right.
Even in the days long before there was “fire suppression” you had large blazes that often killed trees. Keep in mind the 1910 Burn that raced across 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before anyone could blame fire suppression. similar other large fires are recorded either in the geological record (sediment traces in geological studies, pollen and charcoal studies) as well as in other ways like looking at early government records of expeditions, General Land Office, etc.
Furthermore, these large blazes are not a disaster as pointed out. The forest has evolved with large fires over evolutionary time. Even in the pine forests, there were occasional large blazes, and the forest ecosystem rolls with the punches. Many species depend on these large fires.
One can’t know what was really said by someone in a news report–reporters do get quotes wrong–but I would agree with the Chris Topik, TNC representative, that more people are living in the forest and thus vulnerable to fire. But I disagree with his implied solution that we need more logging of the forest, rather it rests with the county governments to limit home building in these areas, and to reduce the flammability of homes not the forest. We simply cannot log our way to a fire-proof forest.
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Was 2015 a record year for wildfires? Dispute fans a debate over U.S. forests.

Jan. 18, 2016

Updated 5:00 a.m.

In this July 17, 2015, file photo, hand crews battle the Pine Fire, which caused a group of deaf and hearing-impaired children amongt 300 people evacuated from campgrounds in the San Gabriel Mountains near Mountain High Resort. Wildfires scorched a vast swath of the American wilderness last year, but some are in dispute over whether the 10 million estimated miles burned is a record or an exaggeration.KEVIN WARN , CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Wildfires scorched a vast swath of the American wilderness last year. But whether the 10 million acres that burned is a record, as the Obama administration recently announced, or an exaggeration, as some environmentalists claim, is a source of heated debate in a long-running fight over how to manage the nation’s forests.

A network of about 30 small environmental groups that view wildfires as a natural part of the ecology – and think more should be allowed to burn – consider the U.S. Forest Service’s record declaration a scare tactic. These critics say the service suppresses too many fires as part of what Chad Hanson, a fire ecologist for the John Muir Project, calls “a 19th century notion that they damage the ecology and are bad.”

The dispute could have ramifications on Capitol Hill and for communities surrounded by wilderness and the firefighters who defend them. The Agriculture Department, which controls the Forest Service, spent $1.7 billion battling last year’s blazes and is pressing lawmakers to provide more funding this year. Climate change has extended the fire season, officials say, and more huge fires are likely given the ongoing drought in the West.

But the critics want Congress to deny the request, saying the way the service manages the woods – with logging contractors cutting trees and removing underbrush – is actually causing more intense and damaging fires. Hanson and fire historians say that in the early 20th century, up to 30 million acres burned each year, mostly in the understory of trees and with less severity.

“Over a dozen years of scientific inquiry tells us that increasing logging, especially the clear cutting and intensive thinning operations” proposed in Agriculture’s request for more funding, “would damage habitat, threaten species,” the groups wrote in a letter to senators last month.

Much of their concern is focused on what the service does after a fire, when it clears charred trees and other debris to prevent it from reigniting. They say birds and small mammals use those damaged trees as habitat, and new plants thrive again within a few years.

Fires are “necessary and important for our forest ecosystems . . . and should not be universally extinguished at great cost to taxpayers,” the groups wrote.

But the environmental community itself is divided over the issue. Nearly 150 larger organizations sent their own letter to Congress in November supporting the Forest Service. They said the agency is responding to wilderness and an ecology that has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Millions of acres of wildlands that once burned routinely have given way to homes and businesses, something the service must consider, they noted.

“We need to have intelligent fire fighting,” said Chris Topik, director of the Restoring America’s Forests program at the Nature Conservancy, which signed onto the November letter. More than half of new homes built since the 1990s are on the edge of wild land, he said. “The essence is, there’s so many more people at risk. There are things we all really care about, like wilderness and wildlife, but you have to gauge it with the risks.”

Moreover, the drinking water for millions of Americans comes from rivers and streams that are often filled with soot and eroded debris after fires – another reason the Forest Service says cleanup is important.

Criticism of the service’s methods is not new, and officials dismiss the accusation that 2015 was not an unprecedented year, saying that the way wildfires are measured now is far superior to the haphazard record-keeping of the past.

The National Interagency Fire Center relies on state and federal agencies across the country as part of a coordinated system that did not exist before 1960. Satellite and laser mapping are used in the effort.

“We’re not arguing about fire, we’re arguing about forest management,” said Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, who oversees the Forest Service. “Public lands management is not without controversy.”

Thomas Swetnam, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who studies wildfires, says comparing those from the early and mid-1900s to ones today is like comparing “apples and oranges.” Back then, Gulf Coast states such as Florida, Alabama and Mississippi regularly set massive fires in a forest ecosystem that stretched over 90 million acres; officials believed it should be cleared for various reasons, including as a preemptive measure.

Those intentional blazes were once included in the Forest Service’s historical tally, but no longer. The statistics posted online by the interagency center – the ones used to mark 10,125,149 acres burned in 2015 as a record – only go back 55 years.

Yet a more important change, Swetnam said, is the change in fire geography and behavior. The big fires are primarily breaking out in the West, and they’re more frequent, hotter and bigger, something he links to warming temperatures.

“What’s been happening in the last 30 years is absolutely unprecedented in the western U.S.,” he said, adding by email, “The trend(s) . . . are genuine, and very damaging and worrisome.”

But the Forest Service is also to blame, said Terry Davis, director of the Mother Lode chapter of the Sierra Club, which encompasses 24 Northern California counties. Before the 1960s – before the service started removing brush and charred trees to try to prevent future occurrences – most wildfires in his neck of the woods tended to be low-severity burns that simmered in the underbrush, he said.

“Now the trend after fire suppression is (that) half of fires are high severity,” he said. “Instead of having a nice burn that eliminated fuels, they climb up to the top of trees and crown.”

Davis sees fires as instrumental, even necessary, in shaping forests: “The dry Western forests like we have in California evolve with frequent fire.”






  1. Nancy Avatar

    “But the critics want Congress to deny the request, saying the way the service manages the woods – with logging contractors cutting trees and removing underbrush – is actually causing more intense and damaging fires”

    A prime example, George.

    “The Forest Service said the area was too thick with trees, making it prone to beetle kill and crown fires.

    The land is adjacent to private land and houses. Foresters said it is being logged to improve forest health, reduce wildfire threat and to maintain scenic views”


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