Response to Zybach Wildfire Commentary

Bob Zybach who works for the forest industry published highly inaccurate guest commentary in the Eugene Register Guard. You can find Bob’s commentary here:
Bob Zybach’s October 31st Register-Guard guest editorial on wildfire was full of misinformation and incorrect assumptions. He suffers from the Industrial Forestry Paradigm that sees forests as either “fuels” or potential “lumber.” Neither is an accurate perspective on forest ecosystems.
First, and foremost, he, like far too many others, neglects to consider how important the influence of climate/weather is upon wildfire ignitions and spreads. Weather/climate drives large wildfires, not fuels.
All large wildfires burn under extreme fire weather conditions which includes drought, low humidity, high temps, and most importantly wind. If you have these conditions you get uncontrollable fires. When these conditions change, you get fires that can be extinguished.
The majority of all acreage burned annually is in a very few fire burning under extreme fire conditions and they account for 95% or more of the annual acreage charred by blazes.
Why is this important?
Because numerous recent studies conclude that under extreme fire conditions, fuel reductions largely fail. In other words, logging won’t significantly reduce large blazes. Indeed, some studies even conclude that “active management” exacerbates fire severity.
Zybach points out that between 1951 and 1987 there was only one large wildfire in Oregon, which he attributes to more active logging during that time. However, the climate between the 1930s through the late 1980s was moister and cooler than before and after those decades.
What happens when it’s moist and cool? Well, you don’t get many ignitions, and the ones you do get don’t spread. They self-extinguish.
Since the late 1980s, the West has seen considerably warm, drier and significant drought around the West.
The recent fires in California, for instance, were driven by extremely high winds that threw firebrands and embers miles ahead of fire fronts. These burning brands ignited homes. Not to mention most of the vegetation contributing these brands was grass and shrubs, not forests at all.
Zybach makes a point of talking about the great expense of fire-fighting but neglects to note that 95% of the cost of fire suppression is spent trying to save structures. The rising cost of firefighting is a result of the increasing home construction in the wildlands urban interface.
Zybach also repeats the old forestry myth that dead trees contribute to larger fires, despite an abundance of research that finds that dead trees, because they have less fine fuels-like resin-impregnated needles, cones and small branches—do not burn as well as green trees.
Indeed, the majority of all acreage burned occurs in green forests, not stands with dead trees. Dead trees whether from beetles or a previous wildfire often slow or halt the spread of wildlfires—which is why firefighters attempt to herd fires into previously burned stands.
Dead trees also are very important for ecosystem function, storing carbon, providing homes for many plants and animals, and important structural components in streams.
Zybach advocates more active management which he suggests would save communities from wildfire.
However, he again ignores nearly all research suggests that the best way to protect communities is to reduce the flammability of homes and its surroundings. We can’t log our way out of the current fire situation, nor can we even predict where a fire will occur making most “fuel reduction projects” a waste of time and money.






  1. Bob Zybach Avatar

    George: I do NOT “work for the forest industry” by any stretch. To follow that opening misstatement with the charge that MY commentary is “highly inaccurate” is ironic. To say that my commentary is “full of misinformation and incorrect assumptions” is also inaccurate. Your cherry-picked “research” to support your own biases is typical of your work. You could start with my dissertation as the basis for my assertions rather than just making things up. But that would require time and an open mind. Here’s my most recent article on the topic:

    1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
      Kirk Robinson

      Hey Bob,

      I read your “most recent article on the topic.” Unfortunately, you do not present any scientific evidence for your view that bad forest management by the feds, not climate change, is the cause (or main cause) of recent catastrophic forest fires in western Oregon. Instead, your rhetorical onslaught is based on this assumption. This isn’t science, Bob. It is propaganda. Maybe you’ve got something better to offer, but I assume that this article, which you yourself recommend we read, contains your views. So I am kind of offended that you, a scientist, by all accounts, are going around making factual claims that you do not back up with any real science. You don’t even offer substantial data to establish a statistically relevant correlation between forest fires and anything else. This appears to me to be fraudulent practice. If I am wrong, please correct me, but do it with real scientific data and analysis, not just authoritarian pronouncements. I have a Ph.D. in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, so I know whereof I speak when I say you offer no scientific evidence for your view in the article you recommend. If you were a student in one of my classes and submitted something like this as a term paper, I would have to fail you.

      1. Bob Zybach Avatar

        Thanks Kirk: Yes, this was an article/editorial of my ideas and opinions, based on nearly 50 years of research, experience, and observation. To find the scientific basis for this writing you could start with my dissertation, which is available free online. Maybe you could give that a grade. The fact that 100% of the wildfires this year took place on federal lands — as regularly predicted through the years — is statistically significant.

        1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
          Kirk Robinson

          Well, thanks for the reply, Bob. That counts for something and maybe I will look at some of the research you recommend. But be it known that I have already read a lot of research on this topic.

        2. Jeremy B. Avatar
          Jeremy B.

          I don’t really have a horse in this race, but…

          I noted that although Dr. Zybach has made several appeals to his scientific background, experience and expertise, he has only cited his dissertation. That seemed odd to me, especially for someone has ostensibly been involved in research for 50 years. So I looked him up on the Web of Science, which tracks scientific publications in ISI’s database. It lists three publications in science journals (all in the 1980s and 90s), two of which are one-page letters (i.e., opinion), and the third, which is entitled, “Converting historical information to GIS: political boundaries of the Douglas-fir region, 1788 to 1995”. All published in the Journal of Forestry (a respectable journal for forestry professionals).

          Of course, one does not need a PhD or a lengthy list of scientific publications to develop expertise in a particular subject. However, it seems disingenuous (at the very least) to claim expertise via “50 years of research” if none (or very little) of that research was deemed publishable by one’s peers.

          1. Nancy Avatar

            “I don’t really have a horse in this race, but…”

            But.. actually, IMHO, you do JB. We all do, especially when it comes down to the much too often, questionable, negative decisions being made regarding the “management” of our public lands AND its wildlife.

            I’m getting this overwhelming feeling anymore that the human species (especially in the current political climate) is on a fast track to hell
            and claiming “ignorance is bliss” is a really sorry excuse.

            “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 behavior.”

            ~ Edward Abbey

            1. Bob Zybach Avatar

              Jeremy and Nancy: The reason I cite my dissertation is because it is on the exact same topic as the article and editorial and was based on 30+ years of personal experience and academic research — before being defended 15 years ago. The reason you don’t see me being published in academic journals is because I don’t submit articles to them. I am not trying to obtain tenure anywhere and I am far more interested in directly reaching a much wider audience of rural families and outdoor recreationists than I am of talking to a narrow focus of academics. In that regard you will see that I have written a few hundred articles, editorials, reports, and public letters on the topics of wildfire, reforestation, wildlife, and forest management beginning in the early 1980s. Mostly, though, I have been working with rural and inner-city school kids the past 20 years building websites for long-term research and education purposes. I also give lectures, lead workshops, am often interviewed on the radio and for publications, and host tours — all apparently outside the purview of the Web of Science. Knowledge is a combination of education and research is a saying I deeply agree with.

              1. Bob Zybach Avatar

                Edit/Correction: “Knowledge is a combination of education and EXPERIENCE” is a saying . . . (I need a better proof reader.)

              2. Jeremy B. Avatar
                Jeremy B.


                The problem with basing one’s thesis on personal experience is one’s experiences are shaped by one’s environment, which is non-random. And systematic departures from randomness result in bias.

                I don’t claim to know much about fire ecology, but I know quite a bit about communicating science. I found the essay you shared…troubling both for its lack of scientific details (as Kirk points out) as well as your casual dismissal of science linking wildfire to climate change.

                Even if we accept your claim that “100% of the wildfires this year took place on federal lands” — there are many other factors besides “management” that potentially explain why federal lands would be more prone to large fires (e.g., remoteness [access], larger acreage relative to private lands, etc.). Lets not confuse correlation with causation.

    2. MaryLamb Avatar

      I am a small cog in the big wheel of Wildland Firefighting for over 20 years. I hear it over and over from Foresters all over the US. Just as you are saying it. You are by far not the only one who knows this but you are one of the few who have the guts to put yourself out there and say it. God Bless you and keep fighting.

  2. Nancy Avatar

    “logging, road improvements, tree planting, prescribed burns, camp ground construction, trail maintenance and thousands of jobs needed to house, feed, clothe and transport these workers”

    Lets be honest here Bob, are you really concerned with the health of forests (and forest fires are and always have been, a big contribution to that health) or do you just want to revive $$ the logging industry and put people to work managing forests so they have a more “park like” setting?

    1. MaryLamb Avatar

      Forest fires are and always have been a big contribution to that health. Yes, back before we put them out to save lives and property. If one threatens you and yours I suggest you refuse the service and just let it burn.

  3. snaildarter Avatar

    Bob’s article that reads like it was written by a forest products industry lobbyist. Typical loobyist alternative science to confuse the facts. However I wouldn’t be surprised if trees were not growing faster in a warmer CO2 rich atmosphere but then so does the yeast in beer wort that is until the alcohol reaches toxic levels and they all die.

  4. don smith Avatar
    don smith

    Mr. Zybach, in the link he provided, looks to the Oregon Chetco Fire (less than 20 air miles from where I live) to support his argument. The fire was mostly in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and included state and private land.

    As the Forest Service’s Chetco Fire BAER (fire intensity analysis) shows, within the fire area parimeter:

    – 19% unburn/very low burn
    – 40% low burn
    – 36% moderate burn
    – 7% high burn

    This was not the severe fire Mr. Zybach depicts, but was instead a healthy fire.

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      don: It wasn’t very “healthy” for those breathing the smoke. Parts of the Kalmiopsis has now burned three times in the past 30 years — maybe that has something to do with “intensity.” I am more interested in plant and animal mortalities as measures.

  5. don smith Avatar
    don smith

    Mr. Zybach, in his piece he linked to above, writes of the Eagle Creek fire in Oregon, along the Columbia River Gorge, as some catastrophic burn.

    “About 15 percent of the fire area, or 7,300 acres, suffered severe burns, meaning ground cover like moss or fallen leaves and pine needles was completely burned away. Another 30 percent, about 14,600 acres, was moderately burned. The rest suffered little to no burn damage.”

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      don: There’s smoke where there is fire. How were people affected health-wise and economically? Fire intensity is only one measure of catastrophic wildfires. However, I have used the measure of 100,000 acres for many years (or the loss of human lives) to designate “catastrophic” wildfires and didn’t put the Eagle Fire into that category.

  6. Patrick Avatar

    Sorry Bob, the preponderance of evidence suggests that you favor logging and logging interests. And as a PhD, just because you wrote a dissetstion, doesn’t mean your interpretations of data are above debate.

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      Patrick: I usually don’t respond to posts that don’t include a person’s name, but want to point out that my principal purpose in writing these things is to encourage debate — not be “above” it.

  7. snaildarter Avatar

    The body of evidence supporting Climate Science is over whelming. A new PHD should have developed the skills to study it. Its not a political opinion its science.

  8. John Rust Avatar
    John Rust

    Dead trees provide ecosystem function and value for many species…

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Dead wood, both standing and down, serves as important wildlife habitat. Wildlife evolved in forests where dead wood was never removed in the name of woodland management. The increasing demand for forest products has, in many instances, resulted in a lack of dead-wood habitat for wildlife”

      +1. Excellent article, John. Thank you for posting it.

    2. Bob Zybach Avatar

      John: In western Oregon there was hardly any dead wood over the majority of the landscape over the past several millennia due to constant firewood gathering and regular broadcast burning by the thousands of Indian families who lived here. Dead wood did exist in abundance in certain isolated locations, but the interior valleys and foothills of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue had very little dead wood for a very long time. The same observation is true for southern slopes of the Coast Range, ridgeline trail networks, and costal tidelands. That was the majority of habitat — including constant human hunting — in which wildlife evolved in western Oregon following the last ice age. Lots of ground-level protein, hunters everywhere, and very few dead trees or large, woody debris.

  9. Rich Avatar

    Bob Zybach,

    You contend that

    “there was hardly any dead wood over the majority of the landscape over the past several millennia due to constant firewood gathering and regular broadcast burning by the thousands of Indian families who lived here.”

    The extensive and extraordinary photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis of Native American tribes at the turn of the last century contradict your ludicrous statements. The book “The North American Indian” contains thousands of photos of the Indians and their surroundings. Instead of the blighted landscape you describe as devoid of trees or wildlife where the “interior valleys and foothills of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue had very little dead wood for a very long time” and “very few dead trees or large, woody debris”, the photographs show the people living in a lush landscape of forests and meadows including an abundance of both living and dead wood. Where do you get your alternative facts?

    Photographs taken of tribes such as the Shasta and Klamath, the Salishan, Quileute, Willapa and the Nootka and Haida clearly show them living in the proximity of forests likely much more healthy and alive than the concrete and asphalt world where most Americans now live out their lives. From your dishonest statements it is clear your comments and views are intended to mislead with biased and unscientific anecdotes rather than thoughtful peer reviewed research.

    That is made even clearer with your statement that instead of scientific research you are

    “far more interested in directly reaching a much wider audience of rural families and outdoor recreationists than I am of talking to a narrow focus of academics…. Mostly, though, I have been working with rural and inner-city school kids the past 20 years building websites for long-term research and education purposes. I also give lectures, lead workshops, am often interviewed on the radio and for publications, and host tours — all apparently outside the purview of the Web of Science. Knowledge is a combination of education and research is a saying I deeply agree with.”

    Obviously you are much more interested in spewing unproven propaganda among “rural and inner-city school kids — outside the purview of the Web of Science Knowledge” than the challenging world of real live scientific research. Poisoning young minds with hearsay, anecdotes and misinformation shows you are nothing more than a shameless shill.

  10. John Rust Avatar
    John Rust

    Bob Zybach, My post said nothing about the *amount* of dead, standing or fallen, trees in Western Oregon. The link provided commentary that indicated that dead, standing and fallen trees, provide valuable ecological benefits to many species. Do you deny that?

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      John: No denial — just that it wasn’t a common element through much of western Oregon for the reasons I’ve given. Which are well documented despite the misleading assertions, condescension, and name-calling of the anonymous contributors to this discussion. “Valuable ecological benefits” are in the eye of the beholder. The thing about dead wood is that it makes great firewood, tools, canoes, and building materials — which are almost universally considered “valuable benefits.” Also, it is major contributor to most forest wildfires.

    2. snaildarter Avatar

      Bob I haven’t seen any name calling in this discussion, but it appears that your perspective is strictly from the human point of view. Many of the folks who post here take an ecological view where dead trees are an important part of the living ecosystem, so is life in the canopy of a mature forest. Managing or “improving” a forest for humans usually destroys much of the rich diversity of a living forest system where fire often plays an important positive role.

        1. Immer Treue Avatar
          Immer Treue

          On my agenda for tonight. Thanks.

  11. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Dr. Zybach – are you saying that people know better and can improve upon how forests have evolved around the life and death of trees? Must we take it all for our own needs, all the time, at the expense of forests and wildlife?

    I just lost an over-60 footer during a strong windstorm recently (it missed my house) and I’m always heartbroken because so many are taken down by people deliberately and needlessly. I always keep the dead trees and fallen trees around if they are not a danger.

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      Hi Ida: I guess I am saying that — for the most part — we do “know better and can improve” on our environment, including forests. I think many of us need solitude, or wildlife, or other things we value from a forest as a large part of our “needs.” Your values include dead trees “if they are not a danger” around your home, which also likely contains a fair amount of dead trees. You are fortunate to be able to make decisions on your own land with your own trees to serve your personal values. Public forests are, of course, a lot trickier.

  12. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, but in regard to old and dead stuff… I attended a MN DNR presentation a few years ago at the International Wolf Center about Marten and Fishers. Numbers were down as per observation and trapping harvests. Common denominator was lack of old dead trees, whether standing, or on the ground that the two aforementioned mustelids use for denning, escape, safety, etc, as logging had cleared out many the prime marten aand fisher habitat.

  13. snaildarter Avatar

    Your comment to Ida “Your values include dead trees” further demonstrates that you are only thinking in human terms. I don’t believe we can improve on Wilderness except to add back things we have thoughtlessly removed like beavers, wolves and grizzly bears. There must be spaces left on this planet where humans don’t manage it for their benefit. Mother Nature can do just fine without our help. A forest and a tree farm are two different things. “Woe into you who put house to house and field to field until you are alone upon the land” Isiah 5:8.

  14. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I do value dead trees for their part in nature – wildlife habitat, especially bird habitat, and they are beautiful in their own right. Moss covered and fungi covered, and you can’t duplicate that restful shade of moss green anywhere.

  15. Nancy Avatar

    It is, what it is:

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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner