Blood letting and wildfires

In Medieval society, if someone were sick, the common solution was to bleed the patient to rid the body of “bad” blood. If the patient recovered, then obviously bleeding was the cure. If the patient died, it was because not enough of the “bad” blood had been removed.

In many ways, our approach to wildfire and smoke is like Medieval blood-letting.

People are desperate to curtail the smoke, fires, and inconvenient created by wildfire so they grasp at anything that promises a “cure.”.

The common refrain we hear over and over is that we only “actively managed” forests to reduce fuels than we would “cure” the perceived smoke and fire problem.

Yet despite the millions of acres we have already treated thinning/logging and “active” management like prescribed burns we continue to see large wildfires across the West.

Most “active” management proponents believe the failure of the logging cure is mostly due to insufficient treatment—just like the Medieval doctors whose patients died because they didn’t remove enough of the “bad” blood.

But just as Medieval doctors had little understanding of the disease and how to treat it, most “active” management advocates fail to appreciate the cause of our large fires.

What drives large wildfires is climate/weather, not fuels. When you have extreme fire weather conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, almost nothing short of a change in weather will stop a blaze.  With climate change, all of these factors are exacerbated.

When we have fires that regularly jump across major rivers (like the Eagle Fire in Oregon that jumped the Columbia River) or the Thomas Fire by Santa Barbara, California that was only halted when it reached the Pacific Ocean (the only firebreak that held), one recognizes that fuel treatments are a placebo at best. They may make us feel good, but they don’t do much to halt large conflagrations across the landscape.

Not only do we spend tax money on inefficient and ineffective treatments, but there is also collateral damage that results from the thinning/logging. Essentially, we lose native forests, and the biodiversity they support and replace them with domesticated human-created landscapes.

Logging/thinning removes nutrients, biomass, carbon, can harm forest stand genetics, and disrupts watersheds, disturbs wildlife, helps to spread weeds, and compact soils. Not to mention that wildfire is critical to many plants and animals which depend on episodic mixed to high severity fires.

Furthermore, most federal timber sales lose money as well, so we are spending tax dollars on a “cure” that at best is questionable, if not futile.

Thus, there is really only two workable solutions. The first is learning to live with fire by making our homes and communities less vulnerable to blazes. This has been shown repeatedly to be the most cost-effective and efficient means of coping with wildfire.

The second part of the solution is more long-term. Since warming climate is contributing to increased fire on the landscape, reducing human-caused CO2 inputs will significantly reduce wildfire over time.



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  1. Bob Zybach Avatar

    George: There is no evidence that “warming climate is contributing to increased fire on the landscape,” unless you are referring to seasonal weather patterns. The 1930s, as one example, are still within the memory of many living people — a time when it was warmer, there were extended droughts, and a whole lot less human-created CO2 in the air. If you are referring to seasonal weather patterns, then you are correct.

    2) Your statements regarding active management and wildfire are misleading. I am guessing that when you refer to much of the recent “thinning” and “active management” processes taking place that you might be referring to government forests and/or urban areas. Actively managed privately owned and Tribal lands in the western US are not experiencing the degree of wildfires that have inundated our Wildernesses, US National Forests, and BLM forest and rangelands since 1987 — and they have the exact same climate as the federal lands.

    From 1952 until 1987 there was only a single forest fire in western Oregon in excess of 10,000 acres in size: the 1966 Oxbow Fire. During those years the federal forestlands in western Oregon were actively managed, with extended road systems, extensive clearcuts, and large-scale site preparation and reforestation projects in response to the national housing boom and international trade, and only the Oxbow Fire (ignited during a clearcut logging project on BLM land) as a major wildfire to contend with. One major wildfire in 35 years of active management.

    Last year (2107) there were ten such wildfires (greater than 10,000 acres each) in western Oregon — and every one began and mostly took place on federal forestlands; which comprise about half such land in Oregon.

    The strong one-to-one correlation between land ownership and land management patterns with major wildfire events over the past 66 years is striking. Climate has been relatively predictable and stable for the past 500 years, and recent federal forestland management policies predictably result in increased wildfire sizes and severity over time are the two conclusions I have come to.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Patrick Avatar

      I think George has said in previous posts that up until recently, the previous 50 years have been wetter than average, which contributed to a lower frequency of catastrophic fire, but the last few years have been much drier; hence more and more intense fires.

      1. Bob Zybach Avatar

        Patrick: Not sure what George says on this topic, but wetter years usually result in more flash fuels during the summer and fall. There is little or no correlation between “wetter years” (no matter how — or who — determined) and catastrophic wildfire events.These fires were accurately predicted many years ago based entirely on two factors: 1) federal ownership, and 2) passive management.

  2. Don Smith Avatar
    Don Smith

    Oregon’s biggest fire this year was the Klondike Fire, Rogue – Siskiyou National Forest. The fire perimeter was 211,801 acres. News reports present the fire perimeter as acres burned, ignoring acres not burned within said perimeter.

    According to the Forest Service’s Burned Area Response (BAER: soil burn severity report) for the Klondike Fire, within the fire perimeter:

    62,584 acres unburned
    103,340 acres low severity burn
    41,669 acres moderate burn
    4,209 acres high severity burn

    Much of this burn was in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

    Last year’s biggest fire was the Chetco Breaks Fire, also in the Kalmiopsis. The Chetco Breaks Fire BEAR report was very similar to that of the Klondike.

    Both of these fires were ecologically beneficial.

    1. Bob Zybach Avatar

      Don: I am sure your personal assessment of “ecologically beneficial” is accurate, whatever the perspective. Beginning with the Silver Complex in 1972, the Biscuit Fire of 2002, the Chetco Bar Fire of 2017, and now the Klondike Fire that is just now ending — EVERY ONE of them started in the Kalmiopsis. That is statistically significant. The Kalmiopsis was one of the world’s very first Wilderness areas and was created specifically to protect a number of unusual endemic plants. What do you think the effect of these fires has been on those specific populations? Would that be a type of measure of “ecologically beneficial?” Lots of unhealthy smoke, limited access, millions of dead trees and animals, fried soils, etc. I would say that this fire was predictable and preventable, incredibly damaging to the wildlife and human populations, and was an unnecessary event mostly comprised of negative effects on all involved. My perspective is different than yours.

      1. Bob Zybach Avatar

        All thumbs. “Last year” was actually 2017 and the Silver Complex was in 1987.

    2. Don Smith Avatar
      Don Smith

      Living less than 10 air miles from the Kalmiopsis, I followed closely both the Chetco and Klondike fires. Rather than presenting my own views, better I provide the following first hand, on the ground report:

      1. Bob Zybach Avatar

        Don: This is like putting lipstick on a pig. The bias of this reporting is blatant and one-sided from a “wildfire good” angle. Opposing viewpoints are easy to locate with Google — and greatly outnumber these types of rationales. Not sure if you were upwind or downwind from these events, but I have been following them closely since doing graduate research on the Silver Complex in 1989. If you have been following these fires as closely as you claim, then you should at least know their names.

  3. Patrick Veesart Avatar
    Patrick Veesart

    Recent mega-fires in California were driven by low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds – all of which have reliably worsened in recent years. If you don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is at least a factor in all this, then you are not paying attention. Cutting down trees or “controlled” burns increase carbon in the atmosphere, raise temperatures, and lower humidity. Please don’t destroy California’s remaining woodlands and Chaparral in the name of fire protection. We need to stop developing in high-fire areas and people who live in high-fire areas need to take responsibility for where they live and take appropriate measures to protect their homes.

  4. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Our illustrious Secretary of Interior claims that there are too many dead and dying trees in federally managed forests and that federal forests are therefore a danger to private lands and communities. He did however, mention recently that the forest around Whiskeytown lake near Redding Calif., which was recently burned by the Carr fire was a good example of a properly managed forest. I guess he did not see that the fire in that area was so hot that portions of boat docks as well as moored boats were burnt down to the water line.

    The Carr fire spread to almost 230,000 acres, produced temperatures around 2,700 degrees F and spawned cyclonic storms with winds over 165 mph. Spot fires began burning as far out as 1 mile ahead of the main fire front. But most commenters would not concede that global warming had anything to do with it. Just bad luck I guess.

    Most people just don’t want to believe that global warming and increased solar radiation is real. Fox news comments ranged from the usual “the feds are to blame” to planned terrorist attacks, illegal alien invasion and careless homeless people, plus stupid remarks about the revenge of spotted owls etc.. Folks in the US are just too well trained and steeped in capitalistic propaganda or and are too afraid of their masters like Trump.

    Ecology has really become a kind of forensic science. We see the marks of death in various ecosystems. We see a history of destruction in North America but those of us who have been trained and have experience in ecology will be the first ones not listened to.

    So- might as well go have a beer and pizza while we still can. Some say that the beer supply will run down in 5 to 10 years because of global warmings effects on the barley supply. But haha- what do they know.

  5. John R. Avatar
    John R.

    Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity
    A. L. Westerling1,2,*, H. G. Hidalgo1, D. R. Cayan1,3, T. W. Swetnam4
    See all authors and affiliations

    Science 18 Aug 2006:
    Vol. 313, Issue 5789, pp. 940-943
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834
    Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th- and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

  6. John R. Avatar
    John R.

    Human-caused climate change is now a key driver of forest fire activity in the western United States
    Brian J. Harveya,1

    Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Oct 18; 113(42): 11649–11650.

    Effects of climate warming on natural and human systems are becoming increasingly visible across the globe. For example, the shattering of past yearly records for global high temperatures seems to be a near-annual event, with the five hottest years since 1880 all occurring since 2005 (1). Not coincidentally, the single hottest year on record, 2015, also broke records for area burned by wildfire in the United States (Fig. 1 A and B), eclipsing the previous high mark set just one decade prior (2). Scientists have known for some time that climate is a key driver of forest fires; records from the past and present (3–5) provide strong evidence that warmer temperatures are associated with spikes in fire activity. Therefore, recent increases in wildfire activity as the planet warms are not a surprise. However, just how much of the recent increases in forest fire activity can be attributed to human-caused climate change vs. natural variability in climate? This question has profound scientific, management, and policy implications, yet answers have thus far remained elusive. In PNAS, Abatzoglou and Williams (6) present strong evidence that human-caused climate change is increasing wildfire activity across wide swaths of forested land in the western United States. They demonstrate that human-caused climate change has lengthened the annual fire season (i.e., the window of time each year with weather that is conducive to forest fires) and, since 1984, has doubled the cumulative area in the western United States that would have otherwise burned due to natural climate forcing alone.

  7. Boris Seymour Avatar
    Boris Seymour

    Moritz, M.A., C. Topik, C.D. Allen, P.F. Hessburg, P. Morgan, D.C. Odion, T.T. Veblen, and I.M. McCullough. 2018. A Statement of Common Ground Regarding the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western United States. Fire Research Consensus Working Group Final Report.


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George Wuerthner