Proposed Wildfire Legislation Ignores Science

Recently it was announced by Montana Senator Steven Daines that he plans to introduce a bipartisan bill with Senator Diane Feinstein of California to protect communities from wildfire.

The senators are concerned that wildfire season is getting worse and large fires are a threat to communities. On both counts, the senators are correct. However, the premise of their proposed solution, which includes more logging of our forests is misguided.

The factors increasing fires are due to climate change. The scientific evidence suggests this is a result of burning fossil fuels. In other words, wildfires are a symptom of a more significant issue of human-induced climate warming, so ultimately, we must address the cause, not the symptom.

But logging our forests is also not a solution. Climate/weather, not fuels drive nearly all large fires. It is high temperatures, low humidity, drought and mainly winds that is responsible for all large (pejoratively called “catastrophic”) blazes.

A tremendous amount of research demonstrates that under such conditions, the usual “solutions” like prescribed burning, thinning forests, even clearcutting forests are ineffective and inefficient. This is mainly because high winds blow embers over, though, and around any “fuel reduction” projects.

There are three problems with the idea that thinning forests is effective.

First, studies show that only 1-2% of fires ever encounter a thinned or prescribed area.

Second, the majority of all acreage burned by fires occurs only during extreme fire weather. The fact that “active forest management” might appear to work under less than extreme weather conditions is irrelevant. Fires burning under less than extreme conditions typically self extinguish or are easily suppressed whether you treat forests or not.

Third, logging is not ecologically or economically benign. Logging removes carbon and biomass. It can disperse sensitive wildlife species. It spreads weeds.  It changes the forest age structure. Logging roads can fill streams with sediment to the detriment of fisheries.  And to add insult to injury, nearly all federal timber sales lose money–so we are subsidizing the degradation of the forest ecosystem.

Finally, logging/thinning doesn’t work to protect communities or reduce high severity fires.

For instance, one 2016 study reviewed over 1500 fires across the country and found that the highest severity burns were in areas with “active management.” By contrast, the least severe blazes were in protected landscapes like parks and wilderness where no logging or other “active” management is permitted.

More than 200 pre-eminent scientists signed a letter to Congress that concluded: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. … However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

Ironically both senators cite the recent Camp Fire which burned over 95% of the structures in Paradise, California as the reason for their legislation. Paradise is a perfect poster child of how fuel reductions fail to protect a community.

The forests surrounding Paradise had been burned in two recent wildfires (a fuel reduction), had “hazardous fuel reductions” on nearby Forest Service lands, while much of the Sierra Pacific private timberlands had been extensively clearcut during the past decade.  These logging operations are so prevalent, you can see these clearcuts on Google Earth.

The area around Paradise had more “fuel reductions” than most parts of the West, but it still did not save the town.

What did work is new housing codes that mandated building construction resistance to wildfire. For instance, of the homes built in Paradise since the codes were enacted in 2008, only about half burned, while 4 out of 5 older homes were consumed by flame.

Allowing people to build in fire risk areas is also a local problem that their legislation does not address. Up to a quarter of the population in Idaho and Montana live-in high-risk fire areas. County governments regularly approve new homes to be constructed in the “fire plain.”

These results demonstrate that reducing the flammability of homes and their immediate surroundings is the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce fire hazards.

Daines and Feinstein’s emphasis on more logging is like trying to drain the ocean to save a sinking lifeboat with water gushing through a hole in the bottom. It is far easier and more effective to plug the hole than try to drain the ocean.


  1. garet Avatar

    yes during extreme weather events nothing will stop a wildfire. The preventative measures are for the 0ther 330+ days a year. They work really good then.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    None of these politicians seem to think of range fires.

    In the Western United States originally, range fires, especially of large acreage, were not common. People might be surprised at this because we have become conditioned to seeing many dry “grassy” slopes burn every 5-10 years, and maybe more often.

    One way of keeping carbon on and in the ground would be a crash plan to develop a way of killing, or better, preventing the growth of cheatgrass, the non-native invader of over a hundred million acres of the Western range.

    They don’t even think about it. Say “wildfire,” and politicians think trees. So do most journalists.

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Deforestation for political expediency is what I call it. The whole ecosystem suffers. It is similar to a case of drug addiction.

    It creates a sense of false well being and then the temporary fix wears out- ecological pain and suffering occur and then another fix is applied. The soil dries out, productivity is lost, weeds grow rampant-it burns. The forest/range looks gaunt, discolored and sick and is losing more of its productivity–but just one more fix cries industry.

    The government/industrial complex is slowly killing the range and the forest and our chances for survival.

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