Walden on Wildfire–Misinformation Again

In a message on wildfires I just got from Congressman Greg Walden, he asserts, “A lack of management has left us with overstocked federal forests full of fuel just waiting to burn.” Unfortunately, his statement is full of misinformation.

He neglects to put this into context. In the decades between the 1940s and 1980s, the climate around the West was considerably cooler and moister. What happens when it’s cool and moist? Well, you don’t get many ignitions, and the ones you do get do not burn many acres. The decades between the 1940s and 1980s is precisely the period when the FS asserts that fire suppression was “effective.” However, if you understand fire ecology, one would be more inclined to say that Nature was effective at minimizing fires.

Waldon goes on to suggest that if we only “managed” our forests, we could reduce massive wildfires. Again this demonstrates a failure to understand how climate/weather are the dominant and driving force behind wildfires. Due to climate change, we are experiencing warmer and dryer conditions. These conditions favor fire ignitions and spread.

Many studies have concluded that under extreme fire weather—with high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly, high winds—it is impossible to halt or suppress wildfires. The fact is that we are having larger wildfires is due to the changing climate, not a result of a lack of “management.”

Contrary to what Walden suggest, “active management” thinning/logging tends to increase fire spread not decrease it. In a study in  Ecological Applications OSU professors, Dunn and Zald found that the hottest and most severe blazes occurred on private lands which are heavily logged.

Another 2016 study that looked at 1500 blazes across the West found that the highest severity burns were in actively managed forests, while the least severe blazes occurred in protected landscapes like national parks and wilderness. Again this flies in the face of the assertion that “management” will reduce fires.

The recent Camp Fire that burned 95% of the structures/homes in Paradise California was surrounded by “fuel reductions.” There had been two previous fires (fuel reduction), massive clearcutting on private Sierra Pacific timberlands (fuel reduction) and hazardous fuel reduction on public lands by the Forest Service. None of these “solutions” worked in the face of high winds.

The same situation has been repeated throughout the West. All large fires are wind-driven events, whereby embers are thrown far ahead of a fire front, causing numerous new fire starts. Against such conditions, “active forest management” is ineffective.

Besides, active management, in particular, logging the forest releases a tremendous amount of carbon, exacerbating the already growing climate warming that is in part, contributing to the increase in wildfires. Logging emits far more carbon than a wildfire. Recent studies in Oregon have concluded that logging is the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and releases far more carbon than a burnt forest.

Finally, logging is not benign. Besides emitting carbon, logging spread weeds, reduces forest biomass (read wildlife habitat), disturbs wildlife, increases sedimentation into streams (from logging roads), and reduces biodiversity.  If that were not enough, almost all forest service timber sales lose money.

The smoke that accompanies wildfires is a symptom of climate warming, not a lack of forest management. The solution is not more logging which will only contribute more GHG emissions to our atmosphere. We need to reduce logging, and make other changes in our behavior like eating less meat if we are going to tip the balance back towards fewer fires.


  1. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    It doesn’t matter to institutional inertia, political, bureaucratic or capitalistic. Walden, Wyden, Daines and Feinstein are all now feeding their own fires, cooking bacon.

    Of course, both Walden and Wyden currently point to the ‘success’ of the Lakeview Stewardship Unit and will moreso next year when the RRB bomb trains start rolling, credit claiming for ‘environmental jobs.’

  2. George Avatar

    It’s probably more useful to think of fires as “wildland” fires and not forest fires. The large fires in the Sierra (e.g. > 50k acres) mostly start in brush/oak woodland/grassland.They may burn up into conifer forest, but the destructive ones don’t usually start there. Which is just to say that thinning trees, increasing logging will make no difference on fire starts or rate of spread. I’ve got nothing against logging done in an environmentally responsible way, but using fire prevention as an argument for more logging is nonsense.

    You’re also right on clearances — either thinning or clear cuts. With high winds, fires just blast right through them. There’s even some anecdotal suggestion that open and recently logged areas allow more wind and, so, faster rate of spread than a more dense forest. I’m way less sure of this but worth studying.

    In any event,lower humidities, more extreme winds, hotter and longer summers predicted by warming models are more than enough to create high fire hazard conditions. Doesn’t take much to start a fire. Protecting communities are going to involve many disciplines, better building codes, and fuel reduction through prescribed burning and well placed fuel breaks. Suggesting that logging has a place is a distraction from the real work required.


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