Misinformation Raging Like Wildfire
The influence of fire suppression is exaggerated. The idea that there was a “hundred years” of fire suppression ignores the fact that in the early 1920s and 1930s as much as 50 million acres burned annually. Furthermore, climate controls fires, as indicated by the cool, moist decades between the 1940s-1980s. Courtesy of Ralph Bloomer.
With large fires still raging around the West, we can all feel empathy for those who lost their homes and even entire communities and all of us suffering from the smoke.
Still, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors about the blazes and their cause.
The timber industry, Forest Service, and forestry schools are quick to suggest that logging can reduce large blazes. Rushing to log forests will not solve the problem; indeed, it can worsen it. More subsidized logging takes funds away from solutions that can protect communities.
First, we must address many of the misguided information.
1. Climate change is driving much of the massive blazes we are experiencing in the West. Higher daily temperatures, extreme drought, low humidity, and high winds resulting from climate change exacerbate vegetation’s flammability. Severe fire weather is driving large blazes, not fuels.
Wind drives all large blazes. Without wind, fires don’t spread fast or far.
2. The idea that Indian burning kept fuels low, hence prevented large stand replacement blazes, is an exaggeration. The fire intervals recorded in charcoal studies and other methods have shown that large fires were always occurring before the advent of Euro American occupation.
3. You can only get a massive fire when the weather conditions are favorable. It doesn’t matter who or what is the source of ignitions. Indians could not burn much of the landscape because most of the landscape does not burn unless you have extreme fire weather conditions—which do not occur in most years.
4. The majority of plant communities in the West have long “intervals” of hundreds of years between significant blazes. The Douglas fir forests on the west slope of the Cascades now burning in Oregon tend to have natural fire intervals of 300-500 years. Fire suppression has not altered the natural fire cycle at all.
Lush old growth Douglas Fir forest Willamette NF, Oregon. Such forests burn on intervals of hundreds of years. Photo by George Wuerthner
Most plant communities, including lodgepole pine, aspen, sagebrush, juniper, high elevation fir forests, and so on tend to experience fires hundreds of years apart. During this period, they are accumulating fuels, but that is the natural consequence of their ecology, not fire suppression.
Consider that the 1910 Burn of Idaho and Montana that charred over 3.5 million acres occurred long before “active fire suppression.”
5. High severity fires do not destroy forests. They rejuvenate them. Large fires create much-needed habitat for numerous species. Some studies suggest up to 2/3 of all wildlife species depend on the snag habitat and down logs that result from such blazes.
Snags and down wood are biological legacies critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Photo by George Wuerthner
6. Winds are the driving force in all large fires. Over the past three decades, I’ve traveled all over the West to view the aftermath of larger blazes in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, and California. In every instance, with no exceptions, high winds were the essential and critical variable.
When you have high winds, it blows embers over and through any “fuel reduction” projects. That is why fires like the 2017 Eagle Fire in Oregon was able to cross a mile and a half of the Columbia River to ignite fires in Washington. Many other fires are crossing 16 lane freeways, clearcuts, and other areas with little or no “fuel.” The idea that we can preclude large fires by more “active forest management” is pure delusion.
Clearcut and “active forest management” on Willamette NF where massive wildfires are currently burning. Photo by George Wuerthner
7. Indeed, active forest management can contribute to more massive and more severe fires because it opens up the forest to greater drying and more wind penetration. One recent study reviewed 1500 fires around the West and found the highest severity blazes occurred in areas with “active forest management” while protected landscapes like wilderness areas where presumably fuels were higher, burned less intensely.
This google earth photo shows the massive clearcuts on the western slope of the Cascades along the Mckenzie River where one of the large blazes is burning. Obviously “active forest management” has not slowed the fire spread.
Plus, after logging, you enhance the growth of shrubs, grasses, and small trees, which are the fine fuels that carry fires. Removing large trees as advocated by the timber industry is a false solution since large trees do not readily burn—instead is it is the small fuels like needles, small branches, and cones, which are the primary fuel for fires. That is why you have snags left after a fire—the large boles do not burn efficiently.
In many cases, forest management has increased the fire frequency, not reduced it. There is a direct correlation between roads (which are built to log the forest) and an increase in human ignitions.
8. Much of what is burning in the massive California fires and elsewhere in the West is not forested, but chaparral, grasslands, sagebrush, and other non-forested habitats. So “active forest management” would have no influence upon much of the acreage currently in flames.
Much of the acreage burned annually in California is chaparral as seen here on the Cleveland NF in southern California. Photo by George Wuerthner
9. We cannot preclude large fires through forest management, but we can reduce the impacts on humans. An emphasis on reducing communities’ flammability, planning escape routes, burying power lines, and other proven measures can reduce human suffering.
Wind topples trees on to powerlines causing many blazes. Thirteen of the blazes that burned down communities along the Santiam River like Detroit Lake, Oregon were started by downed power lines. Instead of spending money on logging forests, we could redirect towards reducing ignitions by burying powerlines. This is near Bend, Oregon. Photo by George Wuerthner
10. The ultimate cause of these massive conflagrations is climate change. We need to address the causes of global climate change and make this a national priority.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
18 Responses to Misinformation Raging Like Wildfire
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Clarity! Thank you.
Thank George, been waiting for your thoughts!
🙂 That’s what I was thinking too!
More actual clear information like this is needed to combat the knee-jerk reaction of more logging!
Having heard the “forest management” or “raking” that will take care of wildfires from this administration? Pretty idiotic. But then – when someone’s idea of “nature” is the green of a golf course – exactly what could we expect?
I hope & pray that there is something left of our forests & wilderness areas by next year. We MUST keep on being loud & very vocal about this – all of us.
I have been waiting for George’s analysis since he has the science right. I am hoping that people will support Wuerthner’s writing as it is the sensible analysis that forestry schools (like my Utah State alma mater)and USFS ought to be teaching.
On Sept. 24 the draft plan of the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council will be released, for a 30-day public comment period. I have been listening in since January, and provide the only public comment. The council comprises loggers, ranchers, county commissioners, and state DNRC planners, with the federal gov’t signing on to the ‘partnership’ with locals. They had a scientist but he left, and may not have been replaced. The Plan is to accept proposals to log federal, state and private lands through grants, to “Improve forest health and reduce fire risk.” Five million acres are under consideration, and their model picks “priority areas” but RFPs (requests for proposals) outside priority areas are okay too.
I have submitted many records from George’s work and others to the council, proving that climate scientists “do” know about fire and future conditions, contrary to our prez who says ‘scientists don’t know’…
One issue would like to add to George’s good summary — due to a century of intensive logging, we have already lost most of our late-successional forests in the Northwest, and as a result, landscape resilience has been lost. The large, high intensity fires occurring now in remaining old/unlogged forests have a much more significant impact on wildife and biodiversity than they did historically when these habitats were much more widespread. A century of logging, together with climate change, are driving old forests way below historic minimums. Unfortunately, all fires are no longer ecologically beneficial because of this.
George – this is a such a strong overview and the photos tell the whole story. Thanks very much,
but,but,but, can’t we just go rake “all” the forest floors and solve this problem. (I know, not funny, but what about this year has been? especially with the moron in chief we have.)
Hi Evan – while it is true that old forests have declined, keep in mind that the NW Forest Plan anticipated further losses and thus far those losses have been within the expected level as LSOG is actually increasing in the NW Forest Plan Area. And I have to disagree that large fires are not ecologically beneficial. Chad Hanson and I wrote a book on this – subtitled Nature’s Phoenix – that documents the importance of complex early seral forests generated from a severe fire in a mature stand – it’s as biodiverse and rare as old growth (due to salvage logging). Bird and small mammal richness is highest in this seral stage and there have been no statistical increases in acres, patch sizes, or proportion of high severity in much of the West. So I don’t see a problem currently. We also documented extensive forest regeneration even in the largest high severity patches far removed from the nearest low/moderate burn patch. I do, however, see a problem with the recent uptick in fires having a strong climate signal. Those fire increases also are related to human-caused fire ignitions. So if the concern is too much fire, then the only way out of this mess is having a rational climate policy, storing more carbon in forests, closing and obliterating logging roads, and greatly reducing grazing (see Beschta et al. 2012). Hope you are well – cheers
I suggest referring these as plantation fires rather than forest fires. IMV, the argument needs different framing. Forests are diverse, mixed. These large Oregon fires occurred largely on uniform monocultures.
As you say, 85% of fires are unnatural human caused. Once started, the walls of fire are a result of industrial plantations and blame needs be placed correctly on the corporate and political actors who maintain this business model that results in death, taxpayer billions in disaster relief and billions more on ‘resiliency’ and ‘treatments.’
Strange how that explanation never seems to come up, isnt it?
George, thank you. I largely agree with you about forest fires in the west. There is little evidence that historic forest fires in high precipitation areas burned in intervals less than several hundred years. However, in precip zones at about 30-20 inches – the ponderosa pine zone – fires were frequent and very often attributed to cultural burning. Between 25 and 12 nches of precip, cultural burning was frequent and kept grass ecology in early seral stages to benefit bison, pronghorn and bighorns. Below 12 inches of precip conditions were ripe for range fires rarely. Sparse vegetation was not conducive for wild fires. Until, of course, cheat grass became the ecological driver.
Thanks for your work.
You may be interested in a book I have recently published on Idaho wildlife. It is available at alibris.com. ISBN 9780578661490.
All the best.
Excellent article & timely. I have been sharing George’s various “it’s not the fuel, stupid” articles frequently.
At risk of being pegged as a conspiracy believer, I’d like to know if ongoing NASA geo-engineering is a factor in climate change and wildfire events?
Are there any scientific articles addressing this question?
I was at your 2018 presentation for FANS at CRR.
I’d like to see an interview with you in the Source, Nugget, or Cascade Business News.
I learned a lot from your presentation and your book.
I’d like to see/ hear your perspectives on local media. KPOV?
Thanks for your work!
Very interesting – could be if our own country’s indigenous people were listened to – and the actual science was listened to – who knows – it just might improve things!!
“I love land management, I love looking after my land, my land is my mother, our mother, and she looks after us, so it’s only right we look after her.”
It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. :’)