High Country News Needs Better Fire Reporting
Wildflowers along the North Fork of the Salmon River near Salmon, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner
High Country News tries to portray itself as a source of environmental news, but reporting on wildfire issues often leaves much to be desired.
In its recent June 1, 2021 article Wildfire and A Forest Worth Fighting For, High Country News has some good pieces of information—mainly unrelated to fire ecology–and repeats many of the misguided and flawed assumptions guiding federal wildfire policies.
The piece begins recounting the July 2012 Mustang Fire effect that burned 336,028 acres north of Salmon, Idaho, near the communities of North Fork and Gibsonville.
Fire camp along the Salmon River as base of operations to fight the Mustang Fire. Photo George Wuerthner
The article suggests the communities were spared because a “forest-thinning project had started the spring before in the Hughes Creek drainage.” Whether this thinning protected the communities can be questioned. Maybe it did, but often where forest “fuel reductions” are credited with “saving” a community, there are other reasons why a fire might have changed its behavior.
Typically, when thinning “appears” to slow or stop a fire, there is another explanation. The weather changed: the wind speed dropped, the humidity rose, or perhaps topography influenced the fire spread.
The Mustang Fire was started by lightning in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner
Another factor specific to the area is the steept terrain in the immediate area. These communities are valleys down-slope from the fire. A fire burning downslope is less intense and slower than a blaze burning up a mountain where preheating of the fuel leads to more rapid fire spread.
In the first few paragraphs, the article repeats the often-heard justification for logging that thinning would cause a fire to drop to the ground.
As a result, the author repeats the Forest Service assertion that the thinning encouraged the Mustang wildfire to “amble along the forest floor rather than brush up against tree branches and carry flames from trunk to treetop, torching entire stands and making firefighting untenable.”
High severity blazes are driven by extreme fire weather. Such weather-driven blazes do not “amble” along the forest floor.
High severity fires don’t “amble along the forest floor”. Under extreme fire weather conditions, they frequently move rapidly through the forest crowns.
Such blazes are critical for healthy forest ecosystems. The snag forests that result from crown fires provide the second-highest biodiversity of all forest communities. In the aftermath of such fires, you will find more butterflies, more bees, more bats, more birds, more fish, and even more flowers, shrubs, and fungi.
However, numerous studies have found that thinning does not slow or preclude large wildfires under extreme fire weather conditions. It can even increase fire spread and fire severity. For instance, a study that looked at 1500 fires across the West found that fire severity was often more significant in stands that had experienced a “fuel reduction” than found in unlogged stands. https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ecs2.1492
Indeed, in the next paragraph is a recognition of how much weather can influence fire fighting efforts. A Forest Service employee acknowledges that thinning only worked on the Mustang Fire “as long as the weather cooperated.”
The Salmon River and the steep terrain that characterizes the landscape. Most homes are located in the river bottom. Photo George Wuerthner
One of the positive quotes in the article is where Chuck Mark, the Forest Supervisor in Salmon, “sees wildfire as inevitable.” (I’ve seen Mark under attack by the Salmon Idaho wackos in a public forum on wildfire, and he is exceptionally good on fire issues and dealing with a hostile audience).
However, he is under the gun to do something, and that something typically involves logging the forest. Given the right-wing politics of Salmon, Idaho, he is probably doing the best he can under the circumstances.
Further along in the article, we accompany the author and Mark to an overlook where they view beetle-killed trees. The article implies that bark beetles are a problem and likely increase forest fires. Yet, numerous research articles have demonstrated that areas with significant bark beetle infestations are less likely to burn than a green forest. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/42/15120 http://online.sfsu.edu/parker/bio821/papers/Students2014/Ellen-Brianna/BlackEtAl2013BarkBeetles.pdf
Beetle kill trees are less likely to burn than green trees because they have lost needles and other fine fuels. Photo George Wuerthner
The reason has to do with what burns in a forest fire. Trees do not burn—at least not much-maybe the outer bark will ignite. But the larger trees usually survive fires as snags. The main combustibles in any fire are called “fine fuels,” meaning grass, pine needles, small trees, shrubs, and the like. This is one reason why thinning and removing larger trees does not effectively reduce fire spread.
In contrast to bark beetle-killed trees (or trees killed by drought, disease, other mortality), green trees not only have an abundance of fine fuels like needles and small branches, but these contain volatile oils and resins that are highly flammable. Thus, a tree whose internal moisture has dropped due to drought, low humidity, and high temperatures are more volatile than a dead tree.
Snags remaining from the 1910 Big Burn as seen here in the Kelly Creek drainage of the Clearwater NF. This 3.5 million-acre blaze occurred long before there was any “fire suppression” to create a “fuel build-up”. What drove the 1910 Big Burn is the same factors that drive all large blazes: drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and wind. Photo George Wuerthner
The author then recalls the 1910 Big Burn that charred over 3.5 million acres of Northern Idaho and western Montana. This huge fire is credited with prompting the Forest Service to suppress wildfire. The young Forest Service saw the 1910 blaze as an opportunity to grow the bureaucracy and funding by becoming the Nation’s firefighting agency. This opportunity for bureaucratic growth based on fear of wildfire is not lost on today’s Forest Service.
One irony often missed by those who cite the 1910 Big Burn is that it occurred long before effective “fire suppression” could “build up fuels.” If fire suppression is the reason for large blazes, one must explain how the 1910 Big Burn could have occurred. However, if you read the historical accounts, the Big Burn fits the pattern of all large blazes. Drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most important-very high winds all drove the 1910 Big Burn. Those same factors still cause all large fires of today.
Next, the author mentions how some tree species like lodgepole pine are adapted to fire. And indeed, they are. Lodgepole pine, for instance, has waxy cones that open to drop seeds when heated.
Lodgepole pine tend to have fire rotations that are in the hundreds of years. In other words, they only burn when the right climate/weather conditions are conducive to a significant burn. They do not burn simply because there is fuel. The author asserts that “fire suppression” has altered the natural cycle by allowing fuels to accumulate.
However, lodgepole pine and most of most forest species in the West possess long fire rotations. It is entirely natural for fuels to accumulate, and it has nothing to do with fire suppression. If, for instance, a typical stand of lodgepole pine burns on average every 200 years, even if fire suppression was successful (another point of contention), it has not been effective long enough to have any influence on “unnatural fuel build up.”
The solution proposed by the Forest Service Supervisor Mark is to embark on “thinning forests and setting prescribed burns — controlled fires in specific areas to clear out the underbrush so that subsequent fires burn less intensely.”
Thinning lodgepole pine on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The removal of large trees as appears in this photo does not result in less fire spread. Large trees don’t burn–they remain after a high severity blaze as snags. Photo George Wuerthner
However, thinning (unless it is entirely focused on small trees, which is seldom the case) removes larger trees that do not burn in a blaze, decreasing tree density.
The problem that is not acknowledged is that logging does not change the weather.
Only much further in the piece does he provide some pushback by quoting Dominick Dellasalla of Wild Heritage and a fire ecologist who explains why thinning is rarely effective in precluding large blazes.
Logging has two effects on fire seldom mentioned. Thinning opens the forest to greater sun and dries out the soil and vegetation, and allows greater wind penetration—both factors that contribute to fire spread. That is why various studies have shown that logging and prescribed burning tend to exacerbate fire spread. Unlogged forests tend to burn at lower fire severity overall.
The article then explains how these flawed observations are exploited by the Forest Service to justify Categorical Exclusion (CE) authority. CE allows the agency to approve logging projects without doing a full NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review of the consequences. Originally CEs were designed to avoid overly cumbersome paperwork to fix picnic tables in a campground or change a few signs on forest roads.
As the article notes, “the agency doesn’t have to provide rigorous documentation of possible environmental harm or justify its actions to commenters — or even respond to comments at all. The only way for the public to get that kind of response is a lawsuit.”
Today the agency can use CE to log up to 3,000 acres without any significant review. It can do another timber sale right next door as soon as it is done with one 3,000 acre project, which obliviously significantly increases the cumulative impacts.
The article points out that between 2005 and 2018, 80% o the Forest Service projects have been approved under this CE process.
The Challis-Salmon Forest has decided to use Categorical Exclusions provisions to allow prescribe burning and hand cutting of timber over 2.4 million acres and thinning on 1.4 million acres of the 2.4. All this without any significant public oversite. For an agency that does not really like public participation, CEs are a dream come true.
Many people believe more prescribed burning is a solution. However, in most instances, burning has little influence on large blazes under extreme fire weather. Plus, to the degree there is any effect at all, burning tends to stimulate more fine fuels, often resulting in greater amounts of biomass than before treatment. The only way to prevent this is to burn very frequently, which negatively impacts the forest and people, not to mention creating smoke nearly year-round.
Prescribed burns usually can’t preclude large fires driven by extreme fire weather. Photo George Wuerthner
The author repeats the often-cited idea that burning by indigenous people somehow made forests less prone to wildfires. However, quite a few scientific studies dispute this claim. Though Indian burning had some localized influence around villages, it did not significantly alter fire behavior across the landscape. For more details and reference, see: https://rewilding.org/indian-burning-myth-and-realities/
A thoughtful person would recognize the fallacy of the Native American burning theory. First, since large fires that burn any significant amount of the landscape only occur when you have extreme fire weather, most ignitions, whether from lightning or humans, do not burn much of the landscape. Typically, without the right weather conditions, they self-extinguish after burning an acre or less.
Second, we have evolutionary evidence that Indigenous burning did not radically alter the fire regimes of the West. Most plant communities, including higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, spruce, and other species, had very long fire rotations. If Indian burning were so widespread and had altered fire spread, we would have evidence for this in fire studies. Tree species favored by short fire intervals would dominate the forests, but this is not the case across the West.
If Indian burning occurred as frequently as some proponents suggest, we would not have large expanses of sagebrush which is intolerant of frequent fires. The fact that there are millions of acres of sagebrush, and species like sage grouse that evolved in these landscapes is evolutionary proof that human ignitions did not modify large areas of the West. George Wuerthner
Plus, some plant communities like sagebrush, chaparral, and others are intolerant of frequent fire. They do not survive fires. If Native American burning were as prevalent and frequent as some contend, we would not have sagebrush or chaparral ecosystems—both of which do not tolerate frequent burning– nor would we have the species like the sage grouse, sage thrasher, and other species that have evolved in these landscapes.
On the good side, the author articulates how and why collaboratives can be stacked with industry sympathizers. I will not go into all the reasons why collaboratives tend to undermine conservation but keep in mind that nearly all participates have some financial incentive to promote logging, from timber industry representatives to foresters whose jobs depend on logging. Even some conservation organizations have a financial interest in promoting collaboratives since they receive foundation support to attend meetings and “get along” with the members of the collaborative. https://rewilding.org/collaboration-traps/
Towards the end, the author goes out again with Forest Supervisor Mark, who explains that thinning will permit firefighters to get out in front of a fire if there is a thinned stand.
Again, what is not mentioned is that the only fires we want to stop, like the Mustang Fire, occur during extreme fire weather. Under extreme fire weather, firefighters do not get out in front of the blaze. They would likely die.
Under less than extreme weather, fuel modifications by thinning and prescribed burning might provide firefighters with enough safe space to attack ablaze.
However, these are not the fires that everyone is trying to halt. The fires burning thousands of acres like the Mustang Fire occur under extreme fire weather. As reported in Wildfire Today, the weather conditions of winds, low humidity, combined with drought conditions, were responsible for the fire spread. “On the Mustang Complex, the winds averaged 10 to 13 mph with gusts of 18 to 27 for about six hours, then slowed until they increased at 2 p.m. on Monday, blowing at 11 mph with gusts to 21 along with an RH of 13%. But at the Pinyon Peak weather station farther west, the winds have been consistently strong, averaging around 20 mph with gusts in the 30s and 40s.” https://wildfiretoday.com/tag/mustang-fire/?sfw=pass1622667929
The idea that logging/thinning can influence these fires has been challenged by numerous large blazes that have raced through and over previously logged/thinned stands. Large blazes like the Camp Fire that overrode Paradise, California, or the Labor Day Fires that ran through numerous clearcuts on the western slopes of the Oregon Cascades are all examples where “fuel reductions” failed.
A more nuanced review of any exceptions attributed to thinning demonstrates that the fire weather conditions changed. The wind died down. The humidity went up. The temperature dropped. All of these conditions can slow ablaze. But then the fire is no longer burning under “extreme fire weather.”
The good news is that Forest Supervisor Mark is debating whether to use the CE authority to make extensive fuel reductions or do a more thorough NEPA analysis. A complete NEPA analysis won’t correct the flawed assumptions about fire, fuels, and “active forest management.” Only a significant change in the Forest Service paradigm can affect such a change.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
3 Responses to High Country News Needs Better Fire Reporting
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HCN has a long history of sloppy reporting, especially concerning scientific issues. Many of their stories read like press releases from the USFS, BLM, etc. Also missing from this story is a critical look at the collaboratives–most are stacked with industry reps and politicians, and designed to subvert the NEPA and democratic processes. Thanks for your good review of this article, George. I doubt you’d have much luck getting HCN to publish a critical LTE–I never did.
Thanks for this detailed look at forest fires.
The dominant fire/fuels narrative espoused by most media deserves pointed criticism, but the harsh reality is that the number of large, stand-replacing/high intensity fires has increased dramatically in recent decades in forest systems that are not characterized by this type of fire(for example – California, Desert Southwest, Rocky Mtn Front). These large/intense fires are not ecologically benign and now threaten many species and ecosystem services. Case in point — study came out today reported ~10% of all remaining giant sequoias died from 2020 fires, catastrophic and unprecedented. We need to acknowledge that altered fire regimes, catalyzed by climate change as well as in many areas by human-caused changes to vegetation, now pose a significant threat to biodiversity and ecological health. All fire is not beneficial, and we need to come up with ways to better address this issue. Throwing stones can only go so far.