Response to Kendall Cotton on Wildfire

Logging opens forests to greater solar drying of vegetation and wind penetration, often resulting in greater fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner

The recent editorial by Kendall Cotton of the Frontier Institute represents the misguided assumptions surrounding wildfire. Cotton repeats the timber industry’s argument that logging/thinning can eliminate large blazes.

Reducing “fuels” is an attractive argument because it makes intuitive sense. The problem is that it doesn’t work, and in fact, can exacerbate fire spread.

Cotton makes it sound like all logging stopped for decades, when in fact, a vast acreage of Montana has experienced “active forest management,” and it has not slowed the amount of fire.

Here is a map of the recent Bootleg Fire in Oregon which charred more than 400,000 acres. The colored portions indicate some form of “active forest management.” Map by Bryant Baker. 

Structure burned to the ground in Bridger Canyon Fire near Bozeman. Note that the fire burned through hayed and grazed lands leaving 1 inch stubble. Photo George Wuerthner 

Removal of fuels hasn’t reduced fires at all. I’ve watched wind-driven blazes race across grazed pastures and hayfields. The Bridger Fire by Bozeman last fall burned across hayed meadows with one-inch stubble to destroy 30 homes. If one-inch stubble isn’t going to stop a wind-driven fire, does anyone seriously believe the removal of some large trees will stop ablaze?

This logged forest under “active forest management” by Chester, CA was recently charred by the Dixie Fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

What burns in a forest fire are the “fine” fuels like grass, shrubs, branches, and needles. That is why we have “snags’ after even the most severe forest fires. Removing large trees can even increase fire fuels with greater growth of grass, shrubs, small trees, and other flammable materials.

Second, the factors that promote large blazes, namely drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds, are not eliminated by logging.


An example of how wind speed increases fire spread exponentially. 

Wind influence on fire is exponential, not linear. So you get the hockey stick curve of fire spread that starts slowly then ticks upward at an increasingly rapid rate as wind speed increases.

Logging opens up the forest to greater solar drying of vegetation and wind penetration. In numerous instances, dense forests that are cool and shady often burn at low severity, while open forests tend to burn at higher severity.  That is why scientific review surveys that look at many fires have found that “active forest management” increases fire severity and spread in most cases.

Thinning often leads to more fuel on the ground. Photo George Wuerthner

A few exceptions do not invalidate this generalization.

Fire suppression, fuel build-up, or a lack of forest management are not responsible for the large blazes we are experiencing. Over the centuries, research has demonstrated a direct correlation between warming, drying climate/weather, and large fires.

The 1910 Burn that raced across 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana in two days resulted from drought and high winds. The 1910 Burn occurred long before anyone could assert that fire suppression was effective or that “unnatural fuel build-up” had happened.

Logging is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

One more inaccurate statement in Cotton’s commentary is the assertion that “active forest management” can reduce carbon releases. Far more carbon is released by logging than by fires. In Oregon, for instance, 35% of the state’s CO2 emissions are the result of logging—more than all the cars, jets, and other transportation.

The solution to our current situation is to reduce carbon emissions and thus climate warming. But, in the meantime, we must harden our homes and communities, so they are less vulnerable to the inevitable fires that will occur.

If you are walking towards a cliff, does it make sense to keep going “forward,” or should you stop and reassess the situation and walk away from the abyss?






  1. Joseph Trudeau Avatar
    Joseph Trudeau

    Can I get a higher resolution version PDF of that map of the bootleg fire?

  2. cynthia brown Avatar

    logging increases the fire rate and make is heavier but
    leaving dense breaks slows the fire


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