The aftermath of the 2011 156,000-acre Los Conchas Blaze in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent commentary 30×30 not the answer to stop destructive wildfires by Jerry G. Schickedanz, has numerous inaccurate assumptions about wildfire.

His comments repeat many common misunderstandings of fire ecology and how natural systems function. He advocates more logging to solve large wildfires.

It may seem intuitive that the removal of trees will reduce large blazes, but what is intuitive isn’t always accurate. I can show that it’s intuitive to argue that the sun circles the Earth. After all, any fool can see the sun rises in the East and set in the West. But what is intuitive is incorrect. We all know that the Earth circles the sun.

Similarly, while it may seem intuitive that logging should reduce wildfires, a more nuanced and opposite story is emerging in scientific studies.

Blue Range Wilderness, New Mexico. Mr. Schickedanz attributes large wildfires to wilderness protection that prohibites logging. Photo George Wuerthner 

Mr. Schickedanz asserts that land protection by the Wilderness Act and other policies has resulted in a “non-use, no-management plan has produced a tinder box for intense wildfires.”

He argues that “The timber industry should be given the opportunity to be revived. They should be able to harvest trees that will thin the forest and reduce the extreme fire potential. This would also contribute to the local economies and provide healthy fire resilient forests.”

The coastal forests of Oregon and Washington have the greatest biomass of any forest type in North America, yet seldom burn because the moist, cool climate inhibits fire spread. Photo George Wuerthner

If Mr. Schickedanz is correct, we should find the largest fires occurring in areas with the greatest biomass or fuel. For instance, the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington have more biomass per acre than 100 acres of other vegetative types that burn regularly, but these coastal forests seldom burn. Why? Because the climate is cool and moist. Climate/weather, not fuels, drives most large western fires.

Numerous studies around the West have found that the most severe wildfires are located in areas with active timber management. For example, one study that looked at 1500 fires in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests (these are the forests most people suggest are “overstocked”)  concluded: “We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.”

In other words, lands in wilderness, parks, and other reserves where logging is prohibited usually burn at lower severity than areas with active timber management.

These two graphics demonstrate how logging seldom stops large climate-driven fires. The map on the left shows the fire severity of the Holiday Farm Fire which burned across the western slopes of the Oregon Casades during Labor Day in 2020 The red indicates high severity burn, green low severity or no burn. Note the blue reservoir on the lower right corner of the map. That is Cougar Reservoir. In the Google Earth, you see the same reservior in the same lower right location. Note how the majority of the yellow and red burn areas were in clearcuts while the green dominates areas where there was no logging (upper right corner in both map and google earth).

Similarly, another study concluded that Industrial timberlands, where presumably you have “active forest management” and regular logging activity, burned at higher severity than other lands. The same study concluded that fire weather was a bigger predictor of fire severity than ownership or management practices.

Logging as seen here on Quilnault Reservation in Washington leaves behind large amounts of flammable slash and fine fuels which is what drives wildfires. Photo George Wuerthner 

Contrary to popular perception, another recent study by Oregon State University researchers found that “Of all ignitions that crossed jurisdictional boundaries, a little more than 60% originated on private property, and 28% ignited on national forests. Most of the fires started due to human activity.”

The bright colors within the Bootleg Fire, are all areas which experienced some “active forest management”. According to the analysis 75% of the area burned had been previously treated. Map by Bryant Baker. 

We have lots of recent evidence that “active forest management” is a failure when you have extreme fire weather conditions. For example, an analysis of forest management of the area burned by the 400,000-acre Bootleg Fire, the largest fire in Oregon last year, found that 75% of the area had been “treated” with some “active forest management.”

In many parts of the West, the largest blazes occur in non-forested areas  like sagebrush where “thinning or active forest management” will have no effect. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even if logging were effective  in reducing large wildfires (which it is not), most acreage burned in wildfires in the West is non-forest—chaparral, sagebrush, grasslands—that logging treatment will not affect. For example, the largest fire in Oregon was the 2012 Long Draw fire which burned 557,000 acres of sagebrush.

Similarly, in 2019, most acres burned by wildfires in California were grass and shrubs, not timber.

Wind is the most important factor in fire spread. Wind is not linear in its effect, but expodential. The higher the wind speed, the faster a fire spread.  Wind can loft embers several miles ahead of a fire front. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is no question among most fire ecologists that climatic conditions drive large blazes.  The Southwest, as with the rest of the West, is experiencing the most severe drought in a thousand years. It is foolish for anyone to think that “historic” conditions can be “restored” when the very climatic conditions are unprecedented. The current drought is similar to the conditions that drove the Anasizi people from their cliff dwellings to permanent water along the Rio Grande.

The continuing drought has eliminated the “lake” in “Lake Powell” in Utah. Photo George Wuerthner 

For example, one recent study concluded: “Large human-caused wildfires occurred, on average, coincident with higher wind speeds than small human-caused wildfire and large lightning-caused wildfire. These results suggest the importance of winds in driving rapid fire growth.”

Logging is the single biggest contributor to GHG emissions in Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

The irony of more logging to reduce wildfires is that timber production releases more carbon into the atmosphere than wildfire. For example, 35% of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions are from the timber industry in Oregon, but wildfires contribute to less than 4% of emissions.

Thus, ramping up logging to reduce wildfires exacerbates the very conditions accelerating fire spread. Plus, larger trees are not what burns in a forest fire. It is fine fuels like grass, shrubs, and small trees, which is why you get snags left after a blaze.

A final problem with the idea that more logging will reduce wildfires is that thinning the forest tends to exacerbate fire spread by increasing the drying of fine fuels (which is what burns in a fire and increases wind penetration.

Aftermath of wildfire in Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. The snag forests left after a severe fire is critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Many wildlife and plant species depend on burned landscaps for their habitat. Photo George Wuerthner 

In a letter to Congress, more than 200 scientists stated: We have watched as one large wildfire after another has swept through tens of thousands of acres where commercial thinning had previously occurred due to extreme fire weather driven by climate change. Removing trees can alter a forest’s microclimate, and can often increase fire intensity.”

The way to reduce large wildfires is to reverse climate warming, and protecting forests from logging helps to store carbon for decades and centuries. At the same time, timber production releases carbon immediately into the atmosphere.

The best way to protect communities is to start from the house outward and reduce the flammability of structures.

More logging will only contribute to a greater number of severe fires and degrade our forest ecosystems simultaneously.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

4 Responses to Response to Fire Commentary in Las Cruces Paper: Drought, not Fuels, Drives Wildfire

  1. Robert Sheridan says:

    BINGO,and we have a winner.
    Only problem is the entrenched ignorance of the Divided State of America. My hat is off to and admiration boundless for Georges’ constant ‘truth be told’. But, and the biggest of butts, we are doomed with the replacement of our sacred democracy, by the simplistic/’intuitive’ propaganda arguments, propagated by minions with limitless $$$, of The NewMerican Kleptocracy. Now go rake the forests for christs sake. And to further add, my observations are based on 20+ years of boots on the ground wildland fire experience and having recently returned from the monumentally botched and bungled nameless/unnamed fire

  2. Ctws says:

    Did you have permission from the Tribes to take that photograph from Highway 26? If not, that picture is proof you were trespassing. That area is a closed area, and it is posted no treapassing.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      This comment is a classic example of why Native Americans must not be given control of our precious public lands!

  3. As always, thanks so much for your hard work debunking the chainsaw medicine snake oil salesman who are making wildfire worse. So grateful for those PDFs. Keep ’em coming!

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey