Fuel reductions are a major part of the Forest Service’s wildfire reduction plan. Photo George Wuerthner

Recently the Federal government released its Confronting Wildfire Crisis plan to control wildfires in the West. As with all previous programs, it focuses on removing “fuels” as its solution and calls for escalating fuel reductions (read logging) up to four times over current levels and treating up to fifty million acres of land.

To put this into perspective, the proposed treatment of 50 million acres is more than the entire acreage of the state of Washington (38 million acres).

The distorted worldview of the timber industry and federal agencies see forest ecosystems as “fuels” rather than important wildlife habitat or critical for carbon storage.

Ironically at about the same time as the new plan emerged, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the 340,000-acre Hermit Peak blaze, came to a quiet end this month. What stopped the fire? Was it firefighting? Did the fire run into fuel breaks? Did thinning halt its spread?

What happened is that the summer monsoon rains began to fall in New Mexico, and the Hermit Peak fire was quickly squelched.

What this demonstrates is how much the weather/climate influences wildfire. Extreme fire weather trumps fuels.

The Industrial Forestry complex continues to promote the idea that fuels are the problem, and more logging is the solution to ever-larger wildfires. However, logging/thinning to reduce wildfires is an excellent example of treating the symptom rather than the cause of large fires.

Never mind that the West is experiencing the most severe drought in a thousand years.

Clearcut “active forest management” in Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

There is a direct correlation between drought, temperature, wind, humidity, and the spread of fires. So if you have the right conditions, you get large fires. And nothing stops such fires until the weather changes like the Hermit Peak blaze.

Furthermore, we have evidence that logging/thinning does not significantly influence wildfires around the West. The opposite is true. Places with substantial logging, including private timber lands, often burn at the highest severity.

Map showing the perimeter of the Dixie Fire, California’s largest fire in 2021. Colored areas are previously treated with active foret management. Map Bryant Baker 

Examples of wildfires that burned through areas with significant past “active forest management” include the Dixie Fire (California’s most significant fire in 2021), Bootleg Fire (Oregon’s most enormous fire in 2021), the Holiday Farm fire (which charred massive clearcut lands on the west slope of the Cascades in 2020), the Camp Fire which burn down the town of Paradise California, to name a few.

The Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara burned through chappal and other shrub habitat. It burned across major fuel reductions like Hwy 100 and was only stopped by the “fire break” created by the Pacific Ocean. Photo George Wuerthner

Many of the largest blazes do not even occur in forested landscapes. The 281,000-acre Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara, the half-million-acre Long Draw Fire in Oregon, and the 280,000-acre Soda Fire in Idaho, among others, burned mainly through chaparral or sagebrush shrub.

Proposals to log the forest or even do control burns, except in the most strategic places, are likely to fail.

There are plenty of problems with logging as a solution. First, one can’t predict where a fire will occur, so the majority of all logging/thinning projects never experience a blaze at the time when they “might” influence fire behavior.

Second, no forester with a paint gun marking trees for removal can tell which individual has genetic resistance to drought, bark beetles, disease, or wildfire. Indeed, in many instances, logging reduces the “resiliency” of forests and degrades forest health.

Logging roads provide access for humans. More wildfire ignitions start on or near logging roads than elsewhere. Olympic NF, Washington. Photo George Wuerthner

Other factors also influence fires. For example, most human ignitions occur on or near roads. Thus the proliferation of logging roads that come with thinning/logging means more opportunities for unplanned ignitions.

And logging roads, because they favor growth of flammable weeds, also become natural corridors for fire spread.

While it may be difficult to accept, we see the landscape “adapting” to drier conditions across the West. Drought, insects, and wildfires are restoring evolutionary balance to the landscape plant communities by naturally selecting which vegetation can survive under the new climatic conditions.

The Wildlands Urban interface near Helena, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Reducing climate warming is critical to reversing this trend. Beyond this long-term solution, we can reduce the human cost by controlling home development in the Wildlands Urban interface, hardening the home with fire-resistant construction materials, and removing flammable materials from the home site. Planning for emergency evacuations is also critical.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

5 Responses to Hermit Peak Blaze, New Mexico’s Largest Wildfire, Goes Out With A Whimper

  1. Cambria Smith says:

    I completely agree with you. You made many valid points here based on facts. Thank you for your candor, without real science in terms of ecosystems and slowing global heating and preserving forests..we should listen more to people like yourself who are experts, so we can change and survive with our wild animals and their homes intact..healthy thick forests that are not ruined by government.

  2. As a NM resident, it is apparent to many of us that so-called “controlled/prescribed” burns are doing more damage to remaining forests.

    https://www.onceaforest.org/

  3. Martha S Bibb says:

    The Electra fire in California is burning totally within the burn scar of the 2015 Butte fire scar.if this is so how can “prescribed fire” limit fires? Logging out all the old fire resistant trees is equally as ineffective.

  4. Marc Bedner says:

    A week after this article was written, Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, officially 93% “contained,” is still not out.
    https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/8049/

    • Mark L says:

      “ The Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a pile burn holdover from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April. A holdover fire, also called a sleeper fire, is a fire that remains dormant for a considerable time” (from the article)
      Makes me wonder what percentage of fires are somehow (directly or indirectly) human caused. I think I remember reading about a fire in a Pennsylvania coal mine that’s been burning for decades

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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."

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