Wildfire–Road Removal A More Effective Wildfire Strategy

New road was created for a forest thinning project. Roads are a major location for human ignition. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Biden administration announced it would spend nearly $930 million fighting wildfire in the West. While the plan includes money for everything from hardening homes to paying for more firefighters, the main thrust of the proposal is to increase thinning/logging and prescribed burning to “reduce” fuels.

It is part of a 10-year plan to “treat” 50 million acres, an area bigger than all of New England.

Many of these “active forest management” treatments require road access, thus either creating new roads or being used as an excuse to keep existing roads open and available for forestry management.

The elephant in the room is that roads are among the factors that contribute to greater human ignitions. Humans ignited four times as many large fires as lightning.

A review of 1.5 million fire records over 20 years found that human-caused fires were responsible for 84% of wildfires and 44% of the total area burned.

Once created roads are difficult to close to human access. A “closed” road on the Sequoia National Forest, California. ATVs just go around ineffective road closure. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is, however, a better way to spend funds. The majority of all wildfires are due to human ignitions that occur on or near roads.

Higher road density correlates with an increased probability of human-caused ignitions. But higher road density even correlates with greater lightning blazes.

The disturbance caused by logging roads increase the invasion of weeds, many of them flammable. Photo George Wuerthner 

Research has also demonstrated that roads act as corridors for the spread of flammable weeds. Roads also create a natural vector for wind and vegetation drying, enhancing fire spread.

While blazes that start in roadless areas tend to burn more acres, they pose a smaller threat to human communities. However, since roads are more likely to be closer to human habitation, the increased number of ignitions associated with roaded landscapes may be a greater threat to structures and human life.

The Forest Service has nearly 400,000 miles of roads—more than enough to circle the globe 16 times.

Even so-called “closed” roads provide increased human use and access to the landscape.  Adding a gate does little to reduce the negative influences of roads on fire spread, weed invasion, water pollution from sedimentaion, displacement of wildlife and other impacts. Photo George Wuerthner 

These roads provide access for cars and pick-ups. However, even when they are closed to street vehicles, the roads still provide access for All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and even mountain bikes, allowing human penetration into landscapes and increasing fire ignitions.

A more effective strategy for reducing wildfire threats to communities would be to spend significant funding by decommissioning and fully recontouring former logging roads, including so-called temporary roads. Not only would road closure and restoration of roadbed slopes reduce unwanted ignitions, but they would have other benefits as well.

Road created for thinning projects like this one in Yaak drainage, Montana is a chronic source of sedimentation into stream, harming aquatic ecosystems. Photo George Wuerthner 

Roads also impact watersheds and aquatic ecosystems. For example, one of the biggest sources of sedimentation into aquatic ecosystems around the West is logging roads which are a chaotic source of sedimentation.

Roads also harm wildlife by direct mortality as well as social displacement.

Decommissioning and restoration of roads also have carbon storage benefits. Fuel reductions do nothing to change the climate, and since logging is a significant source of carbon emissions, it may even enhance wildfire spread in the future.

Do you see the road? Hopefully not. That’s the point. Here a logging road in Redwood National Park, California was recontoured and revegetated effectively reducing most negative influences of roads, including human access. Photo George Wuerthner 

Shifting the emphasis of funding from more thinning/logging and prescribed fire towards reducing road densities may have greater benefits for reducing wildfire threats to communities, not to mention other resource values such as reduction in wildlife disturbance, soil erosion, aquatic ecosystem degradation, and even carbon losses.





  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Roads are a major type of ecological destruction. Not only do they cause erosion and fragment habitat, but they allow extractive industries to enter areas. Oppose all new roads!

  2. Deane Rimerman Avatar
    Deane Rimerman

    Roads are definitely a vector for ecosystem destruction and lower road density has definitely been found in paper after paper to indicate greater ecosystem health/less human disturbance.

    Of course the challenge is status quo foresters and the industry’s lobbyists will forever argue that road access is essential to fighting wildfires, which is why “containment” is essentially bulldozing a road around the entire perimeter of a wildfire, which is horrendously harmful.

    So we’ve got our work cut out for us when it comes to turning this whole screwed up way of thinking about firefighting as something that requires destruction of the forest to stop it, rather than firefighting as something you adapt to by simplifying & hardening infrastructure & homes with foil fabric tents so fires can be allowed to periodically move through an area without having to turn the whole landscape into a war zone of barren ground thinking that we can stop it.

    As always, the most flammable thing in the forest are the houses!

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Or keep out/limit development around forests. Probably impossible. We need our trees for fighting climate change and habitats for other life! I don’t see how people can maintain two such opposing viewpoints in their thinking.

    Keep wilderness areas so that they can carry on like they have evolved to do, since time immemorial, without interference from humans. We’ve taken more than our share.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      I agree with your comment, with one addition: Trees need themselves, end of discussion. Trees are every bit as much Earthlings as humans or any other species, and have just as much right to live and thrive. Humans don’t eat trees, so they should never kill them.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Yes, that’s right!

      2. Deane Rimerman Avatar

        I agree… I’m trying to prove that you can create the same benefits as forest thinning just by climbing up and pruning branches and not tree killing. Canopy sculpting is the concept! Am focusing on areas of natural blowdown because that’s how tall trees forests have regenerated naturally on this planet for 382 million years. Of course all the chainsaw medicine lunatics act like a forest won’t survive if they can’t cut some trees down. So sick of this BS fake science dogma that’s younger than the trees they cut down.

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          We agree that trees shouldn’t be killed, but I don’t agree with pruning them either. Humans need to leave the natural world and the life in it alone, and stop trying to control everything. Pruning trees isn’t natural either, nor is it good for the trees, nor to the trees like it.

          My bottom line is this: if you’re that concerned about natural wildfires, move out of the forest, you don[t belong there.

          1. Deane Rimerman Avatar
            Deane Rimerman

            I’m all for large areas of the planet’s forest landscape to be protected and not manipulated by humans at all, but with 8 Billion people directly interacting with our planet’s forests in destructive ways we need way more tree saving rather than wishful thinking about the opposite of what we have right now.

            As in when two trees grow next to each other and one grows faster than the other it will often shade the slower growing tree out and it will die. But just by removing dead wood/ladder fuels and a small number of branches from the larger tree that most shade out the smaller tree, you save that smaller trees life with almost no harm harm to the neighboring tree.

            I’ve been doing this kind of pruning in gardens for 35 years and it’s amazing how much abundance and diversity it can create in the name of saving trees.

            Meanwhile the idiocracy of modern day forestry will tell you that you have to either harvest the fast growing tree to save the slower growing tree or kill the slower growing tree “that’s gonna die anyways” so there’s “better spacing” as if that doesn’t increase long term stand mortality, when we see again and again how too much thinning can kill a whole forest. A forests that’s able to thrive for a half millenia to a millenia need redundancy so when a windstorm causes a tree to falls in the forest, there’s plenty of other trees ready to grow in their place.

            As for telling 8 billion people they don’t belong in fire prone forests, the only significant response we’re currently getting from them is that they’ll simply eliminate the forest in the name of saving it, which is something you clearly don’t agree with. So we need to find a better way!

            By increasing redundancy we increase resiliency!

            1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
              Jeff Hoffman

              The issue you raised, though maybe you don’t realize it, is that there are way too many people on the planet. I stated my ultimate goal, as I always do. I understand that pruning isn’t as bad as killing trees completely, but it’s not good either. We’re not talking about your garden, we’re talking about naturally evolved forests. And BTW, do you know about the study from 50 or 60 years ago that showed that when people attempt to cut plants, the plants let out their version of a scream?

              Furthermore, removing dead trees from forests is also ecologically harmful. Snags, aka dead tress, provide very important ecological functions, which are lost if the snags are removed.

              Again, this comes down to human hubris and ego. Control or at least greatly reduce those things, and you can clearly see that humans should just leave members of native species alone.

              1. Deane Rimerman Avatar
                Deane Rimerman

                Population is a matter of behavior… If all 8 billion of us were solely focused on regrowing plants & forest via the miyawaki method to recover human destroyed areas we could transform this planet into the heaven it once was very quickly, but with current misguided human behaviors even a small number of us will destroy it.

                And clearly you seem to idealize doing nothing over doing the best we can with the knowledge we gain and improve on every day from a nurturing of life oriented view. And quite frankly, when it comes to too many people, folks like you who preach that doing nothing is a virtue gives all the worst human behaviors more room on the landscape to destroy it. Whereas if you were out their studying and interacting with plants and trees as they grow you’d be way more able to keep the evil doers at bay.

                But instead you pretend that your existence on earth is not a living interaction of give and take with an ecosystem, which is seriously misguided and harmful.

                Did you know Tropical forests don’t have much dead understory branches because monkeys clear them? And what about beavers? And Elephants and Giraffes and many other creatures that help shape/protect the forest? Should they leave the forest alone too?

                I’m all too familiar with your “leave it alone” dogma and how it inhibits all these different species finding a healthy relationship with foraging, which reshapes what grows and how healthy or unhealthy landscapes can be under your watch. So instead of finding right relationship with what grows you, apathy & negligence is your solution?

                Do you really think because you buy your food at the store you don’t have to give back to the earth for all the sustenance it gives you every day of your life? It’s so dishonest and self destructive and in denial of the work you’re here to do, as well as for the ecosystem that gave you your life in the first place! We need to find life affirming activities in the forest that sustain us by sustaining it.

                I’m glad we agree that humans should no longer solve problems or create them by killing trees. As for branch pruning, helping more living things have enough room to grow under the canopy is the objective of natural disturbance, as well as ecologically beneficial human disturbance.

                1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
                  Jeff Hoffman

                  We are clearly on opposite sides environmentally and ecologically. We just agree that humans shouldn’t kill trees.

                  If you don’t understand that 8 billion people is WAY too many, you don’t understand wildlife biology or ecology. There are so many humans on the planet that the other species have nowhere to live. Overpopulation denial is every bit as ignorant and stupid as global warming/climate change denial. Humans now occupy OVER HALF of the terrestrial land on Earth, counting themselves, their agriculture, and their infrastructure, and most of the remainder is rocks and ice, suitable for only the most primordial species. Human overpopulation is the twin physical root of all environmental and ecological problems (the other being human overconsumption, which includes consuming things we should not be like trees and fossil fuels). The childish fantasy that we could fix serious ecological problems without greatly lowering human population is just denial of reality and wanting to have your cake and eat it too, most likely based on self-worship due to oversized ego.

                  As to humans being here to do work: absolutely not! Humans’ only proper role on this planet is to expand our consciousness. The more that humans do to the physical/natural environment, the more harm they do, period. Just because YOU like the results doesn’t make them good. Humans have only been around for 200,000 years, while the ecosystems on Earth have been evolving for millions of years, hundreds of millions in the case of tropical rainforests. Those ecosystems clearly don’t need anything from humans except to be left alone.

                  Finally, your analogy to the interaction of other species with the natural environment is a false one. Other species use only their bodies, not machines or tools made from mining. Maybe humans should be allowed to do what they want with their bare hands, but that’s it.


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