Thinning the forest is often less effective than eliminating human sources of ignition. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Deschutes National Forest wildfire policies are misdirected towards logging while ignoring the real threats that could lead to blazes on Bend’s doorstep.

Anyone driving around the national forest near Bend will note the abundance of homeless camps, RVs, campers, and people scattered along forest roads. Each one of these individuals is a potential source of ignition.

Dispersed camping along forest roads is a potential source of ignition. Photo George Wuerthner 

Instead of dealing with the often-illegal camping and increased likelihood of a human ignition, the Forest Service spends its funds logging the forest in a delusional effort to reduce wildfires.

HUMANS AND WILDFIRES

Human-started wildfires accounted for 84% of all wildfires between 1988-2012, tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and were responsible for nearly half of all areas burned. More recent studies put the figure of human-caused wildfires even higher.

The further problem is that humans create ignitions when fuels are sufficiently dry enough to ignite and carry fire but when lightning is rare, as is often the case in Central Oregon. In other words, humans expand the fire season and occurrence of wildfire.

Most human-caused blazes are along forest roads. Photo George Wuerthner

Of these human-caused wildfires, 95% occurred within ½ mile of a road. Roads put more people in the forest matrix where everything from an untended campfire to grass fires from hot exhaust pipes can ignite the woods.

FOREST MANAGEMENT IS DELUSIONAL

Thinning and prescribed burns are ineffective at halting or even slowing most fires burning under extreme fire weather conditions defined as drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds.

Winds blow embers over and around thinned forests. Indeed, thinning and prescribed burns may even increase fire spread. Thinning opens the forest stands to greater drying and greater wind penetration.

And prescribed burning favors the regrowth of fine fuels like grasses, shrubs, and small trees that are the primary “fuel” in wildfire spread.

Google Earth photo shows the failure of “active forest management” under extreme fire conditions to halt the 2021 Holiday Farm blaze along the McKenzie River, Oregon.  

Many studies document the failure of “fuel reductions” in halting fires. But anyone can travel down the McKenzie River to see how the 2021 Holiday Farm Fire raced through a heavily logged landscape.

The failure of “active forest management,” i.e., logging to alter wildfire outcomes, is one reason why more than 200 scientists wrote a letter to Congress: “Removing trees can alter a forest’s microclimate, and can often increase fire intensity. In contrast, forests protected from logging, and those with high carbon biomass and carbon storage, more often burn at equal or lower intensities when fires do occur.”

Various studies have also shown that the probability that a wildfire will actually encounter a “fuel reduction” site is extremely small-typically less than 1%.

What are the implications and relationship to Deschutes NF policies?

COMMUNITY HARDENING

One of the most effective ways to ensure a structure survives wildfire is known as “home hardening.” Home hardening means eliminating the potential sources of ignition like wooden roofs and decks, removing flammable vegetation immediately adjacent to the home and other fire-wise measures.

But communities can create their own “community hardening” by removing the source of ignitions near the town.

An example of an ineffective  “closed temporary road” used for thinning on the Deschutes National Forest. Roads are one of the main vectors for human access to the forest-hence effective road closures are one way to reduce human igntions. Photo George Wuerthner

Closing and removing forest service roads would significantly reduce the likelihood of human ignition.

Dispersed camping or semi permanent dwellings along forest roads is one of the prime sources of human igntions. Photo George Wuerthner 

Second, the Forest Service could enforce camping limitations on the forest. In most places, dispersed camping for more than 14 days is illegal. Yet virtual villages have sprouted in the woods with year-round residency.

The agency could ban dispersed camping within ten miles or so of town. Just as removing ignition sources near a house, eliminating sources near a town can significantly reduce the likelihood of a blaze. It might not eradicate human ignitions, but any blaze that did start would have to travel further to threaten homes, giving firefighters time to intervene.

Instead of funding “fuel reduction” in the backcountry, the FS could spend its funds eliminating the sources of ignition. Such policy changes would be a far more effective and economical means of protecting our communities.

 

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

5 Responses to Community Hardening Instead of Logging the Forest

  1. Jerry Thiessen says:

    Amen. And let’s not forget the wildlife and other ecogical benefits that would accrue. Human caused ecological pertibations are always worse than those occurring naturally. Humans are the problem, not mother nature.

  2. George Delisle says:

    do not think anyone should suggest that thinning a forest will prevent it from a wildfire, however with carefully planed short cycle selection harvesting it does reduce the initial fire spread index. If enough cover is left in each pass the micro climate maintains the dew in the mornings which reduces the fire hazard. This micro climate effectively shortens the critical fire season. Yes I agree with the author that people are the biggest problem, but unless we have millions of people willing to step forward and say pick me for the gas chamber, we need to adapt to the situation. Keeping people out of the forest is not doable, so we need to come up with a more creative idea for managing our resources. Proper thinning is part of the equation. I do not believe that putting fire back on the landscape is the answer. George Delisle

  3. Ida Lupine says:

    I’m glad this was posted! News media always lumps wildfire into ‘climate change’ which is real, but they always leave off the anthropogenic portion. No one seems to want to address the human contribution to wildfires – the carelessness, the ignoring of the rules, the downright arson, and homeless camps in the woods.

    There needs to be more done for finding homes or treatment centers for this sort of thing. No one has this right, IMO, and it isn’t humane or healthy either.

  4. Rambling Dave says:

    I do a lot of dispersed camping on public lands here in the Southwest and in my experience it’s generally not the people camping for a week or two out of an RV or truck camper that are the problem. It’s the weekenders who arrive Saturday afternoon with a Walmart tent and beer coolers, build enormous bonfires and get drunk with their buddies, then leave in a hurry Sunday morning for the long drive back to the city, abandoning the campfire to its own devices. Once I understood what was happening I made it one of my Sunday morning routines to walk the surrounding roads with a shovel and check for hot campfires at all the campsites that saw use over the weekend. It’s stupid and infuriating and nary a Forest Service patrol in sight (they seem to prefer to wait until after the campfire escapes to respond).

    I think a 100% no-exceptions year-round campfire ban on all public lands would go a long way towards solving this particular aspect of the wildfire ignition problem. Campfires should just be something that the old timers used to do back in the day, a dangerous and destructive luxury we can no longer afford. There are too many better options now, such as portable propane fire pits, those little gas grills, campstoves, etc etc.

    The semi-permanent encampments (ie George’s last photo) that crop up are all about our society’s unwillingness to humanely address the problem of homelessness. It’s not a forest management or wildfire issue and trying to treat it as such can only lead to Americans being locked out of their public lands (think herding people into overcrowded and expensive campgrounds run by concessionaires, outright camping bans, and vast sections of the National Forests becoming essentially day-use only, etc).

  5. Rambling Dave says:

    In a somewhat related topic concerning human-caused ignitions, there’s a great discussion happening over at wildfiretoday.com about how the USFS utilizes firing operations to greatly expand wildfires then includes the acreage in the burn totals, all without NEPA or public input. Kind of interesting.

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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