The Fire Suppression Myth

The notion that fire suppression is the reason for large mega fires ignores the influence of climate/weather on blazes and thus leads to poor public policy.

We are continuously bombarded with the message that 100 years of fire suppression and lack of logging drive large blazes. The fire suppression myth is a convenient excuse for the timber industry and the Forest Service to justify logging and prescribed burning. However, it is questionable whether such policies significantly influence the occurrence of large blazes.

Fire fighters are successful at suppressing small blazes–most of which would go out without any suppression–but usually cannot stop wind-driven blazes. Photo George Wuerthner

Considering that most firefighting before World War 11 consisted of men riding mules in remote wilderness areas armed with a few shovels and axes as the main fire suppression force, the actual influence on wildfire was insignificant.

Early fire fighers armed with shovels and axes, traveling on mules, had little significant influence on spread of wildfires.

It was only after WW11 that fire suppression was possible. Armed with helicopters, air tankers, bulldozers, and smoke jumpers allowed humans to control smaller wildfires. However, these blazes typically burn a few acres and have little impact on the landscapes.

Though modern fire suppression efforts may have reduced the spread of some fire, it has not reduced the occurrence of the 1% of large and extreme wildfires that are responsible for 90% of the total acreage charred by wildfires.

What drives large blazes isn’t fuel. You can have all the fuel in the world, but you will not get a significant blaze if you don’t have the right climate-weather conditions. The conditions that create large fires include severe drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and, most importantly, high winds.

The Camp Fire destroyed 19,000 structures in Paradise, California. Wind blown embers ignited homes. Interestingly while the house burned down, the volleyball net survived. Also note that many of the trees in the background did not burn. Photo George Wuerthner

One study found that high winds were the main factor in 90% of the large fires. The Camp Fire that charred the community of Paradise, California burned the equivalent of one football field a second.

And wind tossed embers are responsible for 90% of the structural losses across the West.

I have visited dozens upon dozens of large blazes across the West, and I know of no exceptions to the generalization that climate/weather is the driving force behind significant wildfires.

The recent wet winter in California is a perfect example of the influence of climate/weather on fire. According to state data, California received 141 percent of its average annual rainfall during the most recent water year. The state’s snowpack this spring reached the deepest level recorded in at least 40 years. Not surprisingly, only 317,191 acres have burned in California this year compared to the five-year average of 1,509,952.

Consider the long-term effects of climate/weather. The 1910 Big Burn that charred 3-3.5 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana occurred long before significant fire suppression occurred. The large fire during the summer of 1910 was driven by severe drought and high winds. A forester wrote of flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air, “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”

In 1929, at the beginning of the Dust Bowl era, an astounding 50 million acres burned across the West. Today, officials declare that a season total of 10 million acres is a “record year.”

We often hear officials declaring that there has been a hundred years of fire suppression. Yes, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, the Forest Service sought to limit fires, but statistics suggest this wasn’t particularly successful.

Statistics verify there were fewer large blazes between the 1940s and 1980s. But before humans take credit for our ability to suppress fires, one must consider that the 1940s-1980s was one of the wettest periods in centuries. It was so wet and snowy during those years that glaciers in the Pacific Northwest grew more than ever since the Little Ice Age.

Then, beginning in the late 1980s (think Yellowstone fires of 1988) the climate, likely due to human carbon emissions, grew hotter and drier with prolonged droughts. Under those climate-weather conditions, large blazes occurred across the West. The shift in climate is a much better explanation for the increased fire and acreage burned.

Given the current climate regime, we can expect large blazes to continue, and no amount of fuel reductions, prescribed or cultural burning will have a landscape influence on fire. For one thing, few wildfires encounter fuel reduction efforts.

The only sensible response is to promote home hardening and to stop building in the Wildland Urban Interface and zone lands. Other presumed “solutions” like logging only enhance fire spread, degrade forest ecosystems and waste taxpayer funds.






  1. Bob Sheridan Avatar
    Bob Sheridan

    Truth be told, again and again. But, all the truth in the world isn’t enough to overcome our federal bureaucracy. They have mastered controlling the narrative on this subject and we are light years behind any successful challenge to their entrenched and well established alternate facts. Like the author, I’ve been on dozens of large fires, but during active burning. How tightly the spokespersons message, from the local office to the national level,is controlled, would make Madison Ave executives envious and is strait out of the climate/tobacco deniers playbook. Until we start implementing the Incident Command System with a coordinated approach based on sound strategy and the associated tactical acumen, it’s all just passing into the wind

    1. Selina Sweet Avatar
      Selina Sweet

      “spokesperson message ….is controlled….straight out of the climate/tobacco deniers playbook.” What agency or organization or headhuncho from what entity constitute the directors (spokesperson message) who are dictating according to this “climate/tobacco deniers playbook” ?U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? The Forrest Service? The Bureau of Land Management? Exactly who is controlling/dictating the official narrative?

      1. Bob Sheridan Avatar
        Bob Sheridan

        Not to answer a question with a question, but what is your experience or position in/on the ICS?

        1. Selina Sweet Avatar
          Selina Sweet

          What is ICS? And,I wonder if you can sense how I might feel in response to your ignoring my question?

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I’m curious as to whether this is a good idea? I get emails from FUSEE (Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology). Maybe worth looking at?

  3. steve kelly Avatar
    steve kelly

    The U.S. of America is a corporation. Each of the several (50) states is a corporation. We (goyim/prole) are not ‘The People.’ ‘Govern (to steer)- ment (mind)is a mind-control operation enforced by military occupation.

    Neo-feudal lords are not interested in good, or bad, ‘public policy.’ Commerce (money) is its sole consideration.

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