The Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, was an urban blaze driven by high winds. Photo George Wuerthner 

A new paper, “Wildlands-urban fire disasters aren’t a wildfire problem,” published in PNAS, challenges traditional approaches to wildfire management strategies.

The researchers note that most of the large blazes that destroyed homes, including Lahaina, Hawaii, Talent and Phoenix, Oregon, the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, California, and the Marshal Fire that charred Louisville, Colorado, were urban conflagrations.

All of these were human ignition blazes that occurred during extreme wind events.

The Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs was primarily an urban blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

The authors argue that focusing on “fuel reductions” in wildlands managed by federal agencies has little effect on the fires that destroy homes.

Despite these facts, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 both direct funding towards logging (thinning) and prescribed burning as the preventative means of precluding urban fires.

In 2022, the US Forest Service released the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which aims to “treat” 20 million acres of US Forest Service land and 30 million acres of other federal, tribal, state, and privately owned land.” This is an area only slightly smaller than the 51 million acres that make up the state of Minnesota.

Thinned (logged) site on the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon has sanitized the forest ecosystem. Note the lack of snags, ground cover plants, and the loss of biomass, not to mention the trees killed by logging which are never considered as a “cost” of fuel reduction projects. Photo George Wuerthner 

This emphasis on “treating” forests and other wildlands ignores the fact that most wildfires are human ignitions on private lands.

Worse for taxpayers and communities potentially threatened by wildfire is the old paradigm of reducing fuels, is based upon a climate that no longer exists. Climate change is accelerating or enhancing all the factors that drive large wildfires—namely drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds. You can’t use 1930s 10 AM wildfire strategies to deal with 2023 climate conditions.

This area on the Deschutes NF in Oregon was thinned and then prescribed burned three years earlier. Note that the thinning removed large trees (which seldom burn which is why you get snags) but has increased the occurrence of fine fuel as a grassy understory. This site is now more likely to burn than prior to “fuel reduction” treatment. Photo George Wuerthner 

In addition, the vast majority of prescribed burns or thinning/logging projects never encounter a blaze when they might be effective, but we get all the negatives from fuel reduction projects like disruption of wildlife, spread of weeds from soil disturbance, loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem, loss of carbon storage, loss of snags and down woody debris essential for many wildlife species.

A thinned forest stand on Kirk Hill on the Custer Gallatin NF, Montana has removed a significant amount of stored carbon especially in removal of larger trees. Photo George Wuerthner 

Moreover, a recent study estimated that up to 10 times as much carbon is released by logging as natural disturbances (like wildfire). For instance, 66% of the carbon losses across the West were due to logging, while only 15% was due to wildfire. Thus, logging contributes more climate warming CO2 than wildfires.

This paper’s authors argue that federal, state, and community fire strategies should focus on the home and work outward. A good overview of this concept can be found in this Environment Now paper.

A home in Lake Tahoe California waiting to burn. Reducing the flammability of a home by removing flammable vegetation, covering vents, and other measures interfere with fire spread. George Wuerthner 

Preparing for the inevitable wildfires by reducing the flammability of individual homes and their surroundings can interfere with wildfire spread. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in numerous studies, the most effective strategy for precluding urban wildfires isn’t trying to reduce the flammability of forests but focusing on an area of no more than 100 feet surrounding homes and communities.

The near elimination of the forest by “thinning” on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest in Oregon. This is vandalism of our public lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

Despite this well-established fact, I have repeatedly gone on “show me” tours with the Forest Service, where they are logging/thinning forests miles from communities, which provides almost no effect on the reduction of urban wildfires.

A home that survived the Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara, California. Treating the home, rather than the hinderlands is how we safeguard communities. Photo George Wuerthner 

How do you reduce the flammability of communities? You install flame-resistant roofing materials, screen vents, clean gutters of flammable materials, and keep wooden fences and other burnable materials away from homes. Just putting a five-foot gravel perimeter around home foundations has been highly effective at reducing home fires.

As the authors of this paper conclude, “We have to live with wildfire, but we don’t have to live with wildfire in our communities.”

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

9 Responses to New Strategies Needed For Wildlands Urban Blazes

  1. Mike Higgins says:

    Thanks, George, for presenting a clear and concise refutation of the FS argument to justify their thinning on our national forests.

  2. Wayne Tyson says:

    Finally, the truth is out! I’m so grateful that someone has stepped forward with what I’ve been blackballed for for over fifty years. I reckon I just don’t have the communication skills . . .

    The sleeping elephant is “follow the money!”

  3. Mary says:

    CalFire et al. cut roadside woody growth, which takes away roots that hold the soil, and woody plants including trees which hold water and provide habitat. It’s ugly and it won’t prevent or slow fires.

    How to get them to stop this damage?

    • Wayne Tyson says:

      The should know the physics of fire or should pay attention to their own physicists. Flame fronts can be slowed by oxygen deprivation and wind speed reduction. The packing ratios in the photos are oxygen-rich.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        Anti-environmental agencies like Cal Fire don’t care about the natural environment. All they care about is stopping fires, and if they could kill all vegetation to accomplish that, they would.

  4. Sarah says:

    The “thinning” of the Wallowa Whitman National Forest is just nihilistic. I hope some day a critical mass of people will hear this message.

  5. Eric Smith says:

    Thanks George for highlighting this paper in PNAS.

    You mention the following:

    “As has been demonstrated repeatedly in numerous studies, the most effective strategy for precluding urban wildfires isn’t trying to reduce the flammability of forests but focusing on an area of no more than 100 feet surrounding homes and communities.”

    The most effective strategy is not allowing the building of homes (especially mega mansions) in the WUI.

  6. Jeff Hoffman says:

    Something like 90% of wildfires are started by humans. THAT’s the problem that needs to be addressed. Stop humans from causing these fires and this problem goes away.

    And as Eric said, we need to prohibit development in forested areas, or tell people who want to live there that they’re on their own. No killing trees to try to protect humans who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

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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