Response to Prescribed Burn Oregon Capital Chronicle Article

A prescribed burn on the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

An article in the Oregon Capital Chronicle focuses on cultural and prescribed burning fuel reduction and how they can preclude large wildfires, such as the 127,000 acre Cedar Creek Fire on the Willamette National Forest. The Cedar Creek fire was a wind-driven blaze that occurred during severe drought. The only thing that brought the blaze under control was a change in weather. On October 27th, due to temperatures dropping and humidity rising, the progression of fires was halted.

Fire camp on the Cedar Creek Fire that charred 127,000 acres of the Willamette NF, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

Why is this important? Because all large wildfires are climate and weather-driven events, if you have severe drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and, most importantly, high winds, the result is unstoppable blazes.  This fact is underscored by a review of wildfire acreage charred during the last century. In the early 1900s, we had severe drought (remember the Dust Bowl), and up to 50 million acres of the West were charred by wildfire in a single fire season. Today, if 10 million acres burn, it is considered a “record”.

During the warm, dry years (red) massive wildfires occurred, but during the cooler, moister (blue) period between the 1940-late 1980s fewer acreage was charred by wildfire. Nature does a fabalous job of suppressing fires during cooler periods.

Then, sometime in the late 1930s, the climate became cooler and moister, and natural climate cooling reduced the number of ignitions and acreage charred. Indeed, during this period, glaciers expanded on the higher peaks of the Cascades. In the late 1980s, climate warming led to more ignitions and higher severity blazes. Nature is what controls wildfire events. In times of cooler weather, such as the period between 1940 and the late 1980s, there are few wildfires of any significance.

The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 occurred during the hottest driest summer that had occurred up to that point since 1872 when the Park was created.

An excellent example of how ineffective fuel reductions are when there is extreme fire weather was the Labor Day 2020 Holiday Farm Blaze, driven by extreme winds, ran across miles of clearcuts and other “fuel reductions” on the Willamette National Forest and private commercial timberlands near Eugene, Oregon.

The two images demonstrate how ineffective fuel reductions are in halting a wind driven blazes. The top image shows the fire severity of the Holiday Farm Fire that charred the McKenzie River Valley, Oregon in 2020. Green lightly or no burn, red high severity burn, and yellow mixed severity. The blaze went through an area of extensive clearcuts shown below it in the Google Earth image. The Cougar Reservoir is visible in the lower right hand corner of both images.

The wind driven Holiday Farm Blaze on the McKenzie River, Oregon burned through nuemrous clearcuts and logged areas with minimal “fuel”. Photo George Wuerthner

If massive clearcuts won’t stop a wind-driven wildfire, then it is delusional to believe a prescribed burn will have any effect. Research by paleoclimate/fire scientists on the influence of human ignitions on plant communities concludes that Indian cultural burns only modified fuels locally—typically around villages and other areas with extensive human presence. 

The Willamette Valley likely had some of the densest Native American population in the West, yet even here, the influence of Indian burning was localized with most larger wildfires driven by climate/weather. Photo George Wuerthner

For example, Cathy Whitlock, who researched the relationship
between climate and ignitions in the Willamette Valley, concluded: “The idea
that Native Americans burned from one end of the valley to the other is not
supported by our data … Most fires seem to have been fairly localized, and
broad changes in fire activity seem to track large-scale variations in climate.

Prescribed burn ingnition on Deschutes National Forest Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

It is essential to reiterate the scientific consensus that
prescribed burning might work for a very short time (only a few years to a
decade at best) to slow or stop wildfire burning under low to moderate fire
weather conditions; it fails under extreme fire weather. This short-term
influence is a crucial point often overlooked in discussions on wildfire

This area on the Deschutes NF illustrates the transitory nature of prescribed burns. This site was burned three seasons before this photo was taken. The regrowth of grass–a fine fuel–has totally negated any benefit from fuel reduction. Photo George Wuerthner

Another problem that should be acknowledged is that prescribed burn fuel reductions are transitory.

Immediately after a fire, the regrowth of vegetation quickly negates the influence on fuel. Indeed, in many cases, prescribed burning results in more fine fuels like
grasses, small trees, and shrubs, which are the primary fuel components of any
blaze.  If a prescribed burn is to have any chance of curtailing a blaze’s advance, it must be repeated every few years–forever.

The probability that a fire will encounter a prescribe burn or fuel reduction is extremely limited by the long fire rotation of most plant communities in the West. Old growth Douglas fir seen here along the McKenzie River has a fire rotation of hundreds of years. Photo George Wuerthner

The other issue is the extremely small probability that any blaze will encounter a fuel reduction when it might be effective—typically 1-2%. So, everyone suffers from the smoke, and the chance that a prescribed burn will get away and burn considerably more acreage is seldom acknowledged.

A review of dry pine forests across the West showed that high severity blazes charred fewer acres in protected landscapes like Yosemite NP than in areas with “active forest management” and fuel reductions. Photo George Wuerthner

A review article that examined 1500 wildfires to determine how fuel reductions
influenced fire severity concluded that fire severity was lower in protected
landscapes like wilderness areas and parks even though they presumably had
higher fuel loadings than areas under “active forest management.”

Sagebrush has no adaptation to frequent fires. Sagebrush tends to burn on a fire rotation of fifty to many hundreds of years suggesting that Indian cultural burns had little impact on fire occurrence in this ecosystem. If fires were as frequent as some advocates of Native American cultural burning suggests, sagebrush would not exist. Photo George Wuerthner

We have evolutionary evidence that the fire rotation of most plant communities across the West is typically decades to hundreds of years. Many plant communities, like
sagebrush, chaparral, and higher-elevation forests of spruce and fir, have no
adaptations to fire, demonstrating that fire from any source, Indian or natural
ignitions, is infrequent.

The general theme of the article suggests that large, high-severity blazes are “bad,” while low severity contributes to “forest health.” 

The B and B fire, Deschutes NP, Oregon. Many species of plants and animals depend on the snag forests created by high severity blazes. Photo George Wuerthner

However,high-severity blazes and the resulting snag forests are critical to healthy
forest ecosystems. Numerous plants and animals depend on high-severity fires
for their survival.

Massive ice sheets covered North America 20,000-40,000 years ago and precluded colonization by humans. Photo George Wuerthner

Finally, the statement that tribal people have been burning
the land for 20,000-40,000 years is contradicted by the fact almost all of
North America was under giant sheets of ice at the close of the Pleistocene
Glacial period.


  1. Martha Bibb Avatar
    Martha Bibb

    It seems that the least expensive way to reduce fire during extreme weather events is to close public lands, wait for extreme weather conditions to improve then reopen public lands. 90+% of wildfires are human caused. Control that.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Fully agree! I’ve been saying this for years now. Also, don’t allow people to live in or near forests if they’re not willing to risk wildfires. The immoral demands — that the DeForest Service should kill trees to make people safe from wildfires — should be ignored. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the forest!

    2. easternsierraheidi Avatar

      The problem with your approach is that most destructive wildfires start on private land.

      I live in an urban/wildland interface. One fire was started by kids and matches in the military housing. Another fire was started by the Marine Corps on the land they use for training. Every other ignition on public land in this immediate area over the past 30 years has been lightning. Control that? How?

      Then there is the broken power line along the highway that took half the town (Mountain View Fire, Nov. 17, 2020) Yeah – that could have been avoided if the power had been shut off in the face of 80 – 125 mph winds but closing public land would have been meaningless.

      Then there is the fact that a Red Flag Warning is only a suggestion that you don’t partake in activities that may start a fire. And people are exceedingly stupid and operate with a “mah property – mah rights” mindset. Control that.

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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