The aftermath of the 2011 156,000 acre Los Conchas Fire in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Photo George Würthner
A recent comment 30×30 not the answer to stop destructive wildfires by Jerry G. Schickedanz, has many inaccurate assumptions about wildfires.
His comments repeat many common misunderstandings about fire ecology and how natural systems work. He advocates more logging to solve large forest fires.
It may seem intuitive that removing trees will reduce large fires, but what is intuitive is not always accurate. I can show that it is intuitive to say that the sun revolves around the Earth. After all, any fool can see the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. But what is intuitive is incorrect. We all know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Likewise, while it may seem intuitive that logging should reduce wildfires, a more nuanced and opposing story is emerging in scientific studies.
Blue Range Wilderness, New Mexico. Mr. Schickedanz attributes the large forest fires to nature protection which prohibits logging. Photo George Würthner
Mr Schickedanz says the protection of land by the Wilderness Act and other policies resulted in a “non-use and non-management plan that produced a powder keg for intense wildfires”.
He argues that “the timber industry should be given the opportunity to be revived. They should be able to harvest trees that will thin the forest and reduce the potential for extreme fires. It would also contribute to local economies and provide healthy, fire-resistant forests.
The coastal forests of Oregon and Washington have the highest biomass of any forest type in North America, but rarely burn because the cool, moist climate prevents fire from spreading. Photo George Würthner
If Mr. Schickedanz is correct, we should find the largest fires occurring in areas with the greatest biomass or fuel. For example, the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington have more biomass per acre than 100 acres of other vegetation types that burn regularly, but these coastal forests rarely burn. Why? Because the climate is cool and humid. Climate/weather, not fuels, is the cause of most major western fires.
The removal of large logs, as seen here, can promote the spread of fire by opening up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration. Photo George Würthner
Numerous studies in the West have shown that the most severe forest fires are in areas of active timber management. For example, a study of 1,500 fires in ponderosa pine and mixed coniferous forests (these are the forests that most people would consider “crowded”) concluded: “We found that forests with higher levels of higher protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.
In other words, wild lands, parks and other reserves where logging is prohibited generally burn less severely than active timber management areas.
These two graphs show how logging rarely stops large, weather-caused fires. The map on the left shows the severity of the Vacation Farm Fire that burned on the western slopes of Oregon’s Casades during Labor Day 2020. Red indicates high severity burn, green low severity or no burn. Note the blue tank in the lower right corner of the map. This is Cougar Reservoir. In Google Earth, you see the same tank in the same place in the bottom right. Note how the majority of yellow and red burnt areas were in clearcuts while green dominates areas where there was no logging (upper right corner of map and Google Earth).
Similarly, another study concluded that industrial forest land, where you presumably have “active forest management” and regular logging activity, burned more severely than other land. The same study concluded that fire weather was a stronger predictor of fire severity than ownership or management practices.
Logging as seen here on the Quilnault Reservation in Washington leaves behind large amounts of flammable residues and fine fuels that are the source of wildfires. Photo George Würthner
Contrary to popular perception, another recent study by researchers at Oregon State University found that “of all ignitions that crossed jurisdictional boundaries, just over 60% originated on private property and 28 % on national forests. Most fires started as a result of human activity.
The Bootleg Fire’s bright colors are all areas that have experienced “active forest management.” According to the analysis, 75% of the area burned had been previously treated. Map of Bryant Baker.
We have plenty of recent evidence that “active forest management” fails when you have extreme fire-related weather. For example, a forest management analysis of the area burned by the 400,000-acre Bootleg Fire, Oregon’s largest fire last year, found that 75% of the area had been “treated” with a “active forest management”.
In many parts of the West, the largest fires are occurring in non-forest areas like sagebrush where “thinning or active forest management” will have no effect. Photo George Würthner
Even if logging was effective in reducing large wildfires (which it is not), most of the area burned in western wildfires is non-forest – chaparral, sagebrush, grassland – that the logging processing will not affect. For example, Oregon’s largest fire was the 2012 Long Draw Fire which burned 557,000 acres of sagebrush.
Likewise, in 2019, most acres burned by California wildfires were grass and shrubs, not wood.
Wind is the most important factor in the spread of fire. The wind is not linear in its effect, but exponential. The higher the wind speed, the faster the fire spreads. The wind can throw embers several kilometers in front of a fire front. Photo George Würthner
There is no doubt for most fire ecologists that climatic conditions cause large fires. The Southwest, like the rest of the West, is experiencing the worst drought in a thousand years. It is foolish for anyone to think that “historic” conditions can be “restored” when the climatic conditions themselves are unprecedented. The current drought is similar to the conditions that drove the Anasizi people from their cave dwellings to permanent water along the Rio Grande.
Persistent drought has wiped out the “lake” of “Lake Powell” in Utah. Photo George Würthner
For example, a recent study concluded, “Large human-caused wildfires occurred, on average, coinciding with higher wind speeds than both small human-caused wildfires and large wildfires. caused by lightning. These results suggest the importance of winds in the rapid growth of fires.
Logging is the largest contributor to GHG emissions in Oregon. Photo George Würthner
The irony of increased logging to reduce wildfires is that wood production releases more carbon into the atmosphere than wildfires. For example, 35% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the lumber industry in Oregon, but wildfires contribute less than 4% of the emissions.
Thus, the intensification of logging to reduce wildfires exacerbates the very conditions that accelerate the spread of fires. Also, tall trees are not what burns in a forest fire. These are fine fuels like grass, shrubs and small trees, which is why snags remain after a fire.
A final problem with the idea that more logging will reduce wildfires is that thinning the forest tends to exacerbate fire spread by increasing the drying of fine fuels (what burns in a fire and increases wind penetration.
Aftermath of a forest fire in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. The snag forests left behind after a severe fire are essential to the health of forest ecosystems. Many wildlife and plant species depend on burned landscapes for their habitat. Photo George Würthner
In a letter to Congress, more than 200 scientists said: We have seen one great wildfire after another that swept through tens of thousands of acres where commercial thinning had previously occurred due to extreme weather to climate change. Tree removal can change the microclimate of a forest and can often increase fire intensity.
The way to reduce large wildfires is to reverse global warming, and protecting forests from logging helps store carbon for decades and centuries. At the same time, wood production immediately releases carbon into the atmosphere.
The best way to protect communities is to move from the house outward and reduce the flammability of structures.
Increased logging will only contribute to more severe fires and simultaneously degrade our forest ecosystems.