Misconceptions About Wildfires

Large wildfires are driven by rare extreme climate and weather conditions

By George Wuerthner

I want to respond to misinformation about wildfire by Nick Smith’s editorial on the proposed East Reservoir Project which appeared in the Nov. 2 Flathead Beacon (“Federal Forest Management is Broken”). In that piece, Smith promotes many misconceptions about wildfire.

I do not expect Smith to be an expert on wildfire. Most people engaged in collaboratives, including the timber industry, conservation groups, and even within the Forest Service ranks are not up to date on the latest fire science. And what we are learning about wildfire and forest health are counter-intuitive to many common assumptions about wildfire and forest health.

First, the idea that fuels drive large wildfire is erroneous. Large wildfires are driven by rare extreme climate/weather conditions. To get a large fire, you need drought, combined with high temperatures, low humidity and most importantly high winds. If you do not have these ingredients you may not even get an ignition, and certainly won’t get rapid fire spread.

Why is that important? Because the underlying assumption of logging advocates is that we need to reduce fuels to halt large fires, when in fact there is plenty of anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that logging/thinning is not effective under such extreme weather conditions.

The only fires that are of concern are those burning under extreme fire conditions, however, these fires account for less than 1 percent of all fires that are ignited annually. So the very fires that logging advocates seek to halt through thinning the forest are the very ones that logging doesn’t really affect. We have many examples in Montana where large fires burned through industrial timberlands that were full of clearcuts and thinned stands.

Furthermore, there are studies that demonstrate that active forest management, especially thinning/logging, can even enhance fire spread.

A study published just this month in Ecosphere, reviewed wildfire on 23 million acres of public lands in the past three decades. The scientists found forests protected from logging burn less severely than logged forests. This is exactly the opposite conclusion from the assertion made by Smith who suggested that larger wildfires are being fueled by a reduction in logging.

A further problem with thinning as a means of reducing wildfires is that one can’t predict where a blaze will occur. Thinned stands grow back quickly due to reduced competition. So even if thinning were effective at stopping large fires burning under extreme fire weather (which evidence suggests logging does not) the probability that any thinned stand will encounter a fire during its short-lived effective period is extremely rare.

Another assumption widely held by many promoting more logging is that our forests are “unhealthy” and in need of “restoration.” You don’t restore a forest by logging. Logging impoverishes forest ecosystems. It causes excessive erosion, fragments wildlife habitat, removes biomass, diminishes carbon storage, and spreads weeds, among other factors that degrades our forests.

Healthy forest ecosystems need periodic large inputs of dead trees. The major factors creating episodic inputs of dead trees are the natural ecological processes vilified by timber advocates like bark beetles, wildfire, and disease.

Snags and down logs are used by numerous plants and animals for shelter, and sources of food. Some two-thirds of all wildlife species depend on dead wood/down wood at some point in their lives. Logs that fall into streams are essential for healthy functioning aquatic ecosystems and increase fisheries.

While some carbon is lost during wildfires, the bulk of carbon remains on site in dead wood. Wood charred by fire is more resistant to rot thus is a long-term storage for carbon and nutrients.

By contrast, logging removes carbon from the on-site storage, and in the processing of logs creates much smaller particles of wood that is either burned as slash or rots and releases a lot of carbon. Plus, logging has an additive loss of carbon by disturbing the soil, which releases even more carbon.

In short, the underlying assumptions of nearly all logging/thinning proponents is misleading. Anyone who understands the ecological importance of high severity fires for healthy forest ecosystem is grateful to the Alliance for Wild Rockies for halting money-losing and scientifically suspect timber sales.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and author of numerous books including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.