Active management of wildfires is anti-intuitive

October 15, 2017 GMT

Recently Sen. Jim Risch published in the Idaho State Journal a commentary on wildfire that had some inaccurate assumptions about wildfire.

While Risch described the inconveniences, health risks and often economic impacts of wildlife, he misinterprets the causes, thus doesn’t have the correct solutions.

For instance, Risch noted that firefighting costs reached $2 billion this past year, but failed to note that 95 percent of that cost is associated with defending homes and structures. Why is this important? Because construction of homes in the wildlands-urban interface continues to occur. Firefighters are risking their lives to save homes from fires that should never have been constructed.

Building in the woodlands and shrublands outside of towns and cities has exacerbated in recent decades, often facilitated by rural county commissioners who almost universally approve such construction, yet do not pay the real costs of protecting these homes from fires. Indeed, in many cases, rural county commissioners and residents are often the most critical of federal agencies when they criticize them for failing to protect their property.

This brings me to the second flawed assumption of Risch. He suggests that “wildfires are at least partially preventable and almost fully manageable.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

All of the large wildfires in the West are driven by extreme climate/weather conditions with low humidity, high temperatures, drought and high winds. Under such situations, firefighters have no control over fires. And nearly all the fires that are of concern to Westerners burn under these conditions.

Numerous review studies have concluded that “active forest management”, particularly logging and forest reduction projects cannot stop such wind-driven blazes. Thinning forests can even increase fire spread by opening up the canopy and allow greater penetration by both sun and wind, two of the conditions that are well established to accelerate fire spread.

A further complication is that one can’t predict where a fire will start, so the majority of all forest reduction projects never encounter a wildfire. So while lose money on such projects, and suffer the ecological impacts of logging such as sedimentation in streams from logging roads, the spread of weeds, loss of carbon storage, and physical loss of wood from the ecosystem, we gain very little in actual on-the-ground fire reduction.

For instance, one recent study that looked at 1500 wildfires across the West found that areas with “active management” had higher severity burns (i.e. more mortality of trees) than areas that were protected from logging like wilderness areas and parks. While this may be counter-intuitive to some, it makes perfect sense to anyone who understands that wildfires are promoted by climate/weather conditions. Logged forests have more slash, more open canopies, hence greater drying of vegetation.

All these situations have been exacerbated by climate change which is notably adding to higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and other factors that favor large wildfires.

The Senator would do everyone a big favor if he worked to reverse the Trump administration’s war on the planet. Administration policies like promoting coal burning, withdrawal from the Climate Change Accords, greater leasing of oil and gas development on public lands, and so forth are all directly contributing to increasing our wildfire situation.

Beyond these factors, Risch and others need to recognize that high severity fires are ecologically necessary for healthy forest ecosystems. While we can all agree that wildfire burning on the fringes of communities is undesirable, allowing more fires to burn in our large roadless areas helps to preserve the snag forests and down wood that is essential to many plants and animals.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including several dealing with wildfire ecology. He divides his time between Bend, Oregon, and Livingston, Montana.