Seven lessons we’ve learned from wildfires

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Back in 1988, I was writing a book about the massive fires that charred Yellowstone National Park. In researching historical accounts of previous fires in the park, I came upon a description of a fire suppression effort from the 1930s. In that faded typewritten account, the author noted: “finally got the fire under control. Had a hell of a time breaking camp in the rain!”

I don’t know if the author of the report saw the irony in his comments, but his perspective represents a typical attitude towards wildfire. There is an assumption that firefighters put out fires. 

If they are honest, most firefighters will tell you that nature puts out almost all fires, and nature dictates when humans can gain control of a blaze.  

Most ignitions remain small and easy to control if you do not have the “right” conditions for a massive burn.

It is climate and weather, not fuels, that ultimately control all fires. Of course, you need some fuel, but fuels alone will not create a large “mega” fire.

If fuels drove wildfires, we should expect the most massive blazes to occur in Oregon and Washington’s coastal forests, where there is more “fuel” than any other ecosystem in America. Yet these areas seldom burn. Why? Because the climate and weather is typically cool and moist.

In one experiment between 1972 and 1987, Yellowstone officials monitored 235 backcountry blazes but permitted them to burn without suppression. Of those fires, 222 burned less than five acres and most charred less than one acre. And all 235 fires self-extinguished without any suppression from firefighters.

Why did over 1.5 million acres burn in the Yellowstone region in 1988 when during the previous 15 years, almost no acreage was charred by wildfire? Was there suddenly more fuel in Yellowstone in 1988 than in 1987 or 1972 or any other year during that experimental period?

The answer is that in 1988 Yellowstone experienced the driest year on record since the park’s establishment in 1872. The humidity dropped on some days to below 5 percent. The wind blew 50 to 60 miles per hour. The 1988 Yellowstone blazes were only “controlled” after of snow fell on Sept. 11.

There are several lessons learned from this experiment. The first is that the vast majority of all fires are small and inconsequential. These fires remain small, not because of a lack of fuel, but because the climate and weather do not support their spread.

Indeed, extreme fire weather is the ingredient common to all large fires across the country. When you have the right climate and weather conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and, most importantly, wind, you get blazes that cannot be controlled — until the weather changes.

While “fuel reductions” like thinning, prescribed burning and logging may control or stop blazes occurring under low-to-moderate fire weather conditions, they fail under extreme fire weather. Not to mention, the probability that a fire will encounter a fuel reduction before plants grow back is extremely low — typically less than 1 percent.

Why is this important? Because the very fires we seek to control are those burning under extreme fire weather conditions.

The recent fires that charred more than 750,000 acres in Oregon’s Cascade range is a classic example of how climate and weather drive large fires through all “fuel reduction” efforts. These fires raced through clearcuts, thinned stands, prescribed burns, and across highways, parking lots, lakes, rivers and other areas where there is no fuel, all driven by 70-mph winds after a summer of severe drought.

So, what are the lessons to be learned? 

First, we cannot log or thin our way to any massive fire reduction. Logging can even enhance fire spread by opening up forested stands to more significant drying and wind penetration.

Second, logging has significant collateral damage, including sedimentation into streams from logging roads, the spread of weeds, reducing carbon storage, displacing sensitive wildlife and, in many instances, costing taxpayers money to subsidize timber removal on public lands.

Third, climate change is exacerbating the weather conditions that are driving large blazes. It is lengthening the period when any ignition can grow into large blazes, drying fuels, so they more readily burn and increase the wind that ultimately drives flames through, over, and around “fuel reductions.  

Fourth, forested landscapes, even burned landscapes store a tremendous amount of carbon. What burns in a forest fire are fine fuels like grass, needles, cones and so forth. That is why we have snags left after a blaze. And those snag forests all store carbon and are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in western forests.

Fifth, logging is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially in some Western states, so proponents of more logging are only increasing the very climate and weather conditions that sustain large blazes. For instance, in Oregon, logging related GHG emissions contribute to 35 percent of its carbon releases.

Sixth, until we get GHG emissions under control, we should work from the home outward to safeguard communities. Reducing the flammability of structures can help avoid the tragic loss of life and homes many people experience. 

Seventh, large, mixed-high severity fires are the “natural” burn pattern for nearly all ecosystems in the West except for dry pine forests. These ecosystems, including sagebrush, all fir, lodgepole pine, hemlock, spruce, west-side Douglas fir, juniper, chaparral, aspen and others, tend to have long intervals without any significant burning but then blaze away at great intensity when the right climate and weather conditions permit.

There is no “right way” to do the wrong thing. Focusing on fuel reductions (except in the immediate area of homes and communities) is unlikely to achieve the results advocates of “active management” desire.

Instead, our best way forward is to promote firewise home protection policies, reduce rural sprawl into fire-prone landscapes and ultimately get a handle on carbon emissions.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has spent decades researching fires. He has published two books on wildfire including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”

Tags California fires Climate change Drought fire suppression forest thinning GHG logging oregon fires wildfire mitigation wildfires Yellowstone
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