Fire-proofing forests is not possible
In 1992 James Carville, then-candidate Bill Clinton’s advisor, famously coined the phrase “The economy, stupid.” The focus on the economy ultimately propelled Clinton into the White House.
Today, we face a similar issue with wildfires. Across the political spectrum, we have Democrats and Republicans calling for more logging and thinning and prescribed fire as the panacea for the growing acreage of wildfire across the West. Even former President Trump got into the act by suggesting that raking pine needles could curb fires.
But a more informed political moniker should be “The climate, stupid.” The significant factors driving all large wildfires are extreme drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind. If you have these conditions with an ignition source, you are likely to get a large, uncontrollable blaze.
All of these climate and weather factors are conspiring to create extreme wildfire conditions. We are experiencing one of the worst droughts in more than a thousand years. Logging and thinning does not change the weather. And fuels are not the primary reason for large blazes.
I have traveled throughout the West to review large blazes, and I am not aware of any significant blazes that were not driven by the extreme fire weather conditions listed above.
A recent study by Philip Higuera at the University of Montana adds even more weight to the idea that climate is the ultimate arbitrator of wildfire occurrence. He recently published a study that concluded that forests in the Rocky Mountains are burning at a higher rate than any time in the past 2,000 years, primarily due to human-induced climate warming.
Higuera’s paper is only the latest in many studies that demonstrate a direct correlation between climate and fires. Heat and drought are promoting fire spread.
Yet, of the popular solutions including more logging and thinning promoted by the Forest Service, timber industry and, not surprisingly, western politicians, focus on fuel reductions, perhaps partly because it feeds into the common notion that fuels are what drives fires.
It may seem counterintuitive, but logging can exacerbate wildfire spread.
In many instances, thinning and logging will increase fire spread and severity by opening up the forests, which then stands to experience greater wind penetration and drying. We all know this from our experience with campfires. Pile on too much fuel and the campfire will often smolder and even go out. Pull apart your sticks and blow on the coals, and often the fire will leap to life.
If fuels were the source of large fires, the biggest blazes would be occurring in the coastal forests of Oregon, Washington and Alaska since there is more biomass (fuel) found in these temperate forests than just about anyplace on Earth. Yet these forests seldom burn, and only if the above climate factors like drought are prevalent.
Climate warming is creating the ideal conditions for massive wildfires. Forest soils are drying out earlier in the year, extending the season when a wildfire is possible. Severe drought is gripping much of the West, reducing the normal snow and stream flows that would keep vegetation lush and green. And average wind spread is increasing in some cases, which is one of the major factors that cause wildfires to spread rapidly.
Even the goal of making forests more “resilient” to fire is a fool’s errand unless you deal with climate warming. It would be one thing to try to promote more fire resilience if we were on the pathway to reverse climate warming, but we are not. Until we seriously approach climate warming, all solutions to “save” forests from wildfire are doomed to failure.
If we wish to deal effectively with wildfire, we must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And one of the ironies of the pro-logging and thinning proposals is that logging is a significant contributor to GHG emissions and thus climate warming. For instance, in Oregon, logging accounts for 35 percent of the state’s GHG emissions.
Though wildfires emit carbon, the amount is far less than the emissions from logging. This is because what burns in a wildfire are fine fuels like pine needles, cones, grasses, shrubs and small trees. The larger tree boles and roots, which contain the bulk of all carbon in a forest, remain behind as snags.
It is time for the politicians to get off the fuel reductions, curb wildfires mantra, and begin a serious movement to reduce all carbon emissions.
In the meantime, we must put more resources towards hardening homes and communities so they can weather the inevitable wildfires we will continue to experience. Fire-proofing homes is possible. Fire-proofing the forest is not.
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.”