During the 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton famously coined the phrase "It’s the economy, stupid” to admonish George H.W. Bush for his failure to understand the real problem facing voters.
Today the timber industry and Forest Service continuously advocate logging to reduce fuels and assert that this will reduce large wildfires. But fuels don’t drive large wildfires.
It’s the climate/weather, stupid.
There is a well-documented correlation between wildfire and extended drought.
For instance, in the years from 800 to 1300, known as the Medieval Warm Period, the western Sierra Nevada experienced the greatest number of wildfires in the past 3,000 years. This was the same time that the Anasazi Indians abandoned their cliff dwellings due to extended drought that also engulfed the Southwest.
California and the rest of the West have experienced some of the worst droughts in the past thousand years. Is it any surprise that we are seeing large wildfires?
When there is drought, along with low humidity, high temperatures and especially the wind, wildfires are impossible to control.
Even though we have thinned millions of acres of the West, the acreage burned by wildfire continues to climb. Many scientific review studies have documented that when you have extreme climate/weather — like a thousand-year drought — thinning and other fuel reduction projects don’t work for two reasons.
First, the probability that a fire will encounter a fuel reduction during the very limited time it is effective is extremely small. More importantly, extreme weather overcomes most fuel reductions.
For example, one review found: “Extreme environmental conditions ... overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. … This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. … Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”
Another review study concluded: “... area treated (by fuel reductions) has little relationship to trends in the area burned, which is influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”
A third study states: “… fuel treatments … cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service determined: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires.”
And the CRS went on to note that logged areas appeared to increase wildfire:
“The data indicates that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”
This agrees with another review study published this past year that “found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”
In other words, “active management” advocated by the timber industry and its lackeys actually appears to increase fire severity and extent.
Most wildfires are human-ignitions, and it’s well documented there is a strong correlation between logging roads and fires. Thus, logging our forests likely increases the number of ignitions.
These studies suggest that thinning/logging is a poor strategy in part because it fails to acknowledge that climate/weather are the driving force in large wildfires.
When the climate/weather conditions are “ripe” for a large fire, nothing we humans can do will have any significant influence on such fires.
Should we do nothing? No. We don’t need to be helpless victims.
The first line of defense is not to allow home construction in the wildlands-urban interface.
Those homes already constructed need to adopt fire-wise practices that reduce the flammability of homes and communities. Metal roofs, screened vents, green lawns, and a reduction in fine fuels like dry grass and shrubs immediately adjacent to homes are well documented to save homes.
The current advocacy for more logging/thinning (except within a hundred feet or so of home) is misguided. Research has shown repeatedly that under extreme climate/weather conditions we can’t stop or suppress wildfires. We need to learn to live with them.
— George Wuerthner is an ecologist and has published 38 books including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy” as well as five books dealing with California topics. He lives in Bend.