Editor’s note: This was written in response to our editoral Sunday, Aug. 19.
The “Smoke fix” editorial Aug. 19 repeats widespread assumptions about wildfire. The editorial suggests that a lack of logging is contributing to current smoke and fires. And while the editorial acknowledges the role that climate change is having in exacerbating fires today, it fails to look back at how climate affected fires in the past.
No one likes smoke; however, the reason we had fewer fires in past decades is not due to logging, but rather to climate/weather. During the entire period between the 1940s-1980s, it was cooler and moister than at present. What happens when it’s cooler and moister? You have fewer ignitions and slower fire spread and few large fires.
What far too many fail to understand is that climate/weather, not fuels, drive wildfires. If fuels were the problem we would expect the biggest fires on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, where the greatest forest biomass in the nation is located. But due to the overall cool, moist climate there, fires are rare.
Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing into the present, we have had a gradual increase in fire weather conditions that include extensive drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. These factors are what is driving our wildfires, not fuels.
Without exception, all large fires burn under what is termed “extreme fire weather” conditions. Under such conditions, fires burn through everything, including thinned forests. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that logging may even enhance fire spread. For instance, the highest severity burns in Oregon have occurred in commercial forests.
Logging increases the very factors that enhance fire spread including more growth of grasses, shrubs and small trees — the fine fuels that carry fires.
Plus, research suggests that fuel treatments are largely ineffective under extreme weather conditions. Here are some research findings.
A 2005 paper concluded that “fuel treatments … cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.”
A paper written by fire scientists at the Missoula Fire Lab opined, “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.”
These findings were verified by another more recent review study that looked at 1,500 fires and fire severity and reported: “We 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.”
Another study conducted in the California Klamath region found that the most fire-suppressed forests in this area (areas that had not burned since at least 1920) burned at significantly lower severity levels.
They went on to conclude. “The hypothesis that fire severity is greater where previous fire has been long absent was refuted by our study … The amount of high-severity fire in long-unburned closed forests was the lowest of any proportion of the landscape and differed from that in the landscape as a whole.”
A 2018 study found that actively managed forests experienced greater fire severity than forests with less management. In particular, concluded that Intensively managed private forestlands tended to burn with greater severity than older state and federal forests.
Long-term, we need to stop waffling about climate change and make major reductions in human CO2 contributions. Recent attempts by the Trump administration to roll back car emissions and increase coal-fired energy are exactly the kind of actions that will only increase fires and smoke.
George Wuerthner of Bend is an ecologist and has published 38 books including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”