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Bloodletting and thinning

Recent legislation and commentary from political figures like Rep.Greg Walden appear to support more logging/thinning as a panacea for wildfire. It reminds me of the same approach that Medieval doctors took to illness. If a patient was sick, the solution was to “bleed” the “bad” blood from the individual. If the patient recovered, it was attributed to the removal of the tainted blood. If the patient died, well apparently not enough blood was removed.

The problem with bloodletting is twofold. First, illness was not due to “bad” blood. Secondarily, the process of bloodletting often results in collateral damage including secondary infection which causes more problems than the original illness. You can’t cure a disease if you fail to identify the real cause.

It is the same failure to identify the real problem that drives the call for more thinning/logging as a way to deal with wildfire.

The reason we are seeing more acres burning has to do with climate heating, not fuels buildup as often suggested. Every large fire across the West is the result of extreme fire weather conditions. These include drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly high winds. I do not know of a single exception.

High winds blow fire through thinned stands and usually transport burning embers far beyond a fire front. Any fuel reductions are easily circumvented.

If fuels were the problem, than our most massive fires would be in places like the Olympic Peninsula or forests in Southeast Alaska where the greatest forest biomass on earth exists. These places seldom burn because the cool, damp “climate/weather” does not support large fires.

Numerous scientific studies, as well as anecdotal observations, demonstrate that thinning/logging typically does not work under extreme fire weather conditions.

A good example was the recent Camp fire that destroyed 14,000 homes and resulted in 87 deaths in Paradise, California.

The forest around Paradise had two previous fires in the past 10 years (a fuel reduction), much of the private lands had been clearcut (another fuel reduction), and the Forest Service had done a “hazardous fuel reduction,” i.e., a thinning project, by the community. None of these slowed the fire driven by 80-mph winds, and there is evidence the opening of the landscape and promotion of more shrubs and grasses increased the rate of fire spread.

Like bloodletting, there is collateral damage from thinning/logging. Thinning/logging opens the forest stand to greater wind penetration and drying that can exacerbate climate heating effects. Disturbance of soils from logging roads/and equipment results in the spread of weeds. Logging removes biomass and snags that are critical feeding and hiding places for wildlife. It reduces carbon storage for decades, thus contributing to greater climate heating.

Logging/thinning can even affect future forest health by reducing the resilience of the forest stand. Indiscriminate removal of trees by thinning can remove trees that might have genetic resistance to beetles, drought, extreme cold and even wildfire, thereby reducing the long-term health of our forest ecosystems.

Rather than focus on logging the forest, we should be investing in protecting communities from the unavoidable wildfires — long-term, we need to address global climate change that is driving our increase in wildfire acreage burned.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including two addressing wildfire issues. He divides his time between Livingston, Montana and Bend, Oregon.