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‘Fuel reduction’ is not the answer to wildfire

When Bill Clinton was running for president, his political advisor, James Carville, famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid”! Clinton listened to Carville, focused on the economy and won the election.

Today with regards to wildfire, we should be saying over and over, it’s the climate stupid! The heat, drought, and other variables caused by climate warming is super-charging wildfires. Yet the response of most agencies and politicians to suggest more logging/thinning as a panacea.

The proponents of active forest management assert that these tactics can reduce fire intensity and thus is a beneficial policy to reduce large blazes. However, fuel reductions do not change the climate or weather. And most of the scientific support for thinning/logging is based on modeling of fuel loading, not real-life experiences.

The amount of fuel is often the least important factor in fire spread when you have extreme fire weather — as we are experiencing now. What drives large fires is drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and lastly, and most importantly, wind — all exacerbated by climate change. When a forest is thinned/logged, there is greater wind penetration, and the wind is the most crucial factor in wildfire spread.

Thinning also results in more fine fuels on the ground that will carry a fire. And opening up the canopy allows greater solar penetration, meaning fuels and soils dry out quicker. What burns in a forest fire is primarily “fine fuels” like grass, shrubs and small trees.

Forest Service “thinning projects,” remove the larger trees which typically do not burn which is why you have snags after a high severity blaze. As most of us know from our camping experiences, often a large log placed on a fire doesn’t really burn up and requires constant heating from coals beneath it to keep it ignited.

Under the extreme conditions that drive all large wildfires, the wind effectively negates thinning benefits by blowing embers miles ahead of a fire front. Thus, embers are tossed over and around any fuel breaks or thinned stands.

Add to all these factors is the very low probability that any thinned forest stand will encounter a fire. The likelihood is around 1% to 2%. The majority of thinned areas are never burned during the period when they “might” be somewhat “effective.”

Thinning and logging by reducing competition for water and sun promotes the rapid growth of more fine fuels — so in five to 10 years, you have more grass, shrubs, small trees, which are the very things that burn readily in a forest fire.

However, thinning is not benign. Thinning removes carbon stored in trees. The disturbance from logging roads and activities spreads weeds, including cheatgrass, which is highly flammable. Logging can displace sensitive wildlife like elk. Sediment from logging roads can fill streams harming aquatic life.

By promoting “active forest management” as a panacea for wildfire, we trade inevitable negative consequences of logging/thinning that occur today and get only a tiny chance that any fuel reduction will influence a wildfire.

We should refocus federal funding and policy towards hardening homes and communities to resist blazes, create evacuation plans, bury powerlines, and otherwise prepare for inevitable fires.

Finally, we must get serious about reducing climate warming that is driving these blazes. It is the climate, stupid, should be the mantra heard around the West.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has studied wildfire for decades. He has published two books on fire ecology including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”