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Dispelling timber industry wildfire myths

As wildfires roll across the Pacific Northwest, many in the timber industry and beyond are hoping to capitalize on people’s fears and ignorance of fire behavior to increase logging of our public forests.

More fire fighters and more tree thinning will not prevent large fires–we need an entirely new paradigm for living with wildfire.

One of the persistent myths is that if we only “managed” (read log) our forests we would eliminate or preclude large wildfires.

If fuels were the driving force in wildfires, we would expect the largest blazes in the biomass rich Oregon Coast Range.

Large fires are driven by weather/climate including severe drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and most importantly wind. Under these conditions wildfires cannot be stopped.

Only after the weather changes can fires be controlled, and often at this point, they are destined to self-extinguish. So much of the money spent on fire-fighting to suppress an active wildfire is often as effective as dropping dollar bills on the flames. It also puts fire-fighters lives at risk.

Under severe fire conditions (and all large wildfires burn under such conditions), wind-blown fire brands jump over, around and through “fuel reduction projects”.

Recent reviews of fuel reduction effectiveness have concluded that thinning usually fails  to control blazes under severe fire weather conditions—yet it is exactly these blazes that we seek to control.

In fact some studies have found that thinning can exacerbate fire spread because they open the forest to rapid drying of fuels and allow greater wind penetration.

Often the areas with the densest forests tend to burn the least in major fires because wind can’t penetrate and the heavy shade tends to keep fuels moister.

Another persistent myth is that dead trees from beetles or disease increase fire risk. Actually the opposite is true. Fires consume fine fuels like needles, cones, and small branches–the main tree bole dos not burn readily. Dead trees lack the fine fuels and thus are more resistant to burning.

Furthermore, large fires are the major source for dead trees critical to forest ecosystems. We need large wildfires to rejuvenate and sustain healthy forests.

Much of the current fire-fighting effort is directed towards saving homes. The best way to protect homes and communities is not by logging the forest, but to keep people from building in “fire plain” which is analogous to a river flood plain. For homes already constructed in the “fire plain”, reducing the flammability of the ignition zone within 200 feet of the home has proven highly effective.

We need to reevaluate fire policies. More fire fighters, and more money spent on money-losing and ineffective thinning projects will not make communities safe. It would be far more effective to assist homeowners in reducing the flammability of homes than trying to fire proof the forest. We must stop putting our fire fighter’s lives at risk trying to stop fires that are beyond human control.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and has published 38 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He lives in Bend, OR.