With large fires still raging around the West, we can all feel empathy for those who lost their homes and even entire communities, as well as the suffering we all have experienced from the smoke.

Still, there is a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors about the blazes and their cause.

The timber industry, Forest Service and some forestry schools are quick to suggest that logging can reduce large blazes. Rushing to log more of the forest will not solve the problem, indeed, it can worsen it.

1. Climate change is driving the larger blazes we are experiencing in the West. Higher daily temperatures, extreme drought, low humidity, and high winds resulting from climate change exacerbate the flammability of the vegetation. Extreme fire weather is driving large blazes, not fuels. We need to address the causes of global climate change and make this a national priority.

2. Despite the rhetoric, one continuously hears about a “hundred years of fire suppression,” the fire regimes in most plant communities across the West have not been altered. For instance, the Douglas fir forests on the west slope of the Cascades now burning in Oregon tend to have natural fire intervals of 300-500 years.

3. Plant communities as diverse as mountain hemlock, aspen, sagebrush, juniper, high elevation fir forests, chaparral, lodgepole pine, among others — all naturally have long intervals between wildfire. They only burn when there is the right combination of drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly, high winds. Fire suppression has not altered the fire rotation in these plant communities.

 4.  I have visited dozens of large blazes from Washington to New Mexico, California to Montana, and without exception, all these fires are climate/weather-driven events. Under such extreme fire weather, the only thing that halts blazes is a change in weather. It rains or snows. The wind dies down or the temperatures drop. I know of no exceptions.

5. One recent study reviewed 1,500 fires around the West and found the highest severity blazes occurred in areas with “active forest management” while protected landscapes like wilderness areas where presumably, fuels were higher, burned less intensely.

6. One potential explanation for these findings is that after logging, you enhance the growth of shrubs, grasses, and small trees which are the fine fuels that carry fires. Removing large trees as advocated by the timber industry is a false solution since large trees do not readily burn — rather, is it is the fine fuels like needles, small branches and cones which are the main fuel for fires. That is why you have snags left after a fire — the large boles do not burn easily.

7. Indeed, active forest management can contribute to larger and more severe fires because it opens the forest to greater drying and more wind penetration — two factors most responsible for large wildfires

8. The western Cascades where fires are still spreading is one of the most heavily logged regions in the entire country. If “fuel reductions” were going to be effective anywhere, this is the place. Yet the wind-driven fires roar through clearcuts and thinned forests alike. The idea that we can preclude large wildfires by more “active forest management” is pure delusion.

9. We cannot preclude large fires through forest management; however, we can reduce the impacts on humans. A shift from logging the forest miles from towns to an emphasis on reducing the flammability of houses, planning evacuation routes, burying power lines, zoning to reduce sprawl, and other measures can enhance the safety of our communities.

10. Ultimately, we must deal with climate change or I can guarantee we will see far more unstoppable blazes around the West.


EDITOR’S NOTE: George Wuerthner has published two books on fire ecology and has studied wildfires for decades, traveling to every Western state to observe large wildfires and their aftermath.