Recently, it was announced by Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., that he plans to introduce a bipartisan bill with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., to protect communities from wildfire.
The senators are concerned that wildfire season is getting worse and large fires are a threat to communities. On both counts, the senators are correct. However, at least part of their proposed solution, which includes more logging of our forests, is misguided.
The factors increasing fires are due to climate change. The scientific evidence suggests this is a result of burning fossil fuels. In other words, wildfires are a symptom of a more significant issue of human-induced climate warming, so ultimately, we must address the cause, not the symptom.
But logging our forests is also not a solution. Climate/weather, not fuels, drives nearly all large fires. It is high temperatures, low humidity, drought and mainly winds that are responsible for all large (pejoratively called “catastrophic”) blazes.
A tremendous amount of research demonstrates that under such conditions, the usual “solutions” like prescribed burning, thinning forests and even clearcutting forests are ineffective and inefficient. That’s mainly because high winds blow embers over, though and around any “fuel reduction” projects.
For instance, one 2016 study reviewed more than 1,500 fires across the country and found that the highest-severity burns were in areas with “active management.” By contrast, the least-severe blazes were in protected landscapes like parks and wilderness where no logging or other “active” management is permitted.
More than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress that concluded, “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity. … However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”
Ironically, both senators cite the recent Camp Fire, which burned more than 95 percent of the structures in Paradise, Calif., as the reason for their legislation. Paradise is a perfect poster child of how fuel reductions fail to protect a community.
The forests surrounding Paradise had been burned in two recent wildfires (a fuel reduction), had “hazardous fuel reductions” on nearby Forest Service lands, while much of the Sierra Pacific private timberlands had been extensively clearcut during the past decade. Those logging operations are so prevalent, you can see the clearcuts on Google Earth.
The area around Paradise had more “fuel reductions” than most parts of the West, but it still did not save the town.
What did work is new housing codes that mandated building construction resistance to wildfire. For instance, of the homes built in Paradise since the codes were enacted in 2008, only about half burned, while four out of five older homes were consumed by flame.
Allowing people to build in fire-risk areas is also a local problem that their legislation does not address. Up to a quarter of the population in Idaho and Montana live in high-risk fire areas. County governments regularly approve new homes to be constructed in the “fire plain.”
Those results demonstrate that reducing the flammability of homes and their immediate surroundings is the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce fire hazards.
Daines and Feinstein’s emphasis on more logging is like trying to drain the ocean to save a sinking lifeboat with water gushing through a hole in the bottom. It is far easier and more effective to plug the hole than try to drain the ocean.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist in Livingston, Mont., who has published 38 books, including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.”