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Response to TNC on wildfires

The Wildlife News
April 26, 2019

The April 25th article in the Yakima Herald "Fewer low-intensity fires means more severe fires" quotes Ryan Haugo, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy and contained many misstatements that lack context about wildfires.

It is possible that Haugo stated more ideas and simply wasn't quoted in the article, but since he more or less implies the same in a recent paper he published, I think his position needs to be clarified.

For example, the article implies that due to fewer low severity fires, we are now experiencing more massive fires, and the explanation and solution is more logging and prescribed burning. But this is a simplistic cause and effect that ignores the huge role that climate plays in fire.

The article uses the dates 1984-2015 as its timescale, concluding that fewer low severity fires occur now than in the past. However, since the 1980s, our climate has warmed which is responsible for the larger, more severe wildfires and this is not unexpected under the current climate regime.

In the early 1900s during similar warmer and drier conditions, we saw massive wildfires across the West. The 1910 Burn that charred as much as 3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana is one example. During the 1920s and 1930s, as much as 50 million acres burned long before significant fire suppression and "fuels" were responsible for large fires.

It also ignores the well-established fact that western plant communities including Douglas fir, aspen, true firs, sagebrush, and juniper to name a few, were historically dominated by episodic high severity blazes. There is nothing abnormal or even "destructive" about large fires. Indeed, nearly all western ecosystems depend on large high severity blazes for healthy ecological function.

Ironically the proposed solution, more logging and thinning increases carbon discharges far more than wildfire, contributing to greater climate warming, which in turn spawns more blazes. The best way to reduce carbon emissions is to keep it in the forest by precluding logging/thinning.

Furthermore, many studies find that "fuel reductions" aka thinning/logging do not appreciably reduce large fires, instead thinning or logging increases fire spread. Keep in mind the major components in fire spread are low humidity (drying of fuels), high temperatures (drying of fuels) and wind. All of these factors are enhanced by opening up the forest to sun and wind penetration.

To quote only one of many studies, a team of fire ecologists at the Missoula Fire Lab concluded "Extreme environmental conditions...overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects...This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning...Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications."

Recently more than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

To quote from the scientists' letter: "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..."

We need to recognize that high severity fires are necessary for forest health. Society must address the climate change factors that are heating the planet. All other "solutions" are snake oil being sold by Industrial Forestry advocates.

This Article was published in The Wildlife News: Response to TNC on wildfires