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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

George Wuerthner: Climate change, not fuels, driving large blazes

By George Wuerthner

By George Wuerthner

Proponents of active forest management aka logging as a means of reducing large wildfires are looking in the rearview mirror. They continuously argue that frequent low severity fires kept fuels low in the past and precluded large blazes. Thus, their solution to current blazes is fuel reduction – preferably by logging.

Logging proponents fail to acknowledge that climate is the ultimate arbitrator of wildfires. That is why the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington, which contain more “fuel” than any place in the northern Rockies, seldom burn. Why? It’s too cool and moist.

We are in the worst drought in over a thousand years. We are seeing record high temperatures. Average wind speeds are increasing. These factors are responsible for the increase in wildfire spread and severity. For instance, for every 1-degree rise in temperature, fire risk is increased by up to 25%. Wind impact is also exponential, with high winds responsible for every large fire across the West.

We have historical references demonstrating the correlation between climate and fires – long before anyone can claim “fire suppression” created large fires. For example, the 1910 Big Burn that consumed more than 3 million acres of the Northern Rockies occurred long before anyone could assert that “fire suppression” led to fuel accumulation. And in 1929 (i.e., the beginning of the Dust Bowl), as much as 50 million acres were burned across the West. This acreage is five times what we now call a record year if 10 million acres burn.

However, our view is skewed by a decline in fires in the mid-century between the 1940s and ’80s. Some logging proponents assert that “fire suppression led to fuel accumulations. In reality, the West was in the midst of a cycle of cool, moist conditions, which resulted in few ignitions and limited fire spread, and glaciers were growing in the PNW. During this period, nature did a fine job suppressing fires, but in typical human arrogance, we try to take credit for it.

Furthermore, there is abundant evidence from large blazes around the West that logging does not preclude large blazes. For example, the town of Paradise, California, which the Camp Fire consumed, was surrounded by clearcuts, hazardous fuel reduction projects, and even two previous fires – all of which “reduced” fuels, yet propelled by 60 mph winds, the fire spread as fast as one football field a second.

The Holiday Farm Fire charred the western slopes of the Oregon Cascades in 2020; the Dixie Fire, California’s largest blaze, and Bootleg Fire in Oregon – respectfully the largest blazes last year in each state – burned through substantial areas of past logging. You can view the clearcuts on Google Earth that made up the bulk of the area charred by the Holiday Farm fire.

Numerous studies confirm that climate drives large blazes and logging exacerbates fire spread, and recently more than 200 scientists sent a letter to Congress.

The irony of logging as a cure for large wildfires is that the wood products industry significantly contributes to Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

For instance, 35% of the GHG emissions in Oregon are due to the logging industry. Thus, more logging only puts more CO2 into the atmosphere resulting in even greater climate warming.

Spending funds logging forests in the false hope that one can reduce large blazes is looking in the rear-view mirror. Unless we reduce GHG emissions, we will continue to see large blazes driven by climate warming.

In the meantime, rather than log our forests, the best way to protect communities and structures is home hardening working from home outward.

George Wuerthner has published two books on fire ecology and has traveled extensively throughout the West to view how large wildfires burn.

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