By George Wuerthner
Like zombies rising from the dead, legislators continue to push the flawed notion that logging can preclude massive wildfires and protect communities. The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, introduced by Senator Steve Daines (R–Montana) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–California), is another example of the failure of our politicians to use science to guide effective legislation.
The legislation's goal is to reduce wildfire impact on communities, but the bill is more a giveaway to the timber industry than a panacea for large wildfires.
Climate and weather drive all significant wildfires, not fuels. Extreme fire weather includes low humidity, high temperatures, drought and, more importantly, high winds. If you have high winds, you cannot stop or slow a wildfire by logging or any other "fuel reduction."
If fuels were the primary cause of large wildfires, Oregon and Washington's coastal forests would be ablaze. These forests have more fuel per acre than a hundred acres of mountain woodlands. But there are virtually no fires in these coastal forests. Why? Because the climate is cool and moist
However, when you have extreme fire weather, nothing stops fires — until the weather changes.
The legislation would reduce environmental regulations and public oversight while fast-tracking logging far from communities and homes. It calls for the creation of "fuel breaks" of up to 3,000 acres (an acre is approximately the same size as a football field). Never mind that large wildfires regularly eject embers that can cross extensive areas without any fuels. For instance, the Eagle Fire in Oregon in 2017 jumped the mile-and-a-half width of the Columbia River.
Numerous researchers have emphasized that it is the home's flammability that determines the vulnerability of houses to wildfire. Logging miles from communities provides no added benefits in reducing wildfire threat, but it does impose environmental impacts.
For example, logging roads are a chronic source of sediment in streams, damaging trout waters across the West. Since most ignitions start on or near roadways, more roads ironically will increase the likelihood of more fires. Logging also increases the chances of fire by putting more fine fuels on the forest floor and opening the forest to drying and wind penetration. Logging also compacts soils, spreads weeds and disturbs sensitive wildlife.
Logging also reduces carbon storage and releases far more carbon into the atmosphere than wildfire. Thus, ironically, this legislation will contribute to more significant carbon dioxide emissions, which are the main factor in climate warming, which creates favorable conditions for wildfire spread.
None of these "costs" of logging will get serious consideration if this legislation is passed.
Some might say all these impacts are worthwhile if logging prevented large wildfires. But the science is clear on this topic, and the overwhelming evidence is that thinning/logging can't preclude large climate and weather-driven blazes.
The Daines-Feinstein legislation is misguided. The best way to assist communities is to provide financial resources to improve the resistance of homes to wildfires and community preparedness. Long term, we must also address carbon dioxide emissions, which are the ultimate source of climate warming driving large wildfires.
George Wuerther is an ecologist who has written several books on wildfire ecology.
This piece originally appeared in the Idaho Falls Post Register.
Photo by Tommy Hough
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.