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The recent op-ed in The Montana Standard supporting more “fuel reductions” by Dave Atkins and 11 other signers demonstrates a lack of understanding of basic wildfire and forest ecology.

While the authors acknowledge there are times when fuel reductions do not work due to extreme weather conditions, they still argue that it’s worth doing them. What for? Most wildfires burning under less than “red flag” conditions tend to be easily controlled, and if left alone, would self-extinguish anyway, as Canadian researchers have shown.

It’s a difficult concept for some to understand, but fuels don’t drive fires that burn 98 percent of the landscape that ends up burning — “red flag” weather conditions do. And these are the fires where “fuel reductions” are largely ineffective. Thus, their analogy to seat belts is entirely inappropriate — seat belts work on the rare occasion when we need them, while fuel reductions fail precisely when we need them! Furthermore, the authors suggest that treating dry ponderosa pine forests is effective. Yet most of our fires are burning in higher elevation forests of lodgepole pine, fir and spruce, not the dry ponderosa pine forests where they advocate fuel treatments. Ponderosa pine only makes up 4 percent of the forest cover in the northern Rockies.

The fallacy of the fuel-reduction argument is that it fails to address the real problem of more frequent and larger fires; fuels are not the problem — the warming climate is. We cannot cut enough trees or do enough prescribed burns to make any significant effect on the occurrence of large fires. Nor should we even want to reduce either the occurrence or severity of wildfires because both plant and animal species have evolved to depend on the more severely burned forest patches.

What we need is to be fire-safe, and risk reduction has been shown to be almost entirely a product of our home environment and not the forest environment miles away from homes.

-- George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has studied wildfire ecology for four decades and written two books and numerous articles on fire ecology.


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