With new wildfires burning throughout California and elsewhere in the West, there are renewed calls for logging/thinning our forests based on the flawed assumption it will reduce large blazes. Indeed, many recent timber sales in Montana are justified on this false premise, including the recent proposal to log several thousand acres in the Crazy Mountains north of Livingston and by West Yellowstone.
All large wildfires occur only when there is severe drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly high winds. If you have all those ingredients along with an ignition source, you will get an uncontrollable wildfire — no matter what kind of “fuel treatments” you have implemented.
Many of the largest fires in recent years occurred during these kinds of extreme climate/weather conditions. Whether it was the Eagle Fire in the Columbia Gorge that jumped the Columbia River (fuel break) or California’s largest fire to date, the Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara which was only halted by the fuel break known as the Pacific Ocean.
Science repeatedly shows that fuel treatments (read logging) are ineffective under extreme weather conditions that are responsible for all large blazes. A 2005 paper concluded that fuel treatments "cannot realistically be expected to eliminate large area burned in severe fire weather years.”
A paper from the Missoula Fire Lab opined “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.”
A more recent review study that looked at 1,500 fires and fire severity reported: “We found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel.”
Research conducted in the California Klamath region found “that the most fire-suppressed forests in this area (areas that had not burned since at least 1920) burned at significantly lower severity levels.”
The scientists went on to conclude. “The hypothesis that fire severity is greater where previous fire has been long absent was refuted by our study. …The amount of high-severity fire in long-unburned closed forests was the lowest of any proportion of the landscape and differed from that in the landscape as a whole.”
A 2018 study found that “actively managed” forests (read logged) experienced greater fire severity than forests with less management. In particular, it concluded that intensively managed private forest lands tended to burn with greater severity than older state and federal forests.
Another study east of Oregon’s Cascades found: “In general, rate of spread and flame length was positively correlated with the proportion of area logged (hereafter, area logged) for the sample watersheds.” The authors concluded, “All harvest techniques were associated with increased rate of spread and flame length.”
Worse for our forest ecosystems, logging is not restoration. Natural ecological processes like drought, beetles, disease, wildfire, and so on are better at “restoring” forests in line with current environmental conditions. Forest ecosystems are adapted to these processes, they are not adapted to logging.
There are numerous ecological costs associated with logging that are seldom considered or only given lip service: spread of weeds, sedimentation into streams, soil compaction, disruption of nutrient flows, loss of wildlife habitat, loss of carbon storage, removal of biomass (read wildlife habitat) and disturbance of sensitive wildlife.
A reduction in the flammability in the immediate area of the home is more reliable and cost-effective than trying to fire-proof the forest through thinning operations. Long term, we must address human-caused warming climate if we wish to avoid even greater conflagrations.