Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Smokey View from the Northwest

Randal O'Toole

There are several major schools of thought about fire policy. One is that climate change has made fires worse and so we need to stop using fossil fuels and completely change our lifestyles to reverse this. I don’t buy this, as both the historic and prehistoric record (using things like soil profiles and tree ring analysis) indicate that an average of about 1 percent of the West has burned every year for thousands of years. After accounting for changes in firefighting tactics, I don’t see any indication that more acres are burning today because of climate change.

(On the other hand, and contrary to many climate‐​skeptic web sites, we can’t use the historic fire record to conclude that climate change isn’t happening either. The record shows that far more acres burned in the 1930s and 1940s than in the last few decades. What the record doesn’t say is that, in those years, the Forest Service opposed prescribed burning, which was widely practiced in the South, so it spitefully counted all acres of prescribed burning as wildfires.)

A second school of thought is that the 75 percent reduction in federal land timber sales between 1990 and 2000 is the problem, and if only we could increase timber cutting the forests would be healthier. The difficulty with this view is that timber cutting actually leaves forests more vulnerable to fire as it removes the big wood that isn’t very flammable and brings the fine wood and needles down from high in the air to the ground, where it is very flammable.

A third school of thought is that more than a century of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up in the forests, making them more vulnerable to fire. This school calls for widespread fuel treatments, either physically removing the brush and small trees or burning them in place. In fact, wildland firefighting was never successful enough to have a significant impact on forest fuels. A Forest Service report several years ago concluded that the vast majority of western forests have not been ecologically changed by fire suppression.

The Forest Service currently spends $430 million a year on fuel treatments and Department of Interior and state agencies spend even more. Yet all the fuel treatments in the world aren’t going to save your house if firebrands from a lightning‐​caused fire seven miles away are blown by 50 mile‐​an‐​hour winds to your cedar‐​shake roof, which is what happened to many homes in Oregon last Monday.


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