Montana Sen. Daines announced that he intends to reintroduce wildfire legislation co-sponsored by California Sen. Diane Feinstein that, among other things, would speed up and expand logging on public lands. The presumption is that our forests are “sick” with too much “fuels” that are driving large blazes, and the “cure” is to reduce fuels through chainsaw medicine.
The continued emphasis on "fuels reduction" as the cure for large blazes reminds me of medieval doctors who practiced bloodletting to cure illness. If a patient lived, it was because the "bad" blood had been removed. If the patient died despite bloodletting, then obviously not enough bad blood was drawn.
Bloodletting typically failed because it did not address the real medical issues causing illness. Similarly, thinning does not address the real cause of large fires.
The West is currently experiencing some of the worst drought conditions in a thousand years. Climate/weather is what is driving large blazes, not excess fuel.
Under most weather conditions, fires do not spread rapidly nor become large. Most fires burn less than 5 acres and typically self-extinguish or are easy to suppress.
However, the fires that everyone is concerned about are the relatively few enormous blazes that burn tens of thousands of acres. These blazes all burn under "extreme fire weather conditions," including drought, high temps, low humidity, and most importantly, high winds. Under extreme conditions, none of the logging "solutions" work.
Thinning/logging can exacerbate fire spread because it opens the forest to greater drying of the soils and ultimately vegetation and allows penetration by winds which drive all large blazes.
Nearly all western forest and vegetation types, including lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, spruce, aspen, sagebrush juniper, and chaparral, tend to have "long" fire rotations.
They go many decades, often hundreds of years, between burns. The chances that any fire in these plant community types will encounter a "fuel treatment" before trees or other vegetation grows back after thinning is very low—practically zero.
It is fine fuels like needles, grass and shrubs that burn in wildfires, not the larger trees. That is why we have snags after a blaze and why logging large trees will have little effect on fire spread during extreme fire weather.
Logging is not benign. The logging roads created to cut trees are a significant source of sediment in streams impacting fisheries, vectors for weeds, disturb sensitive wildlife, are natural corridors for mountain bikes, dirt bikes and other mechanical access even if "closed." Plus, dead trees are habitat for many wildlife species.
Logging also releases carbon that is otherwise stored in trees. Keep in mind that even after a fire, most carbon remains on-site stored as a snag, charcoal, roots in the soil, etc., so thinning reduces the stored carbon now, contributing to the climate warming that is exacerbating fires.
Are we going to be like medieval doctors and just prescribe more chainsaw medicine? If the probability that a fire will encounter a fuel treatment is nearly zero, are they worth the costs? A more effective cure is to focus on making homes fire-safe, not trying to “fireproof” the forest.
George Wuerthner of Livingston is an ecologist who has published several books on wildfire ecology including "Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy."