Why Western Wildfires are getting larger


The October 1st edition of the radio science show “Earth and Sky” featured a US Forest Service official asserting that the acreage of individual wildfires has increased dramatically in just a decade. The Deschutes National Forest in Oregon was provided as an example and climate change was held up as the cause for the dramatic change.

These Forest Service assertions were – at best - half truths. The size of Western wildfires has also increased dramatically because:

  • As research and experience on the ground have documented, logging usually increases the rate of spread of fire for up to 30 or more years after the area is logged and the extent of logged forests on public and private land has increased over time;
  • The Forest Service regularly increases the size of wildfires with huge burn outs, which they then do not distinguish (subtract) from fire acreage statistics;
  • The Bush Administration put Forest Service fire spending on a budget; since then some FS managers have used large burn outs to increase burned acreage in order to get larger future fire fighting budgets.

Most Forest Service managers – and most press outlets - are in denial concerning the connection between logging and fire. While there is a body of research on the connection between logging and fire intensity, rate of fire spread, etc., this research is rarely if ever mentioned in connection with fire risk. Instead, the timber industry exploits climate change and Western wildfires year after year to argue – often through surrogates - that more logging is need to reduce fire risk. This fire season we have seen a flood of such propaganda in the editorial pages of the regions large and small newspapers.

There are illustrative examples of Forest Service managers using burn outs inappropriately this fire season on the Six Rivers National Forest. In one instance, Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley ignored the recommendation of cultural specialists from the Yurok and Karuk Tribes and from the incident commander and ordered a massive burn out that about doubled the size of the Siskiyou-Blue 2 Fire and burdened nearby communities with months of additional smoke. In another instance, Forest Service fire managers ignored the warnings of locals and lit a burn out on the lower Salmon River which jumped containment lines and then raged uphill to threaten several residences.

Two elders – one Indian and one white – died this summer in the Klamath River Country in the midst of months of intense smoke. While a direct connection between the deaths and a summer of unhealthy smoke cannot be established, many local residents are convinced not only that the smoke contributed to the deaths, but that a lot of the smoke was not natural; instead, it was the result of ill-advised and unnecessary Forest Service ordered burn outs.

Tales of inappropriate Forest Service burn outs have also emerged this summer on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Long-time observers believe that the key to the understanding Forest Service managers' decisions is to be found in budget incentives. Ever since the Bush Administration put fire fighting expenditures on budget, Forest Service managers have been acting to secure larger fire fighting budgets. One tactic they have used is to transfer funds from fire risk reduction projects to the fire fighting budget. This summer, for example, FS managers informed local Fire Safe Councils that funds which had already been granted for risk reduction projects would not be provided. Forest Service managers are betting disgruntled Fire Safe Council leaders will lobby Congress for vastly increased FS fire fighting funds so that the risk reduction funds on which they depend will not be pulled in future years.

In the case of the Six Rivers National Forest cited above, the supervisor may have been motivated to increase acres burned in this summer’s fires so that he could garner a larger share of regional fire fighting funds when next year’s national budget is disaggregated to individual forests.

I suspect that burned acreage is being unnecessarily expanded via burn outs on other forests as well. If the acreage burned on the national forests can be increased then Congress is more likely to increase funding for fire suppression next year.

The Forest Service official’s appearance on "Earth and Sky" can be viewed as part of such a campaign.

The escalating cost of fire suppression has become quite controversial in recent years prompting - among other things - a review by the Inspector General of the Forest Service's parent agency - the US Department of Agriculture. That audit report extended beyond cost to the issue of Wildland Fire Use (WFU) versus Wildland Fire Suppression (WFS). When they choose to use WFU, managers allow natural wildfires to burn where life and property are not at risk.

Largely unknown to outsiders, there is a struggle going on within the Forest Service and the national firefighting bureaucracy concerning WFS v WFU. The firefighting bureaucracy has grown large and powerful as a result of the exponential increase in Wildland Fire Suppression expenditures. And in recent decades an army of private contractors have grown rich providing fire suppression equipment and services to the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies. The bureaucracy and the contractors know that the size of their budgets and profits respectively depend on a continuation of the military approach to fire suppression. Wildland Fire Use is a different approach which requires restraint and lowers cost. Therefore WFU is a threat to the power of the firefighting bureaucracy and the profits of fire suppression contractors.

Pressure from Congress to reduce firefighting costs and from a growing number of Forest Service managers and firefighters who recognize the insanity of the high-tech, high-cost military approach to fighting wildfire is beginning to have an impact. When one adds to this the growing pressure from local residents who believe the huge burn-outs, huge expenditures and increased smoke resulting from military-style fire suppression are not necessary, the prospects for positive change appear to be gaining ground.

For the first time in several decades it appears that the trajectory of fire fighting policy and practice in the American West may be shifting toward change and sanity. Stay tuned.

Westerling et al. 2007 found...
Tyson S.
Tyson S.
Oct 08, 2008 11:41 AM
Westerling et al. 2007 showed that recent fire seasons are longer, leading to more ignitions, more time to experience extreme behavior. This has occurred in many areas (specifically the Intermountain West) where logging has not been as ubiquitous across the landscape (like in the Pacific Northwest) in recent history. For example, Arizona's recent large fires occurred in areas that had not been heavily logged in over 70 years.

The changes in fuels are of course one reason for extreme fire behavior, from logging, or the suppression of natural surface fire regimes. The duration in which an extreme event can take place is the factor that should be considered when evaluating climate change; not the number of acres burned.

Correction -- Westerling et al. 2006
Tyson S.
Tyson S.
Oct 08, 2008 11:50 AM
Warming and Earlier Spring Increases Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, Westerling, Hidalgo, Cayan, and Swetnam. Science Express, 6 July 2006 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834]

also see: CLIMATE CHANGE: Is Global Warming Causing More, Larger Wildfires? Steven W. Running (18 August 2006) Science 313 (5789), 927. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1130370]
Westerling, et al
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Oct 10, 2008 01:09 PM
This comment makes a good point. By extending the fire season, climate change is a factor that could be contributing to the increased average size of western wildfires. The point is that the Forest Service has focused on this one factor while ignoring - or in this case failing to mention to Earth and Sky producers the other factors - logging, fire suppression, expanded size of "burn-outs" lit by fire managers.

The tendency of the Forest Service to pick and choose which factors to mention and which not to mention, undermines the agencies credibility and calls into question FS manager's motives.
Fire supresion vs. WFU
Oct 11, 2008 09:01 AM
The WFU management system is very commonly seen now, I think that is a huge factor in why fires are larger.

Firefighters used to squelch as quickly as possible any fire, now they just "manage" them. They only protect structures now, allowing the rest of the fire to burn as it may.

Many think this system of management is not good and is presented as such in this article, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here.
My husband used to be a firefighter and has told me that it is a controversal practice, but it also mimics the more ancient burn patterns and increases the health of the ecosystem overall. Many speceis of trees have seeds that actually need the fire to germantate and many of the mature native tree spiecies are fire resistant, which shows a dependence on fires by the native forest and an ancient symbiosis.

My husband and I were also live in park volunteers/hosts at a nature preserve when we were first married. After a lighting strike, a large part of the preserve ended up catching fire, and the WFU management system was used.
To my surprise, the two rangers that were stationed at the preserve were happy that the preserve had caught fire. They had been trying to eradicate many envasive spiecies of trees and plants in the preserve and explained that the fire may have temporarily burned everything, but only the native plants would return. From experience with other areas, they explained the non-native, envasive plants would not grow back after a fire, the fire acts sort of like an "antibiotic" against the plant spiecies that are not supossed to be there.

And, to their credit, I witnessed the "rebirth" of the preserve, the part that had been burned was, like they stated, free of envasive plant spiecies. In fact, the rangers were wishing the entire preserve had burned, since the envasive spiecies that were in the part that had been untouched by fire, were going to present a problem to the rangers, who's job was to try and eradicate the envasive spieces and prevent reinfestaion to the now cleansed area.
Mike Dubrasich
Mike Dubrasich
Oct 16, 2008 12:11 AM
Some clarifications are in order. The WFU program was developed by the USFS and the national firefighting bureaucracy. There is no struggle within. The struggle is between the bureaucracy and rural residents who don't care to see their landscapes and watershed incinerated. The WFU program was imposed without any NEPA process and no public involvement, another factor that grates.

The WFU program does not generate reduced costs. In fact, the deliberate burning this year led to a $600 million shortfall in the USFS fire budget that had to made up by eliminating non-fire projects and programs. Record fire expenditures occurred despite the fact that only half the acreage (~5 million acres) burned compared to 2007 and 2006. And while some WFU fires remained small and manageable, some blew up into catastrophic megafires such as the Clover, Gunbarrel, Bridge Creek, and South Barker Fires (and many more).

The WFU program does not stand alone. It is part and parcel of something called Appropriate Management Response (AMR) that includes de facto WFU fires that are called "suppression" fires even though suppression is nil. Examples include the Basin/Indians Fire that burned 244,000 acres and cost $120 million, the second largest and most expensive fire in California state history. AMR was also cited in burning 1,000 square miles of Northern California at a cost over $150 million. Dozens of owl nesting stands and critical salmon spawning streams were destroyed. AMR was the program behind burning up 40,000 acres of old-growth in the Boulder Creek and Sky lakes Wilderness Areas. And AMR was the reason 800,000 acres of the Idaho Batholith was incinerated in 2007. AMR includes massive backburning that extend fires for months, polluting air and water, destroying watersheds, all the while filling the pockets of "firefighters" whose only job is lighting fires from "contingency lines" sometimes miles away from the actual fires.

The change needed is restoration forestry that restores heritage conditions, the open and park-like forests maintained for centuries by frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fires set by the First Residents. Our forests need to be prepared to receive fire with fuels management that restores the historical development pathways which led to the long-lived trees that constitute our old-growth today. Without restoration forestry, modern fires are converting our forests to fire-type brush, altering ecosystems, degrading watersheds, and permanently destroying habitat for endangered species. Burning for the sake of burning is not stewardship. Protecting, maintaining, and perpetuating forests require a little more sensitivity and expert effort than that.

Addendum: It's not global warming. 2008 was the coolest year in the last 20, with the deepest snowpack and the longest snow retention in the last 50 years. It's the fuels and the policies, not "climate change."
More Corrections
Bob Zybach
Bob Zybach
Oct 16, 2008 01:09 AM
Many of the statements made regarding correlations of logging and wildfire, and of wildfire and climate change, are bogus -- several for reasons given by Mr. Dubrasich. This assertion is certainly true for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, if not for parts of California and Nevada. However, I also think it is likely true for those areas, too.

My own research into catastrophic wildfires of the Pacific Northwest demonstrates two important points:

1) Reducing fuels by logging reduces wildfire frequency and intensity -- for several subsequent decades at least. The obvious, and previously well-known, example is the "six-year jinx" of Tillamook Fires from 1933 to 1951. Salvage logging, modern suppression methods, and related road-building stopped this series of catastrophic wildfires in their tracks, beginning in 1945 and continuing through 2008. The 1951 Fires were readily controlled at levels greatly reduced from their predeccesors, and have never returned. More than 60 years without a catastrophic-scale wildfire, thanks to suppression and logging. Where are the citations to these well known facts? They used to be numerous.

2) Catastrophic wildfires in the western US have been closely dated since white settlement, beginning in the 1840s. Fire seasons are precisely the same now as they were 160 years ago, and as they have remained for the past 150 years. There is no evidence of "climate change" having any effect on timing, frequency, or duration of forest wildfires in all of that time. None. Zero. Unless you think "models" produce facts.

The "burn out" and WFU concerns are accurate, though, from both sides. The remaining conclusions are based on erroneous information and "cherry picking" the literature. That's why the conclusions are likewise in error.

PS I am also an "elder," if that makes any difference in my statements.