Wuerthner: Wildfire policy based on flawed assumptions

Wuerthner: Wildfire policy based on flawed assumptions

25 July 2015

published by http://trib.com  

USA– As Wyoming braces for another wildfire season, it is worth noting that most of the wildfire polices being implemented by federal and state agencies fail to prevent or control large wildfires, and worse yet degrade forest ecosystems and are costly to taxpayers.

Most agencies view large fires as destructive, yet large wildfires are the major means of forest renewal. Indeed, forest ecosystems are adapted to and require large severely burned stands. Many plant and animal species are adapted to severely burnt forests and live in mortal fear of fire suppression. In essence green forests are a threat to their existence.

Surprising to some is the fact that severely burned patches have some of the greatest biodiversity rivaling old growth forests.

Plus large wildfires provide many other ecosystem benefits including recycling nutrients, storage of carbon, and the natural thinning of forests.

In short, a healthy forest ecosystem is one which has periodic large severe burns.

Large fires occur when conditions for fire ignition and fire-spread are high, not because of fuels. These conditions include high temperatures, low humidity and most importantly high winds. High winds drive fires across the landscape by spotting.

Yet the target of agency fuel reductions are the large fires — exactly the blazes we cannot stop or control by fuel reductions. Fires burning under less than severe conditions are seldom a threat to homes or communities.

Wind-driven blazes leapfrog over fuel reduction projects — assuming they are even in the path of a fire in the first place. We see this all over the West where large fires have jumped firebreaks, clear-cuts, highways, rivers and fuel reductions. Under extreme conditions, there is no stopping wildfires.

Contrary to the common assumptions, dead trees from beetle-kill or disease do not increase fire hazard. Fires spread by the burning of fine fuels like needles, small branches and the like. Once these fine fuels drop from a tree, it is difficult to ignite — as the numerous snags left after a wildfire attests.

Indeed, green trees — under extreme drought conditions — often burn better than dead trees due to the abundance of fine fuels (needles) and flammable resins in the needles and branches.

Finally homes burn due to poor zoning (allowing construction in the fire-prone landscapes) and home flammability. The best way to make communities safe is to reduce fire risk in the home ignition zone which is no more than 200 feet from a structure.

Fuel reductions any further away have no effect on home safety. The numerous fuel reductions projects being implemented by federal and state agencies around the West will do little to make communities safer from wildfires. They just waste tax dollars, harm forest ecosystems and give a false sense of security to homeowners.

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