As of Sept. 18 there were currently 115 active fires in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. These fires cover a cumulative total of 2,023,775 acres and were actively being fought by 17,684 active personnel. As we look at one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory, many ask what could have been done (if anything) to prevent, or at least mitigate, the damage that has been caused.
One hotly debated potential solution is the use of logging to thin forests and remove fuel from the potential path of a fire. Common sense indicates that if the fuel for a fire is removed there shouldn’t be a fire, right? The reality, however, is a bit more complicated. While forest thinning followed by slash removal has been shown by the National Forest Service to reduce fire severity, simply logging a forest does little to hinder fires. In fact, it may even increase the severity of fires in the right situations.
Andrew Larson, an associate professor in the University of Montana’s Forestry and Conservation program, said that “under extreme weather conditions your past logging or fuel reduction treatments might not have an effect at all and sometimes can have the exact opposite effect.” If during the process of logging various tree limbs and tops are left behind, they can act as another fuel source for a potential fire. And without the presence of tree cover, this fuel dries out much more quickly, making it that much more susceptible to burning in the future.
Thinning and fuel treatment affect different environments in various ways — there’s no one prescription for all forests. And in the case of summers such as this one, which was incredibly dry and windy, fires will begin regardless of fuel treatment.
Consider the halted Stonewall Project. The Stonewall Project proposed harvesting forests in the area northwest of Lincoln for the purposes of combating pine beetle outbreaks as well as lowering the severity of potential fires, among other considerations. The project called for a maximum of about 8,500 acres of forest to be treated, leaving an average space of 20-40 feet between trees, and the resulting slash and debris would be removed in controlled burns. This area has been part of the fires this season. While this treatment would undoubtedly affect the way that fires would burn in this area, it would not change the fact that it could still burn. Larson points out that “[Logging] doesn’t create a system that won’t burn. It will potentially change the fire behavior on the forest, reduce the severity, perhaps make it more defensible space, but it will not stop fire. On windy, hot days, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not.”
Fire prevention is a tricky system of give and take that logging may help in some cases. But sometimes, it may be the worst possible thing.