In the wake of one of the worst fire seasons in Montana history, Montana lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and many others have called for more logging and thinning in forests as a way to “fireproof” the state and create more jobs at timber mills.
But several wildfire experts say the simplistic notion that fuel reduction will somehow stop wildfires or reduce their severity is deeply flawed. And at worst, it could waste taxpayer dollars.
That’s because, according to years of research, fire managers would need a crystal ball that tells them when and where to thin forests, and even then drought and heat are still going to drive fires. One fire expert likens it to playing the lottery, because the odds of a fire starting in an area that’s been managed are so low.
Logging and thinning every one of the hundreds of millions of acres of the vast Western forests every 10 years or so would be the only way to rig that lottery, and that would be nearly impossible, expensive for taxpayers and quite likely a natural disaster.
“We can’t let politicians make promises for us that we can’t deliver on,” said Andrew Larson, an associate professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana.
Despite significant increases in areas burned since 1970 due to rising temperatures, wildfires only burn about 1 percent of Western U.S. forests even in the worst years. As the climate gets warmer and drier they will continue to burn not only near communities, but also in remote, high-elevation, inaccessible terrain.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Montana found that only about 7 percent of fuel-reduction treatment areas in the entire United States were subsequently hit by wildfires since 1999. This past summer, fires burned more than 1 million acres of Montana’s 94 million acres of land, but they were scattered around the state in both low-elevation wildland-urban interfaces and deep in the high-elevation backcountry.
That means there are very few opportunities for fires to actually burn in places that have been thinned or even could have been thinned in the last 10 years before they regrow.
So why not just thin more and increase the chances of hitting that lottery? It could work if it’s done strategically in the wildland-urban interface, according to many experts. But the fires like the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake that choked western Montana with smoke this summer burned large amounts of areas in wilderness areas.
If someone had the magical ability to predict, within the past decade, that a major fire was going to strike that particular portion of the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness, then thinning and logging theoretically could have helped. But it doesn’t work that way, and fires are sparked in random places by lightning and humans, and they are pushed by erratic winds and weather.
According to Tania Schoennagel, a forest landscape ecologist and fire researcher at the University of Colorado, a warming climate in the western United States means that fires are here to stay and fire managers would be better served using taxpayer dollars if they focused their efforts on fuel treatments around homes and infrastructure.
“Thinning can help protect the things we value where people live in the wildland-urban interface, but it will not make wildfires and large-acreage burns go away,” she said. “Thinning, no matter how much we increase the rate of it, will not be able to outpace the influence of warming on wildfire area burned.”
Schoennagel, who specializes in the implications of forest management policy, said the argument that more logging and thinning would reduce or prevent catastrophic wildfires is “hard to break apart” because it seems so sound without looking deep into the scientific research that’s been done on the subject.
“Did they know last year that those areas were going to burn this year?” she asked of the fires that burned in Montana this year. “It’s always easy, especially ex post facto, looking back to say, ‘Darn it, if only we had thinned or logged, we would be psyched.’ But it’s little bit of a crapshoot probability game whether the treatment you put in is going to encounter wildfire in the 10 to 15 years it remains effective in reducing fire severity. Simply because forests in the West are so vast, the chance of burning in a place we’ve pre-treated is so low. It’s not a very effective lever. We don’t know where fires are going to happen.”
On May 17, Schoennagel testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing that was titled “Seeking Better Management of America’s Overgrown, Fire-Prone National Forests.”
She said that most forests in the West are not overgrown due to past suppression, and forest management tools like thinning and prescribed burns can’t outpace the rise in wildfires.
“However, if strategically placed, such management can reduce fire severity, help firefighters protect communities and hopefully reduce the cost and risk of suppression,” she said.
In it, they argue that the current approaches to fighting and attempting to prevent wildfires through suppression and fuels management are inadequate.
The team contends that fuels reduction “cannot alter regional wildfire trends” and that new approaches are needed. Those include targeting fuels reduction to increase adaptation by some ecosystems and residential communities to more frequent fire, actively managing more wild and prescribed fires with a range of severity, and giving incentives and planning for residential development to withstand inevitable fire.
Schoennagel told the subcommittee that a wide range of scientific studies has found that since the 1970s, temperatures have risen by an average of 2 degrees Fahrenheit, snowpack is melting one to four weeks earlier than historically normal, and fire seasons are almost three months longer. In the 1970s, there were 20 large fires per year and now there are more than 100 large fires every year.
“Further warming is expected, 2-4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next few decades, which will spark ever more wildfires, perhaps beyond the ability of many Western communities to cope,” she testified.
“The area burned is tightly correlated with warming in the West, no matter how much thinning we do,” she told the Missoulian. “Thinning can reduce fire severity if that thinned area burns, and help us fight some fires, but it’s not going to stop the increase in area burned in the West. Fires simply burn when it’s hot and dry, and it’s getting hotter and drier on average.”
Back in September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed all land managers at all levels under the Department’s supervision to “adopt more aggressive practices, using the full authority of the Department, to prevent and combat the spread of catastrophic wildfires through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques.”
Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Montana Republicans, have called for more forest management in recent months. Both have also assailed what they call “environmental extremists” that they say stall logging projects with lawsuits.
“Here’s one of the problems we have in Montana,” Daines said during a recent teleconference in which he took calls while on a video screen broadcast on a Facebook live feed. “We have radical environmentalists who are blocking projects to remove dead trees even in some cases, lodgepoles that died from insect infestation. We have radical environmentalists that do not represent the vast majority of Montanans who believe in a common sense balanced, approach. They stop these projects.”
Larson, the fire ecologist at UM, doesn’t want to take sides, but he is pushing back on the notion that “environmental extremists” are the bogeymen causing wildfires.
“I don’t think there is a scientific basis to blame environmentalists who have litigated and held up individual projects,” he said. “We can’t prevent fires. It’s not an attainable goal. Environmentalists are acting entirely within the law. They’re not doing anything illegal or unethical, and they’re using the same mechanisms available to all the rest of us to participate in public land management.
“So where does responsibility lie there? If we take away the ability for those environmental groups to participate, we also would be removing our own ability as private citizens, as engaged participants in public land management. It cuts both ways.”
Larson said he realizes that smoky air is a terrible burden for people in the summer, but he also agrees that aggressive thinning and logging wouldn’t help.
“The smoke issue in a year like this is intractable, but we’re not going to stop it,” he said. “Imagine a scenario where we had aggressively restored forests all over western Montana so that those forests were resilient to fire. In a year like this, once a fire is ignited, the spread is so rapid it’s going to burn into mountain forests where there is no ecological or economic rationale to have ever done logging in those forests. Even if you had treated those, we would still be breathing smoke. The scale of area so greatly exceeds what we could ever treat, so we’re still going to have those smoke problems.”
Larson said he understands that people are looking for a scapegoat.
“It’s a difficult thing to hear,” he said of the scientific conclusion that preventing wildfires is impossible. “The natural tendency is to blame somebody. But fire is overwhelmingly driven by summer drought. About 80 percent of the year-to-year variation of fire frequency and size is explained just by summer climate. There is also an overwhelming amount of evidence that humans are causing these global climate impacts.”
Daines, on a tour of the Lolo Peak fire earlier this summer, said the “climate has always been changing.”
“Go back to 1910,” he said. “We had the Big Burn, 3 million acres. In 1930s we had the Dust Bowl. My ancestors living up on the Hi-Line had to leave our state to go to Canada. The climate has always been changing. We go through warmer cycles, cooler cycles, droughts, etc., extra precipitation. We are in a warm cycle right now. We are in drought conditions here in Montana and consequently we’re having a severe fire season.”
Larson agreed that 1910 was an “epic” drought year.
“It’s absolutely true that there is variability in the climate and drought is worse in certain years,” he said. “That doesn’t somehow negate the fact that humans are causing the climate to warm.”
Larson also said that fires are an essential part of the ecosystem. For example, although most people associate wildfires with a short-term loss in the water quality of nearby streams because loose soil erodes into the waterway, it provides long-term benefits.
“Over the long term you can only have healthy stream habitat with periodic delivery of large wood and sediment into aquatic network,” he said. “There are short-term negative consequences to waterways after a fire, with turbidity and fine sediments, but it’s better over the bigger, longer-term picture.”
Larson also said that many species, such as the black-backed woodpecker, have evolved to live in burned areas. He also said fires play an important role in cycling organic matter into forests.
Schoennagel is trying to convince more people that dry, low-elevation forests are where thinning is both most ecologically appropriate and where fires tend to burn more frequently. She said that’s where fire managers should focus their efforts, especially around the wildland-urban interface near communities. Research has shown that humans start the majority of wildfires, so thinning there is also probably more likely to encounter fire than in the backcountry.
High-elevation forests tend to burn very infrequently because they are cooler and wetter on average, she added, so the chance of a thinned area to burn there is much lower and these forests burn at high severity naturally, so there is no ecological need to reduce severity there.
“Combined, strategically thinning dry low-elevation forests and near the wildland-urban interface is a win-win,” she said. “It reduces fire severity where it’s needed ecologically, and helps protect people and homes. But importantly, such treatments would have a better chance of encountering a fire.”
Kevin Barnett, a research associate in the Department of Economics at the University of Montana, collaborated with a team of researchers to quantify the frequency and extent of fire and fuel treatment interactions on federal lands across the U.S.
“The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program received a lot of financial investment and resources over the past 15 years,” he explained. “We treat quite a lot of landscapes each year. And less than 10 percent of that had even burned by a subsequent fire. So that raises more broad general questions over the efficacy of fuel treatments to change regional fire patterns.”
Since 2006 when the Forest Service allocated about $290 million per year for the hazardous fuels reduction, there has been a steady rise in the discretionary funding allocated to that program. Barnett said in fiscal year 2017 the Forest Service spent roughly $375 million on the program.
“It boils down to: Not a whole lot of the treated area we’ve put in has been impacted by fire,” he said. “It raises questions about the cost-effectiveness of fuel treatments.”