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There has been a spate of pronouncements from politicians as different politically as Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines to California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom arguing that we need more “active forest management” to reduce “fuel” as a means of precluding large blazes.

The assumption that fuels are the problem is widespread and repeated over and over by the media and agency folks so this mantra is nearly internalized in the public mind.

A new twist on the same theme is the social justice movement’s new found interest in Native American burning, which many suggest was a “good fire” that reduced fuels and thus prevented large fires.

All of these themes whether from the political right or the left assume there are “good fires” that burned frequently or logging that can reduce fuels to “save” forests from “bad” fires that kill trees and burn tens of thousands of acres.

But it’s not a “good fire” vs. “bad fire” issue. There have always been large high severity fires in the past. For instance, the 1910 Big Burn that charred 3 million to 3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before there was any effective “fire suppression” fuel build-up.

This agrees with paleoclimate studies that show a strong relationship between decades, even centuries of severe drought, warm temperatures, and low humidity overlapping with significant evidence of burning.

We have evolutionary evidence for the occurrence of high severity blazes in the numerous species of wildlife and plants like the blackback woodpecker that flourish in the snag habitat created by such fires.

Could fire suppression and fuel buildup exacerbate the situation? Perhaps a little, particularly in dry pine forests, but not in most forest types which typically have long fire rotations of many decades to hundreds of years.

Most of the acreage burning in the West is occurring in tree and shrub communities that naturally burn significant acreage only when climate/weather conditions are favorable for a large active fire.

We also have abundant evidence for the failure of “fuel reductions” to preclude large climate-driven blazes.

The community of Paradise, California, was almost surrounded by clearcuts, hazardous “fuel reductions”, and even recent fires, that presumably reduced fuels. Yet the Camp fire destroyed more than 19,000 structures in the town and killed 87 people.

The Holiday Farm fire that overran the western slope of the Oregon Cascades last September burned almost entirely in commercial timberlands and heavily logged public lands.

This summer, the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, has chewed through over 413,000 acres. Mapping of the fire footprint suggests that 75% of these lands have been treated with active management that includes logging/thinning, prescribed burns, or grazing. In other words, the area is a poster child of “active forest management” and yet continues to blaze away unabated.

Similarly, the Dixie fire in northern California has charred over 435,000 acres with again most of the lands under “active forest management.”

There are common factors in all these fires. They are places that have experienced significant “fuel removal” by “active forest management” And they are burning under severe drought, with high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. This is the recipe for large, unstoppable fires.

Fuel build-up or limited logging, grazing, or even a lack of Indian burning is not the issue—all of these are in one form or another part of the “fuels” are the “problem” and “good fire-“bad fire” paradigm.

The ultimate force driving large wildfires is a warming climate.

If we don’t deal with climate change, fuel reductions will only exacerbate the situation because nature always bats last.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books and travels around the West to examine how fires burn.

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