30 May 2009, 10:04am
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

The Alleged Benefits of Wildfire

There seems to be some confusion in the ranks regarding the alleged “benefits” of wildfire.

There has been an effort to credit wildfire with positives. Generally the “positive” is reduction in fuel. However, reducing fuel with a wildfire is a non-sequitur — the burden of fuel is that it can cause a wildfire.

Burning down a forest to reduce the fuels is actualization of the hazard. It is equivalent to saying that the Challenger space shuttle disaster produced a positive bonus because it saved the cost of landing the thing. It is the equivalent of saying we don’t have to pay the baker to bake a cake, because thank goodness the bakery burned down.

Furthermore, whatever fuel reduction occurs in a wildfire is soon erased by new growth and/or the increase in dead woody fuels. Wildfires do not prevent fires, they ARE the fires, and very often they engender subsequent fires, such as the repeat Tillamook burns or the Biscuit Fire (2002) following the Silver Fire (1987). Last year the Rattle Fire (2008, here) succeeded the Spring Fire (1996), in the same place except the Rattle Fire was bigger.

Wildfires are accidents. They occur in accidental places on accidental dates (generally during fire season when the damages that ensue are most extreme). They are different from prescribed burns or other treatments that include planned and prepared burning. Cost/benefit analysis can be logically applied to prescribed fire, but not to (accidental) wildfire. Any benefit that accrues to a wildfire is also an accident.

One could propose that the wages paid to firefighters are a “benefit” of wildfire. Many firefighters certainly look at it that way. But proper accounting must place wages in the cost category.

Beware the slippery slope of redefining costs as benefits.

When the Middlefork Fire [2008, here] blew up last year, a firefighter reported (on a firefighter website) that it was “doing a lot of good.” That could be interpreted as 1) it was filling the pockets of firefighters with double overtime wages from the public trough, or 2) it was doing the job of forest restoration for free.

The former is untenable. Police do not welcome crime because they get paid to arrest people. Hospitals do not welcome disease or injuries because they make money treating the sick.

The latter is also untenable. Wildfires do not restore forests; they destroy them.

This is not what forest restoration looks like:

Two years after the Angora Fire (June, 2007), taken Memorial Day, May 25, 2009. Click for larger image. (Photo by Tallac)

Some people welcome that kind of devastation [here]. They see “forest recycling” or “early successional plant associations” as desirable. But the truth is that wildfires devalue forests — they do not provide benefits.

Wildfires destroy vegetation including old-growth trees. In doing so they destroy habitat for wildlife, in particular threatened and endangered species. Wildfires degrade soils leading to loss of nutrients, reduced percolation of rain or snow melt, increased runoff, and increased erosion. Steams become choked with sediment and ash, which damages aquatic habitat and fish spawning gravels. Water yields are reduced, especially late season flows, because aquifers are not recharged. Water users suffer because domestic, irrigation, and hydropower flows are reduced and infrastructure damaged by the erosion. Public health and safety are compromised when wildfires exit Federal land and burn down homes and businesses. Even if wildfires are contained, the excessive smoke can cause health problems such as respiratory distress incidents. Local economies are battered both during the wildfire and for years afterward. Etc., etc.

The opportunity to restore forests to provide “ecosystem services” is lost in wildfires. Restoration is something that must be done before the fire. After the fire the cleanup is called “rehabilitation” not restoration. It may take decades or even centuries for a charred forest to regain the qualities it had before the fire — in many cases that will never happen because the forest has been effectively erased from the landscape in perpetuity.

The foregoing concepts can be difficult to fully grasp, especially if people are removed and disconnected from forests. The issues are remote to urban residents who have little familiarity with or understanding of forests. Wildfires are something they see on TV while channel surfing. But to foresters who have labored for decades to care for forests — to protect, maintain, and perpetuate forests — wildfires are extreme tragedies and disasters.

There are no benefits to wildfires; there are only costs and losses. That realization may be uncomfortable to some, but it is the truth.

30 May 2009, 12:03pm
by Larry H.

Superb posting! I posted the link to an eco-website to see just how they will respond to this perfectly clear and enlightening article.

1 Jun 2009, 7:12pm
by bear bait

Mike: So what most are looking for in forests is stasis. Some dependable state of vegetation that was there when they first visited, and was so glorious that they come back again and again to the same place to ponder their mortality and the wonder of it all, this ancient forest. And poof !! and it is gone.

You have to believe that this idea of having a dependable forest or range or savanna to furnish your human needs is a very old idea, the basis for man’s survival as a species. We modify environments to save ourselves. Conflagration is not the desired product. So over thousands of years, humans devised and used burning schedules based on centuries of experience. They burned to keep the place the same.

Arriving Europeans believed they had found paradise, though they may have been unaware that the previous human residents had done a lovely job of stewardship. Short-lived as it was since then, mostly due to disease and greed, this was a wonderful environment. The Natives were either killed or sequestered in their own little government carbon sinks, and the burning ended. Now we have too much fuel And we don’t have the advantage of arriving on the scene as forests were beginning to occupy a landscape recently covered with perpetual snow fields or glaciers.

The human need for a static environment is what this whole adventure is about. And right now, the “best science” is saying otherwise. News Flash!!! This is NOT about best science. This is about human needs and an environment that nurtures humans. Burning the forests to charcoal is not the answer, and in time will be a huge political liability. Saving forests, and putting out fires, and carefully removing extra fiber by any feasible means to someday gain the ability to put fire through the landscape without destroying it, those are the goals that humans want and need. Those are not scientific goals. Science is not what it is about. It is about people and their forests. Anthropogenic is the science word for it. Empirical knowledge is another. Having some stuffed shirts in Washington DC make policy based on best science has been a fiasco and has not worked.

I have no idea how to proceed from where we are. Sometimes I think the hole is too deep to clamber out of. I fear for the forests that remain. I am sitting in a subclimax doug fir part of the world, once ruled by fire and oaks and a hugely successful hunter/gatherer society, and now I find out burning is bad for your health and our legislature just passed laws to end field burning. Meanwhile, the Feds base their land management on letting fires burn to gain “a mosaic of fire intensity and types, and leave behind a diverse vegetation pattern.” So why do they go into the center of a contained fire and do “burn outs of unburned fuels inside the containment lines?” Because it is all bull pucky and crapola.

I guess my message is that FIRE IS BAD AND STAND REPLACEMENT FIRE IS THE WORST. Or,,and nothing counts before “or,” Wilderness and saving old growth forests and the “last of the…. (fill in the operative word for your particular power grab)…”makes absolutely no sense. You don’t save a forest so that it might burn. That is not “saving.” That is negligence. Having a land management program based on negligence is counter to what we need governments for, which is to protect the few from the many. Or vice versa.

1 Jun 2009, 8:49pm
by Larry H.

“You don’t save a forest so that it might burn.”

That sentence is pure gold. I like to turn their own rhetoric on them and say “Must we burn our forests to save them?” The youngsters won’t recognize the parallel but the old hippies definitely don’t like the comparison, which nevertheless, is VERY appropriate.

I posted the link to an eco-website and only a handful of people felt inspired (or educated) enough to respond. Plus, the one guy who decided to save our forests only succeeded at supplying me with pathetic idealistic dogma-drama. At every turn he showed his lack of knowledge and how weak their arguments are against scientific fact. He even stated that we have lost 50% of all the old growth in the last 20 years. He was my perfect “straight-man”. They also apparently decided not to taint their delicate reason and logic by following the link here. However, they still stampede to the thread on their site, hoping that a savior will come and save them from me and my evil scientific truths.

15 Sep 2009, 5:26am
by Vivian K.

Um you say that Wildfires are accidents? But in Australia the eucalyptus tree is extremely flammable… do you think that this would be to make it easier for lightning to start one????

15 Sep 2009, 9:59am
by Mike

Many tree species are extremely flammable and can be ignited when struck by lightning. Such fires occur when and where the lightning strikes. People do not determine when and where lightning hits, so in that sense all lightning fires are accidents. However, large lightning fires are also predictable and preventable accidents.

4 Nov 2009, 7:50pm
by Sherpa

This author might better stick to what he/she knows rather than stumbling into the arena of forest secession as clumsily as this article is.

Clearly the author is more interested in taking an arbitrary stand to say there are no benefits to wildfire, but to do so shows he/she has not bothered to do any research and is merely spouting opinion. As someone who has worked in the field of wildlife management for more than 20 years, I have seen great benefits to wildlife as the result of a wildfire in terms of increased populations of nearly the entire forest food chain. Sure, right after a fire what is left is not pretty, but fire clears the way for new species and the normal cycle of a forest and its regeneration spawns new food sources that weren’t before. Forests are not “erased from the landscape in perpetuity.” This is just folly, and I have a difficult time believing this author expects to be taken seriously.

Perhaps the author could do some research and try to learn the facts because articles like this (based on opinion and lacking in any sense a robust view of the issue) are misleading and rife with prevarication, or at the very least missing any real data from which to draw any rational conclusions.

Instead we are “blessed” with the author’s own tenuously-based opinion (certainly not based on any scientific research or knowledge about ecosystems), causing the unsuspecting or those not intellectually astute to actually believe what the author is attempting to pass off as intellectual material. I suggest there is little connection between reality and the conclusion of this author.

4 Nov 2009, 8:49pm
by Mike Dubrasich, Exec Dir W.I.S.E.

Jeez Louise, Sherpa, are you a prize jerk or what?

Do you want to discuss/debate the issues or just fire ugly ad homs at me?

To everyone else: anonymous trolls spitting ad homs is pretty useless and stupid. I posted the comment from Sherpa above only as an example of how NOT to compose a comment for this website.

Sherpa, dear, if you want to be taken seriously and have your comments posted here ever again, then you are going to have to stifle the insults and argue the ideas instead.

Can you do that? Are you capable of considerate and civil discourse? We shall see…

4 Nov 2009, 8:53pm
by Mike

In the meantime, Sherpa, you might want to study the references found in the W.I.S.E. Colloquia: Forest and Fire Sciences [here]. Try to come up to speed on fire effects, Sherp.

4 Nov 2009, 10:40pm
by Foo Furb

That Sherp!

He needs to do some research and stop just spouting off opinions if he is to be taken seriously.


Reply: I don’t want anyone to go off on Sherp. That’s just more of the same — attack on the person, not the ideas. It is a little perturbing, though, that Sherp would question my research abilities when I have posted a library full of the best, most cutting-edge forest and fire science. I mean, it’s right there!!!! — Mike



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