Greenwire: “Federal fire policy may be based on faulty science”

Chad Hanson is featured prominently in a Greenwire article today, “Federal fire policy may be based on faulty science.”

“A growing amount of research by Hanson and other scientists suggests forests with a lot of dead trees are at no more risk of catastrophic wildfire — and possibly less — than woods cleared of them.

“The reason: Live trees with oil-rich needles still attached burn faster than dead trees, Hanson said. And though other factors are only an educated guess, he said, researchers believe keeping loggers out of such woods may have a long-term benefit by letting dead trees fall to the forest floor, where they soak up water and slow the spread of fire.”

Until those large 1000-hour-plus fuels dry out and burn, and burn hot, and burn amongst a sea of brush and, given a seed source, young trees. That’s a recipe for a very high intensity fire. Of course, Hanson might say that’s fine, as long as no commercial harvesting had spoiled the pristine snag forest. I would guess that Hanson has never seen — let alone mopped up — a punky, downed, 40-inch ponderosa pine burning merrily and throwing embers across a fire line.

The Greenwire article even brings up Dan Donato’s controversial 2006 Science paper. Overall, an unbalanced article, but it may help with Hanson’s fundraising efforts.

In any case, federal fire policy is not based on ecology alone, even if, as Andy has pointed out, the agency has rearranged the order of the triple bottom line on its web site: “Deliver Economic, Social, and Environmental Benefits.”

6 Comments

  1. While decayed logs may be a moisture reservoir on the wetter westside of Oregon, they do not play that role on the eastside of Oregon where precipitation is much lower. Unfortunately I don’t recall the reference for that, but it was in the 1980s/1990s after folks like Mark Harmon at OSU did a lot of work on the role of downed wood in the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest.

    The real issue is not flammability – it is more about resistance to control, especially in the case that Steve describes. And that type of situation is very different I think from the severe wildfire situation that is mostly describing canopy mortality. Very dry 1000 hour fuels smolder for days and can result in detrimental effects on soils. If those areas are fairly small, the soil can recover, but if you had an overstocked forest that was killed in a high severity fire, and then 20-30 years later there is a lot of large dry dead wood on the forest floor, the effects on the soil are more widespread.

  2. I think journalists should take a pledge .. if they are going to use the term “science” as in “science says” they should also interview at two other scientists who thinks differently. Perhaps then the outline of some of the different ways of looking at different evidence would appear and readers would be better able to understand more about the scientific enterprise.

    If the journalists don’t know any other scientists, people like us would be able to give them suggestions, emails and phone numbers :).

    • I like this suggestion. If applied over the last 40 years it might have provided a counter-point to the fire-phobic and fuel-phobic views that have prevailed in agencies and new outlets. There has been a serious missing perspective … a more balanced view of fire as an ecosystem process that has shaped western landscapes for millennia.

      • Sooooo, you’re OK with letting rare habitats burn to a crisp, when man-caused ignitions occur? You’re in favor of ‘natural’ firestorms, ignited by lightning? How do we bring “balance” to man-caused wildfires? Pretending that man’s impacts on forests do not exist cannot be good for humans… or the forests.

  3. “but it may help with Hanson’s fundraising efforts.”

    Love it Steve. So insightful. Next time the media contacts the Society of American Foresters, let’s make sure to point out that being a news article “may help with SAF’s fundraising efforts.”

    P.S. I’d put Hanson and Donato up against you or another SAF’er, in a debate anytime.

  4. Matthew

    That’s exactly the problem, your interests in several recent comments seem to focus on winning a debate. Some of us are more interested in sustaining forests and using proven science to achieve the goals. Some of us are concerned with being logically consistent while others get all upset about a good 100 acre logging job but don’t mind a 100,000 earth scorching ashtray. Some don’t seem to care that a large wildfire destroys endangered species while a small, good logging job either improves endangered species sustainability or only forces the mobile species to relocate. Exept for fire dependent species, the non-mobile plants are better off after even a small clear cut than after a ground scorching fire. Different prescriptions for different sites, species and goals provides superior chances for sustainability than the havoc wreaked by catastrophe.

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