The Coming Firestorms: Guest Post by Dr. Bob Zybach

This photo from August 18,2021 is from the Mt. Scott Lookout, looking east across 2020 Archie Creek Fire snags. Courtesy of Melvin Thornton, Douglas Forest Protective Association


Note: Zybach wrote this a year ago, following the Labor Day fires in Oregon.

The most deadly, destructive, and widespread catastrophic wildfires in Oregon’s history erupted on Labor Day this year, driven by strong east winds. But unless we change how our national and state forests are managed, these events will be just another chapter in this age of predictable, increasing, and ever-greater firestorms.

I spent my career studying forest fires and forest health. For example, my doctoral dissertation from the OSU College of Forestry was titled, The Great Fires: Indian burning and catastrophic forest fire patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951.

In a 2018 interview, just before the California Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, I said: “You take away logging, grazing and maintenance, and you get firebombs.” Then someone took my quote, pasted it on a forest fire photo, and the resulting meme quickly went viral on Facebook.

This September Facebook began flagging this post as “partly false” because my quote, and related interview, doesn’t mention climate change. Evidently Facebook’s executives feel their new-found forestry judgment is better than my lifetime of scientific research and hands-on forestry experience.

The broad arc of Oregon’s fire history explains why this year’s catastrophic wildfires have converted our public forests into unprecedented firebombs. What were once green trees filled with water, have now become massive stands of pitchy, air-dried firewood.

For thousands of years ancestral Oregon Indian families kept ridgeline and riparian areas open for travel, hunting, fishing, and harvesting purposes. They cleared ground fuels by firewood gathering and seasonal fires. This created systematic firebreaks in a landscape characterized by southern balds, huckleberry fields, camas meadows, oak woodlands, and islands of mostly even-aged conifers.

Following the 1910 firestorms, the US Forest Service established a nationwide system of fire lookouts and pack trails backed up by rapid response fire suppression. This system became remarkably effective over time. From 1952 until 1987, only one forest fire in all of western Oregon was greater than 10,000 acres: the 1966 43,000-acre Oxbow Fire in Lane County.

But since 1987, Oregon has had more than 30 such fires, with several larger than 100,000 acres. The 2020 Labor Day Fires alone covered more than one million acres, destroyed over 4,000 homes, caused 40,000 emergency evacuations, killed millions of wild animals, and blanketed the state with a thick, acrid smoke that obscured the sun for days.

What changed to cause this dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfire frequency and severity?

The problems began in the 1960s, with apparently well-intentioned national efforts to create large untouchable wilderness areas and cleaner air and water on our public lands.

The single biggest turning point in how public forests are managed happened on December 22, 1969: about 50 lawyers in Washington, DC created the Environmental Law Institute, and a short distance away Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

Next, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) provided the growing environmental law industry with a way to be paid by the government for challenging nearly every attempt to log or otherwise actively manage public forests.

By the 1980s, the artificial creation of Habitat Conservation Plans (“HCPs”) and the listing of spotted owls as an Endangered Species laid the groundwork for today’s fires.

The 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests might have been the final nail in the coffin. The subsequent never-ending environmental lawsuits, new Wilderness and HCP creations, access road decommissionings, and fruitless public planning exercises have created tens of millions of acres of massive fuel build-ups and “let it burn” policies that have decimated our forests.

The predicted result has been ever larger western Oregon forest fires. More than 90% of these large- and catastrophic-scale fires have taken place in federal forestlands, which only represent 50% of Oregon’s forested areas.

Even if — like Facebook executives — you believe these fires were somehow sparked by climate change, you should be very concerned with what will happen next.

Lessons from the 1933-1951 “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires and the 1987-2018 Kalmiopsis Wilderness Fires are clear: unless removed, the dead trees resulting from these fires will fuel even greater and more severe future fires.

Forests of dead trees are far more flammable, dangerous, and unsightly than those with living trees. Dead trees dry out, and dead forests become firebombs that almost certainly will burn again and again, unless something is done.

The 2020 fire-killed trees should be mapped, sold, and harvested ASAP. Prices for Douglas fir logs are at a record high, and there is a great need for good-paying rural jobs. The initial focus should be on the dead trees east of Portland, Salem, Eugene, Ashland and the rural towns directly affected by this year’s fires.

Salvage logging must be done soon to be economical: dead trees deteriorate rapidly.

The 1962 Columbus Day windstorm downed 9 billion board feet on a Friday, and by the following Monday salvage logging on public lands had already started. But the 2002 Biscuit Fire burned a roughly equivalent amount of timber, and it took years to develop salvage logging plans and deal with court challenges.

All the delays meant salvage logging actually lost the US Forest Service money; very little needed logging was ever completed, and the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire resulted, burned hotter, and spread wider.

This year’s fires killed at least twice as much timber as the 2002 Biscuit Fire, and it greatly damaged and affected urban areas near major cities. So it will be interesting to see if we can learn from Oregon’s fire history and take the prompt, decisive actions needed to avoid the clearly predictable coming firestorms.

Dr. Bob Zybach

Following a 20 year career as a successful reforestation contractor, Dr. Zybach returned to school and obtained a Ph.D. in the study of precontact Indian burning patterns and historical catastrophic wildfires of the Oregon Coast Range. His book is available here. He is the Program Manager of nonprofit educational website Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc. since its founding in 1996: and has researched and written about wildfire mitigation and reforestation in the Pacific Northwest for more than 40 years.


21 thoughts on “The Coming Firestorms: Guest Post by Dr. Bob Zybach”

  1. I really like this guy; finally someone tells the story we long time foresters (especially those with Northwest experience) know to be true!

    Politics be damned, pretty straight shooter on cause and effect. Time was, NEPA was more of a tool than a cover your be-hind, like it is now. We have made many lawyers rich over the unintended consequences of a rather distinct Planning Law…

  2. I am no expert on Oregon wildfires but I was on the Biscuit Fire and Winter Rim fire in 2002. The part of the Biscuit Fire that I was on, the western side by Brookings, was the brushiest place I have ever been with huge Doug Fir overstory. I cannot imagine how any kind of management could ever deal with that brush, which is what was carrying the fire. I remember the Winter Rim fire area as being extensively managed. It had beautiful stands of large ponderosa pine that had mostly been thinned. I have looked at Google Earth and the footprint of the Bootleg Fire and what I see is an area that had a whole lot of timber harvesting activity. Maybe it had a mitigating effect on the wildfire, I would say that it probably did, but the Bootleg fire got pretty huge, nonetheless. I think that Forest Service research needs to make its number one job to look at these recent fires in the West, and see what kind of impact previous management activities had on these fires. There are certainly lots of samples. How hard could it be to do this? They have the history of management activities. Go visit the fires and see what happened. Of course there are lots of other variables in wildfire behavior and effects, but with enough samples they could certainly draw some conclusions about what types of management work and what doesn’t work, in the various ecosystems. It’s past time to come to some consensus on this. The west is burning up and we need science to tell us what to do about it. Not politicians, timber industry, etc.

    • Dave, the authors of the 10 questions paper we are discussing certainly agree with you “it’s past time to come to consensus” on this..

      Here’s what they said in the 10 Questions paper.

      Over the past two decades, there has been confusion in some of the scientific literature and popular media surrounding changes in the nature and extent of forest and fire regime changes (Hagmann et al. this issue), and the need for and efficacy of adaptation or restorative treatments. Since some treatments can involve the commercial sale of timber, they can be viewed through the lens of conflict over the role of timber production on federal, tribal and private forestlands. The legacy of mistrust from these conflicts affects how different groups perceive the science and its application in support of proactive efforts to increase the resilience of forested landscapes (Schultz and Jedd 2012, Dubay et al. 2013). Perceived uncertainty in the science of fuel treatments and adaptive forest management has the potential to hinder collaborative decision-making, weaken public support for adaptive forest management, and slow implementation of needed forest management, particularly where courts rule that the science is yet unsettled. For example, in a recent opinion on a proposed forest restoration project, US State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Judge Graber wrote, “The project’s proposed methodology of variable density thinning is both highly controversial and highly uncertain.” (BARK et al. v. U.S. Forest Service. No. 3:18-cv-01645-MO). Given current warming trends, changing wildfire regimes, and climate projections for the balance of this century, the current slow pace and small scale of adaptive management portend that many forest landscapes will experience uncharacteristic, high-severity wildfires and/or insect outbreaks before treatments can occur (North et al. 2015b, McWethy et al. 2019).

      While it’s hard to know all the past history, there has been a major effort on Fuel Treatment Effectiveness Monitoring, which looks at how previous fuel treatments impacted fires. There was an excellent presentation on this at last year’s SAF Convention and I tried to get it from the author, but I was unable to reach that person. Maybe someone has a good current link for FTEM results?

    • Hi Dave:

      I am in 100% agreement with your statement: “I think that Forest Service research needs to make its number one job to look at these recent fires in the West, and see what kind of impact previous management activities had on these fires.”

      I just finished the review draft of a report I have been writing on the North Umpqua snags created during last year’s Archie Creek Fire. One of my key recommendations is exactly this point. A perfect opportunity to do meaningful research on the role of forest management over a diversity of treatment methods — all of which are public records.

      • I sure hope someone high up in Research thinks this as well. They are an amazing resource, in my opinion, but they might need to be directed to do this. Maybe some of the politicians could take an interest and make it happen.

    • One part being missed in this article, your comment, and fire funding discussions is the tactics now used by almost every state and federal fire team. The Big Box practice wastes millions of dollars, prolongs exposure, and often results in a fire being blown up by weather events. The examples of this are almost endless. The resulting injuries and impacts of prolong smoke exposure is ignored. Aggressive firefighting is much more than burning out a box 10-100 times the size of the original fire.

  3. Good stuff Bob. Here in California our governor is stubbornly pushing climate change as the number one cause of our fire problems. That way he can claim our extreme carbon emissions reduction plans qualify as fire prevention, and avoid admitting our state drowned itself in preservationism and legal red tape.
    I’d never deny the reality of climate change, but I was taught that fire works off three things-weather, topography and fuels. We aren’t going to reverse climate change, so why not focus on what we can manage (fuels)? Thank you for giving voice to what many in the forestry comminity view as common sense.

    • Cameron: Thanks for the kind words. Our Governor is just as nutty about blaming these fires on the “climate crisis” as yours. The Washington Governor is also promoting the same misdirection. At least your Governor is being impeached. We’re stuck with ours — but at least she’s providing lots of material for the Tucker Carlson and Gutfeld! TV shows. Our tax dollars at work.

  4. Having spent some time in the Oregon coast range in the early 1990s, the only thing I noticed decimating the old-growth forests was an out-of-control timber industry.

    • Hi Edward: I have lived, worked and played on the Oregon Coast for more than 70 years. What you mistakenly thought were “old-growth” were actually second-growth regenerating from the catastrophic-scale fires that took place from 1849 through 1951 — all well before the 1990s when you visited. Trees just grow really large, really fast here, and that is probably why you thought they were older. You can read about the details in my book.

    • The 4 Tillamook burns took out a bit of old-growth in the mid-1900s in the Oregon Coast Range. When will the next firestorm hit the area?

    • Yes some of that is true, but that doesn’t make it ok to burn up our remaining old growth forests on our federal lands.
      I have enjoyed Bob Zybachs writing for years. I always found his view points informative and perspective enlightening. He has real insight on our forests, their history, the fires, and future here in Oregon.

      The FS and BLM are already late with their salvage plans for the labor day fires, but I hope they proceed anyways. I believe it is what is best for the health of our forests and communities. (And don’t worry there will be millions of dead snags left and hundred of thousands of acres untouched.)
      I also see the usual environmental organizations are threatening to sue.
      I guess my biggest question is do we want to just continue on the path we are on concerning forest management? Is no management better than fuels management that doesn’t always work? Is there not a better way then spending billions of dollars each summer burning up our forests and communities? Are we just going to be driven out of our forests each summers and live with the smoke and dangers and just blame it on past practices?
      With all the fires burning currently what is going to happen if the East winds come like in most years.

  5. As someone with family in the Oregon Coast Range (Garibaldi remains a base of extended family, even with all the changes) I can remember when I was a kid how the woods workers and the mill workers in my family and community would tell me in no uncertain terms that the ‘clearcutting bastards are going to make all of this go up in flames.’ There is no question that the devastating liquidation logging that has gone on across the Western states, including the Oregon Coast Range, is one of the largest contributing factors to the firestorms looming on the horizon now. But it is still easier to blame some other force other than ones own industry, I grew up with the good old boys talking smack about environmentalists and their efforts to reform a predatory industry. The attacks on environmentalists around the dinner table always struck me as contradictory to what the very same people would say when they shared their knowledge about how devastating the logging truly has been and what they predicted the consequences would be to their communities and the landscape.

    • Hi Gary: When did you grow up around Garibaldi? I can honestly say that no one I ever talked to in the timber-sawmill-reforestation industries ever said anything like: “the clearcutting bastards are going to make all of this go up in flames,” in “no uncertain terms” or otherwise, in my presence. Why did they say such a thing? That doesn’t make sense. I’m not certain or even sure why you think that you “grew up with the good old boys talking smack about environmentalists and their efforts to reform a predatory industry,” either. Can you name names? On the surface this comes across as revisionist history, not fact. Seriously, are you telling a story or reporting facts? This just doesn’t sound right to me, and I’m willing to become better informed.

      • Bob, some of my step dad’s remaining family still lives in Garibaldi and north along the coast, and they told me exactly what they told me when I was growing up. Do you need more names than my names? I ended up in high school and university in Eugene, I spent a lot of time in Garibaldi in the 70’s. I know what it is like to have a family that is busy at 4 AM, with people coming home from the swing shift and heading into the day shift. I have rooted around on the coast pretty much my whole life. What, do you want to test me or something because there is a different take that undermines your absolute truth? You need to stop being so patronizing. It is an insult that you are accusing me of making things up. Old boy network indeed. Reading the post here I thought you were in denial about a lot of factual evidence of the root causes of the ecological crisis we are now confronting, but it was reading the comments that made me add something myself. And then I get accused of making things up. Amazing. The failure of many to come to grips with the devastation wrought by the extraction of timber from the original primary rainforests of the Coast Range, the failure to admit to the barbarity and gluttony and greed and waste that went hand in hand with the exploitation of the forest, is fundamental to the inability to find a path forward to avoid catastrophe. Maybe next time we can talk about the cancer that killed my grandmother, who worked and lived in Garibaldi for decades, and how she came to grips as she got sicker with how it was probably the timber industry that poisoned her. People still want to act as though the timber and pulp industries were/are benign. This comment here insinuating that I was making things up is indicative of that unfortunate inability to come to grips with the reality. Clearcutting bastards is right, I heard the grown ups say it when I was a kid and it is still true today.

        • Gary: I asked (not “accused”) if you were making something up because your quote doesn’t make sense — at least to me — and I don’t understand why anyone would say such a thing. Here is your statement regarding my (and others) “failures,” apparently based on your childhood memories: “The failure of many to come to grips with the devastation wrought by the extraction of timber from the original primary rainforests of the Coast Range, the failure to admit to the barbarity and gluttony and greed and waste that went hand in hand with the exploitation of the forest, is fundamental to the inability to find a path forward to avoid catastrophe.” I’m not sure what kind of “catastrophe” you have in mind that will be avoided by these admissions of (according to you) personal failure, but my being “in denial about a lot of factual evidence of the root causes of the ecological crisis we are now confronting” seems to be at the heart of your concerns. We see the world differently. I have no idea what crisis you are confronting, but my concern is with the devastation brought to our rural communities and wildlife populations by unnecessary unemployment and wildfire the past 30 years.

  6. Given the uncertainty that we seem to agree needs to be addressed about the value of logging as fuel reduction, we can all have uninformed opinions; here’s mine. “What changed to cause this dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfire frequency and severity?” “Following the 1910 firestorms, the US Forest Service established a nationwide system of fire lookouts and pack trails backed up by rapid response fire suppression. This system became remarkably effective over time.” Effective at building up fuels to the point that we lost control in a warming climate. (And my opinion isn’t based on anything Tucker Carlson says.)


      More acreage burned all depends on where one wants to start measuring. The link above is to a graph that shows a dramatic drop in area burned in the U.S. from the early 1930s to the late 1950s and then a slight increase somewhere around the mid 1990s.

      The chart comes from “Welfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies” by Bjorn Lomborg (link:

      Before Lomborg found the data, the furthest back I was able to find was to the mid 1980s. And that time period does make the increase look quite dramatic. Yet our current totals, in the range of 10 million ac/yr, when compared with the (estimated) 50 million ac/yr in the mid 1910s, appear much less scary.

      Does this mean that fuels aren’t building up and fires aren’t getting bigger? No. Only that the narrative is not as simple as it is often portrayed. Narratives are neat. Data are messy.

      I want a yard sign that says: In this house, we believe science is an iterative process of supposition, observation, discussion, evidence, analysis, and argument, where nothing is ever settled, except that a general consensus may form around a most likely answer.

      So we’re all still discussing and arguing and some, like Bob, are observing and gathering evidence for us to do more science.


  7. Spot on Bob! I appreciate all that you do to bring awareness to this huge forest mismanagement problem.
    As a personal example from my family and friends perspective this “fire season” I’ve had cousins and friends on evacuation level 2 alerts in 4 various locations.
    My Cousin and family in Paisley, OR were on evac alert for weeks due to the Bootleg Fire. They are no strangers to such events as numerous fires have prompted evac notices over the last thirty years, including the Tool Box Fire of 2002, Watson Creek Fire of 2018.
    Several cousins and families in Weaverville, CA due to the Monument Fire were on level 2 evac notice for 2 weeks.
    Another Cousin and family is currently on evac alert level 2 near Trinity Lake, CA due to the River Complex Fires.
    My relatives in Trinity County have also been threatened in recent years by the Carr Fire and another fire a year or two later that originated near the I5 Freeway north of Lake Shasta.
    A good friend who lives on the outskirts of Oakridge, OR and many other friends in the area were on a Level 2 evac notice due to the Kwis Fire recently. Which is a part of the Middle Fork Complex Fire.
    We have a new neighbor here near Crescent Lake who is building a home here due to losing a home from the fire that destroyed their home on Detroit Reservoir last labor day. Thankfully their neighbor woke them just in time to escape with their lives. The fire also destroyed 30 old growth Douglass Firs on their property due to the crown fire behavior. This was due to the Beachie Fire that devastated the Santiam Canyon last Labor Day. Fueled by blow torch like east winds as noted in a earlier comment.
    Furthermore, my wife and son narrowly escaped the fast moving Davis Lake Fire of 2003 when she was a Campground Host at East and West Davis Campground. ( west Davis CG was incinerated and no longer exists). We lost a lot of camping gear in our camp but the USFS crew foam our trailer and saved it prior to be forced out of the campground by extreme Fire behavior due to massive fuel loads and tree density in the area.
    My family and I were also on a Level 2 evac alert in Westfir, OR in 2014 due to the Deception Fire that ” Blew up” after being “monitored” for days.
    Yesterday, 20,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe were evacuated due to the Caldor Fire. The massive 700,000 acre Dixie Fire continues to rage after destroying the town of Greenville, CA on August 6th, Population 1200.
    Not to forget the deadly Paradise Fire of 2018 that essentially destroyed a community of 20,000 and killed several residents trying to flee.
    I could go on and on…
    Bob Zybach shared a editorial with this forum that I wrote for the Eugene Register Guard in 2014 titled: ” It’s Time to Judge Forest Policy by its Results, Not by its Intent.”
    Sadly, not much has changed. Perhaps only the intensity, severity and the deadly consequences of these “fire bombs.”
    The evidence is clear, the Northwest Forest Plan has failed as has the ESA, EAJA and serial litigators.

  8. Heavy on innuendo and light on substance as most of Dr. Zybecks posts are. When he occasionally has an interesting perspective he completely overshadows it with antiquated platitudes and conspiratorial grudges. I saw him speak at OSU years ago but any meaningful comments on the value of unique owl genetics were eclipsed by his long rant on university professors interest in bluegrass music.

    • Well, that sure sounds like a substantive criticism, Patrick. I do recall giving a presentation at OSU about spotted owls several years ago in which a single slide was included as a joke showing a bluegrass band of professors. I’m not sure how that constitutes a “rant,” and I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of ranting on the topic in any case, “long” or otherwise. Probably a reason you don’t use your real name when hurling insults, Patrick. Any actual examples of the “innuendo,” “antiquated platitudes,” or “conspirational grudges” you’d like to point out?


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