There is no “no fire” option

The NY Times has an interesting essay today by David Wallace-Wells, ‘There is no future in which we somehow manage to suppress all these fires that also does not have any prescribed fires.’ It’s behind a pay wall, but here’s one quote:

“The reality is, there is no ‘no fire’ option,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is no future in which we somehow manage to suppress all these fires that also does not have any prescribed fires.” That’s how he presents the landscape: not a choice between fire or no fire. “The choice is what kind of fire,” he said.

Wells also has this passage featuring Stephen Pyne:

“Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire,” Pyne wrote recently. His goal: “a variety of techniques for a variety of purposes,” he said, including an “urban fire” approach to those burning in the wildland-urban interface, where a much more aggressive firefighting and fire-prevention effort could be targeted. He mentions Indigenous practices, cultural burning and agricultural burning, alongside forest management through mechanical thinning and burning. “Thinning plus fire is what’s really effective,” he said. “In a lot of places, they get the thinning done, but they don’t do the burning. So in a sense, you haven’t solved the problem. You may even have made it worse in some ways, because now you’ve got all these jackpot piles, like gopher mounds all over the countryside, waiting for a fire.”

But Pyne is most focused on what he calls “working with wildfires”: a more open and fluid approach that treats those that begin with an accidental or natural ignition almost like prescribed burns by guiding them toward useful spread. “I wish the agencies were a little more forthright about this” — that some remote fires can just be left to burn, he said. “It’s legal, it’s legitimate. But it can also seem evasive, a little sub rosa,” especially against a backdrop of growing fire anxiety across the West, driven not just by the fires themselves but the smoke they produce. “People get hay fever in the spring,” Pyne said. “Well, you may be dealing with smoke fever in the fall.”

“We don’t have complete control,” he went on. “We don’t control the weather. We don’t control the mountains. But, he added, “We can decide where and when to set a fire, we can do some prior treatments at a certain level, but we can’t treat tens of millions of acres across the West — much less, a couple hundred million acres across the West before we put fire in.”

Ultimately, “I think prescribed burning has got to be a part of it, but it’s not going to be the dominant one,” he said, pointing out that in most years, acreage consumed by wildfire is much larger than what’s burned in prescribed fires and that in 2021, prescribed fires burned nearly 1.3 million acres in the Southeast, where climate conditions make such fires relatively safe, compared with less than 200,000 in the Southwest, West, Mountain West and Pacific Northwest each.

“In the West, the complications are much larger,” he said — and growing, of course. “It’s a lot harder than it was say a 100 or 150 years ago,” because “the landscape is much more vulnerable to explosive fire,” he said. “We still haven’t grappled with the sense that it’s systemic. And I don’t think we ever will.”


9 thoughts on “There is no “no fire” option”

  1. I agree with Stephen Pyne in that thinning and prescribed fire go hand-in-hand. We have too much fuel in the west. Ladder fuels should be removed before setting prescribed fires. This can be done by mechanical thinning. The thinnings should be removed before setting prescribed fire. If not possible, then the material can be machine piled or redistributed on the ground before burning. In any event, foresters and fire professionals should determine the treatments necessary to reduce fuel loads in our forests, given the constraints they must work with–including insufficient number of sawmills and biomass facilities in the west and tedious environmental redtape and review time. For more, please read the Camp ’70 Western Wildfire Position Paper that is on the California Chapter of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) website.

    • Richard Hutto, a Professor Emeritus in Biology and Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana where he conducted research on and taught about fire ecology for more than 35 years, has an op-ed in the Missoulian.

      “Statistical analyses show that, relative to climate, forest structure plays little to no role in creating the fire situation we see today — hot, dry, windy conditions (not fuels) play the prominent role in producing recent increases in fire frequency and extent.

      “Consequently, forest thinning will do little or nothing to alter the trend in fire frequency and extent. Thinning may do a good job of reducing fire severity and extent when conditions are mild, but 98% of the land that burns in any given year do so under extreme weather conditions, so thinning cannot solve the problem we’re facing. One could argue that forest thinning will at least make us safer, but excess forest fuels are not what poses fire risk. Research by Jack Cohen at the USFS Fire Sciences Lab shows quite clearly that it is blowing embers and not walls of flame fueled by overgrown forests that pose the primary risk to homes and communities. What that means is we can probably be safe by making homes and communities firesafe and can let distant fires burn without undue risk.”

      • Most forest fires are not driven by high winds. Thinning can slow the advancement of a forest fire when there isn’t wind or light wind, by keeping the fire out of crowns. Thinning is not going to stop a forest fire. However, Firefighters will often have a fighting chance to directly attack fires in thinned forest even in hot dry weather. The same argument applies to fuel breaks. Fuel breaks won’t stop wind driven fires However, they can slow the advancement of a fire and provide an opportunity for firefighters to more directly attack a fire with hand crews and equipment and make air drops more effective.

        Thinning is not an all or none proposition. Thinning has benefits if combined with prescribed fire in many, if not most, fire incidents. The added benefit of thinning followed by removals, piling or fuel re-distribution before applying a controlled burn, is to improve the health of our forests, that are plagued by overcrowding, disease, and insect infestation.
        One more point. Some colleagues and I visited the Sequoia National Monument a couple of weeks ago. Where no forest management preceded the recent fires, Giant Sequoias were destroyed. Where ladder fuels around the monarchs were removed prior to the fires, the big trees survived–even in high wind conditions! The ladder fuels I am talking about are 50-60 year-old (and younger) white fir and pine near the boles of the great trees that allowed flames to leap into the crowns of the giant Sequoias in the Freeman Creek Grove that had never been thinned. The forest management that I am referring to is on the Jackson State Forest and the Tule River Indian Reservation lands that we visited (We saw the Tule River Reservation lands lands adjacent to a county road in the Black Mountain Grove). Thinning in the Black Mountain units within the Giant Sequoia National Monument, occurring in the 1980’s gave the Giant Sequoias a good chance for survival. Many of the big trees survived on these older thinned areas.

        Finally, The input of fire scientists and other specialists is important for foresters, who are forest resource managers, and the fire management officials who are experienced on-the- ground firefighters. Foresters and fire management, working together are in the best position to make well informed decisions about the health of our forests and to reduce the risk of the potential severe effects of wildfire.

  2. Timely.
    Just yanked this conclusion from my comment yesterday on the “Chief Blames ‘Climate Change’ for New Mexico Prescribed Burn that Got Away” post:

    “Now, this isn’t commentary good or bad, one way or another, in re the USFS. But it seems plain to me given the conditions on the ground that if the primary goal moving forward is to protect private property owners, then the agency can’t PB at all.”

  3. Trees on public lands are not agriculture. Merge the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the Department of Interior as the US Forest and Land Management Service.

  4. Fires should be outlawed ; period. Fires release carbon dioxide , previously stored in trees , plants , bio mass into Earths atmosphere where it can remain for 300-1000 years. The 350,000 acre Hermit Peak fire just contributed to the carbon monoxide buildup in Earths atmosphere. All those destroyed trees are no longer removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grew in the process know as photosynthesis, adding oxygen to the atmosphere. All such biomass destroyed no longer is releasing water vapor by process known as transpiration into Earths atmosphere. Equals drought. Mr. scientist phd says answer is many many small fires to stop the big one. Hmm?
    Unplanned forest fires by human, natural , lightning strikes ect, should be stopped as fast as possible preventing further release of carbon dioxide and loss of oxygen production as well as water vapor. Trees milled into lumber products retain a majority of carbon stored almost indefinitely (lifespan of wood products deterioration). The clamor by so called experts who use fear of disastrous wildfires and the necessity to prescribe burns here, there, actually treatments everywhere is baffling! That accepted strategy led precisely to disasters like Hermit Peak and scorching of 350,000 acres of biologically functioning forest lands. Who are these disfunctional minds ? Who has been supporting there theoretical conclusions which
    even after a disaster of a prescribed burn – still cling to and promote such policies…If global warming carbon dioxide (C02) stays in the Earths atmosphere for at least 300 years , what fool can profess adding more C02 rather than less…Adding more trees removes CO2 . Let the forest grow and do their natural processes. Mechanical removal of trees converted to lumber is a good thing. It provides jobs and products for the human species. Thinking logically byproducts like sawdust converted into compressed wood products retains the carbon in woods . Conversion and burning of compressed wood pellets with the recent invention of wood pellet heating appliances may not be so good as it releases , like a forest fire, the CO2 into the atmosphere. People appear to not be thinking on their feet but sitting on the lazyboy couch and just listening to electronic devices . Let Joseph Goebels explain it to you in better detail , as he can be fully trusted, he worked for adolf hitler !

    • I’m sure there is a ‘natural’ percentage of humans who start wildfires, throughout history. It should be considered a constant, when doing forest management planning. Currently, 85% of all US wildfires are human-caused. We currently have an huge excess of dead timber we cannot easily process. Cutting more green timber doesn’t seem like a good idea, right now. In fact, some parts of the southern Sierra Nevada are no longer overstocked with green trees (although there are huge amounts of worthless dead trees there, too.)


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