So What About Those “Historic” 2020 Fires?

Today’s in-box brought me, courtesy of, a new report “Cascadia burning: The historic, but not historically unprecedented, 2020 wildfires in the Pacific Northwest,” authored by researchers at my alma mater (Beaver Nation), Washington DNR, U. of Dub, and the Fire Service.


The 2020 Labor Day Fires were much larger and more severe than others in the recent record, but they were remarkably consistent with many historical fires. Strong east winds and dry conditions are the common denominators in both large historical fires of the past and the 2020 fires.

Forest management and fuel treatments are unlikely to influence fire severity in the most extreme wind-driven fires, like the 2020 Labor Day Fires. Pre-fire forest structure, largely the result of previous forest management activities, had little effect on burn severity when east winds were strong during the 2020 fires.

Fuel treatments around homes and infrastructure may still be beneficial under low and moderate fire-weather conditions.

Adaptation strategies for similar fires in the future in west-side communities might, instead, focus on ignition prevention, fire suppression, and community preparedness.

17 thoughts on “So What About Those “Historic” 2020 Fires?”

  1. Below is quote taking from 2020 Cascade labor day fires-research conducted by Usfs – Western Research Center and researcer grantees. Common sense would advise-This can be applied to any prescribed burn. Taken to just days or weeks before the Hermit Peak usfs prescribed burn ; those involved had zero understanding of the effects of lighting 1200 acres afire where the forest was in a prolonged drought stressed condition-quite obvious to anyone paying attention to the health of the forest structure. What little moisture remained in the soil and biomass- any fire-heating would obviously remove such moisture, raise temperature and negatively affect the health of the forest. The Cascade 2020 fire research at least describes in some detail that fire treatment has zero effective protection in the greater forest and focus might well be targeted around property/ structures. It is really about common sense management of forest…there research indicates that irregardless of mechanically thinning, logging, rotational age forest , ect- when mother nature strikes its gonna burn…in the meantime , in the future man should return to meaningful productivity of the entire forest ecosystem…put away the drip pots and grab a shovel and start planting usfs…when areas produce enough timber where some can be removed without harm to the ecosystem – harvest what you planted. Its a very simple science. Forestry is about field work and not an easy chair life in an office building…probably one man can handle 200 acres in 1 year, with a moderate footprint leaving area mechanically pruned/thinned , replanted , and ready to go for effective sustainable productivity. The opposite occuring today is a agent spending a year employed in an office setting with maps and plans and computer and a few times a year drives to some little understood forest location with drip pot and lights it up , to return to office life marking another X on his mapping ” as accomplished” – forwarding it to higher management as proof ” job well done” at usfs . In other words usfs / forestry in the forest is now forestry viewed by computer inside 4 walls.

    “While an increase in early seral conditions can promote biodiversity, there may be increased risk of reburns, given their historical precedence following early 20th-century fires (Figure 10). The 1902 Yacolt Fire experienced 15 partial reburns in the following 50 years (Figure 10a), the 1933 Tillamook Burn experienced five partial reburns in the following 20 years (Figure 10b), and much of the fire activity in the mid- and late 1800s has been attributed to reburning in large fires (Morris, 1934). Following one of the Tillamook Burns, Neiland (1956) found that maximum daytime summer temperatures were approximately 11°C warmer with 10% lower relative humidity in burned areas than in adjacent old-growth forests. Warmer, drier conditions may increase the potential for burning in early seral landscapes where post-fire regeneration and vegetation establish in abundance rapidly.”

  2. Hi Andy: I’m going to disagree with the Firescience folks. The western Cascade 2020 Labor Day Fires WERE unprecedented. Nothing like them on such a widespread scale in history.

    We need more actual historians and anthropologists working on mitigating these fires — the “peer reviewed” modelers have been consistently wrong for the past 30 years and yet never seem to get called on their failings or their methods.

    Here is what I wrote on the topic:

      • Hi Bob: I just finished my updated report on this fire yesterday and will post here later this month for discussion. The Lionshead and Beachie Creek Fires were initially caused by lightning, but all of the other Labor Day Fires were caused by people, including at least one arsonist. The initial reports of the Archie Creek Fire, including a 911 call at 3:49 AM and initial reports to the Douglas Forest Protection Association, were that it started in snags adjacent to Highway 138 that were left by the USFS from the 2009 Williams Creek Fire. Here is the first of a series of excellent videos on the Archie Creek Fire that is focused on this exact topic (10 min.):

  3. Sigh. I think again “if we really wanted to know about this, first we would frame the question”. Is the question “are these fires precedented or not?” then I would ask “what difference does it make to whom?” Is the real question “what should West-siders do?” There are lots of options.

    I’d get a stakeholder group online to discuss and come up with a variety of options. Then and only then, would I get “the right” disciplines involved for each option (at least one scientist from each discipline, preferably ones on different “sides”, and “the right” tools in that discipline to answer the question “how effective would this be? What barriers exist?” The scientific discussion would be open and involve practitioner and Indigenous knowledge.

    Otherwise individual papers, their adherents and their disputants, remind me of the tale of the blind folks and the elephant.

    • Hi Sharon: “Precedent” is a term implying “history,” and that was the specific focus of the posted article — hence, my call for an historian to address this issue. For the past 60+(!) years I have studied, written about, recreated, and worked in most of the major historical wildfires in western Oregon and southwest Washington. My PhD is on fire history in this region and during the past 40 years I have written dozens of articles and editorials on the topic. Academics and experience.

      The “difference” it makes is that history should give us better insights in planning for the future. “What should be done” is an extension of this process. I continue to think we need more historians and anthropologists and a lot fewer modelers in addressing these problems. Also, more experienced forest managers and a lot fewer federal regulations! In my opinions.

      • If the question is what will the future bring (including the effects of exercising our various options), that requires modeling, formally specified or otherwise, informed by history. However, it seems possible that forest history is less relevant under today’s unprecedented atmospheric carbon conditions than it use to be.

        • Hi Jon: I would argue that forest history is more important than ever. The climate is always changing — how have forests responded in the past? Wildfires of the past 30 years are unprecedented in the number, severity, and extent of these events in historical time. What are the causes? I can guarantee something more than a 1-degree change in global temperature is involved. But what?

          Too, how to test the models for climate, wildlife populations, and wildfire probability? If a model can’t accurately predict the past (most can’t even come close in my experience), then how can they possibly be trusted to predict the future?

          Forest management — and history — is far more complex than changing “atmospheric carbon conditions.” I would cite the numbers and actions of local humans as being one contributing factor that is not being adequately considered, for example — CO2 present in the air, not so much a factor despite all of the attention being given to it. In my opinion.

            • Jon: Nothing ever happens exactly “like this,” but the climate is obviously changing all of the time, by definition. If you want to believe that current changes have something to do with human-related CO2, then it is a free country. It’s a trace element and a key “building block of life” where I live, and has no discernible effect on the weather that anyone has been able to demonstrate. I do realize that your perspective is the popular and political one, however.

              • And the scientifically supported one. How supported? Here is an attempt to debunk the popular 97% figure often used to describe the degree of scientific consensus for a human cause of global warming (mostly carbon). It concludes, “Even though belief is clearly below 97%, support over 80% (which it clearly is) is strong consensus. Would a lower level of consensus convince anyone concerned about anthropogenic global warming to abandon their views and advocate unrestricted burning of fossil fuels? I think not. Even the 2016 Cook paper says “From a broader perspective, it doesn’t matter if the consensus number is 90% or 100%.”

                • Jon: My perspective is also “scientifically supported.” Politics — not science — is a voting game. I share my perspective with a number of other scientists, several with national and international reputations. You cite a single source to back up a dubious statement in order to say my perspective isn’t as “scientific” as your own. And by using debatable statistics that are irrelevant in any instance? Maybe you have heard the old saw supposedly said by Einstein that “it only takes one person” to prove him wrong, “no matter what 100 might say.” Lots of variations on this statement/story, but the point is clear — and that’s how science actually works.

                    • “In science or politics, anyone out there on the tail of the bell curve is rightly regarded as an extremist.”


                      “The rejection of Semmelweis’s empirical observations is often traced to belief perseverance, the psychological tendency of clinging to discredited beliefs. Also, some historians of science[19] argue that resistance to path-breaking contributions of obscure scientists is common and “constitutes the single most formidable block to scientific advances.””

                      I am not trying to challenge anyone’s knowledge on this subject but I don’t think it is a wise idea to “rightly regard” those on the fringes as extremists. I know of no one person that is or was infallible but I have read about many who made brilliant discoveries that disproved the accepted knowledge of those smack dab on top of the bell curve.

                    • I agree. My own humble contribution to Science, assessing who were the Dads of lobolly pine seeds in a South Carolina seed orchard, was original and not popular. But scientists replicated it, and now passed being mainstream and into being passe.

                      Good old Francis Bacon knew his stuff… “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”

                    • Jon: Depends on who is making the bell curve. Probably not worth a debate. According to your hypothetical, Einstein, Newton, and Darwin would all be far-out extremists. Seems like an honor.

                    • “Extremist” simply means “being at the extreme.” You can put whatever normative connotation you want on that. (Note that this “single source” was trying to disprove extremism in this case, based on lots of other studies, and essentially admitted failure.)

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