Friday, August 19, 2016

What Has Created Megafires?

Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman says that you can't blame today's firefighters for today's landscape erasing,  endangered species habitat incinerating megafires.


This is the one and only point he raises with which I even partially agree. 

Pioneer Fire as seen from Garden Valley on 08/17/2016. Fire complex is already over 85,000 acres and expected to exponentially increase in size in the coming weeks. No to very little effort was made to contain the fire in the initial stages. It is believed to be human caused. Photo credit: Gary M.

*Updated 08/19/2016 at 15:55 MST: fire has increased 4500 acres in size during the last 24 hours. The Pioneer Fire is now the largest and most costly fire in the nation. $46 million has been spent "actively managing"(not fighting) the fire. The fire remains less than 50% contained and is now moving into the ironically named "Deadwood Roadless Area" where logging and thinning was essentially outlawed under Clinton-era passed legislation,  such as the 2001 Roadless Rule*

Sure, several wildfires have been intentionally started by contractor or federal firefighters such as one intentionally set by a US Forest Service employee during the Hayman Fire, or others hoping to cash in on the tens of millions of dollars that it routinely costs to fight megafires. But those incidents are rare and the exception. 

 The underlying problem is that the federal government reversed 150 years worth of forest management policies in one legislative session. 

Federal forest management ideology  went from a "10 am fire management policy"(putting fires out by 10 am the day after it was discovered) to a policy of "let it all burn unless it endangers life, limb or property". 

Nobody can reasonably argue that fire has not been an integral part of the landscape for millions of years before humans started playing with matches or planting trees.

However, the forests of America today are hardly the "historic" ecosystems the first land animals saw when they crawled out of the oceans for the first time.

Nor are they the historic forests indigenous peoples of America have survived in since they migrated around the outer perimeters of glaciers on their historic land bridge crossing from Asia and Europe.

Millions of trees which were packed into the countryside and planted by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during FDR's Great Society Initiative are now fully mature and prime fuel materials for mountainside obliterating, endangered species eradicating megafires.

More than 2.3 BILLION trees were packed into every opening, up to 10,000 per acre, over a ten year period.

(Colorado state Forest Service says lodgepole stands (doghair forests) can exceed 20,000 trees per acre. 

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So many trees were artificially introduced  in some areas that entire watersheds have virtually been sucked dry. 

Many of these non-native, now mature trees consume as much as 500 gallons of water per tree per day.

Geologic records and history preserved by native American people show that the landscape in question typically did not hold more than 300-500 trees per acre before European settlers showed up. Federal forest management policies increased that number 20 fold for the sake of increasing revenues from future timber harvests. A plan that we now know was shortsighted and a perfect recipe for disaster,  when coupled with current "watch it burn" policies the Forest Service is engaged in. 

The only smart way to return forests to more historical levels would be to actively manage and mechanically thin the  forests or do more prescribed burns during wetter spring conditions. Rather than just letting landscape erasing wildfires burn through prime endangered species habitat at up to 40 miles per hour during the driest and hottest parts of the year. 

 Blaming climate change is nonsense. Especially since there hasn't been any measureable temperature increases since 1994 when the current Forest Service management policies took effect.

In fact,  the 1980s decade was substantially hotter and drier than the past decade,  where bad forest management policies let more than 850,000 acres of wildfires destroy Idaho forests in 2007.


  1. Environment organizations to blame for our fires!

    Clayton Marlow, a Range Ecology professor who teaches a Fire Ecology and Management class at Montana State University.

    Dr. Marlow: I think, first and foremost, what has been missed is taking all the science that the Forest Service itself and its sister agencies through the Joint Fire Science program have developed and it has not gone to policy. For example, there is study after study that shows that prescribed grazing or targeted logging practices greatly reduce the spread and the severity of fires. I want to really repeat that the prescribed grazing and logging will reduce the severity and spread, it won’t prevent the fire, but it will make less catastrophic and easier to control.

    Many are making claims that much of the blame falls directly on the federal agencies, claiming gross negligence and mismanagement of our nation’s forests and rangeland by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management particularly this year as it deals with an unprecedented fire season as seen across the western U.S. this year. Dr. Marlow shares his thoughts on what the problem actually is.

    Dr. Marlow: Yes and no, I think that's a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think that most federal agencies are very aware that there is unhealthy forests, and grasslands that are prone to catastrophic fires. The problem is we have a group of environment organizations that have learned to make money by suing the federal government. And they have so tied the hands of the federal government with lawsuits, that the agencies can’t 1. Get to the project on the ground and 2, Don't have the resources to put it there because they are paying court costs. So rather than blaming federal agency, I think its a segment of our society that is to blame. Its important to note, that most of the plant communities in this part of the world, evolved from grazing and fire and when we remove both we make them very unhealthy and very vulnerable to climate change.