Comment: Wildfire problem is matter of fuel load, not climate

By limiting the harvest of timber in the state we allowed the forests’ fuel load to grow; and then burn.

By Don Healy / For The Herald

As the old adage goes, “when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.”

For some in the climate community, any change that occurs in the environment can be blamed on climate change. An example of this is the Feb. 3 commentary in the Weekend Herald, “Fossil fuels throwing gas on wildfires,” by Paul Roberts. Roberts overlooks the major factor, fuel load, concerning the increase in acres burned in recent decades, to focus on a relatively minor factor, a slight increase in temperature due to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the dramatic increase in our nation’s wildlands fuel load. The U.S. Forest Service’s inventory figures the volume of merchantable-sized timber in the nation has increased by 60 percent from 1953 to 2017, and it is very probable that smaller tree sizes, grasses and shrubs have grown at an even more rapid pace. With the spotted owl controversy and similar environmental actions starting in the late 1970s, harvesting and thinning on our national forestlands has essentially halted. The trees and other vegetation, however, did not get the message and kept growing.

When logging first commenced in this region, in the virgin forest on the Olympic Peninsula in the mid to late 1800s and the areas on the east side of Puget Sound, starting around 1900, the fuel loads were much, much higher than today, and forest fires were much more common and burned much larger areas. Roberts is correct when he states, “Wildfires and associated smoke are now routine signs of summer in the western U.S. California has seen eight of its ten largest wildfires and six of the most destructive since 2017.”

However, if we check the data compiled by the U.S. Interagency Fire Agency, we find that in the decade starting in 1926, acreage burned in the U.S. were up to 5 times greater than anything we have experienced in the period cited by Roberts. As my professor told his forest protection class, the three most important factors concerning forest fires are “fuel load, fuel load and fuel load, in that order” and by what has happened, he was correct. The anecdotal record reveals that smoke from fires was very common and very heavy most summers but was viewed as the price of progress.

Roberts’ solution to reduce the use of fossil fuels to solve the wildfire problem is idealistic, and unfortunately not acceptable to much of the world’s population that is energy deprived, notably China, India and Indonesia. The United Nations has been holding its COP meetings to come to agreements on greenhouse gas reductions since 1995 without achieving much in the way of concrete results.

So realistically, we will see no meaningful reduction in atmospheric carbon levels in most of our lifetimes. However, if we are serious about reducing the risk of wildfires, we, on our own as a nation could move very rapidly. By implementing commercial and non-commercial thinning operations where needed on federal and state lands and by sponsoring and encouraging the reestablishment of a modest forest products industry we could greatly improve the fire resistance of our nations forest and at the same create jobs and improve the health of our forests. In 2020, the U.S. imported $44.58 billion worth of wood products while we let our forest burns and did nothing to ameliorate the situation.

An additional benefit, one that Roberts as a past school board member might appreciate, is the boon this would be to our country’s public schools. By federal law, 25 percent of the gross proceeds of sales of products from federal lands goes to local counties for schools, roads and other local needs. This used to be a significant portion of public-school funding.

Ironically, Roberts is correct that burning fossils does have an impact on the fire situation in that the resulting increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide triggers the fertilization effect causing the plant community to grow more rapidly while at the same time making plants more drought tolerant. This has been very beneficial in increasing crop production, but also further exacerbates the fuel load problem in our nation’s forests.

The wildfire situation is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed. If we don’t, we will be revisiting the smoke and wildfire conditions that we experienced in the 1920s. I would suggest that we focus on the crux of the wildfire issue, fuel load, which we have the capability to address, and on which we can take timely action.

Don Healy holds a bachelor’s degree in forest management, earned in 1968 from Oregon State University.

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