The thinning debate: Does logging help or hurt fire mitigation?
Politicians say thinning forests will help prevent ‘catastrophic’ fires. But ecologists say this season wasn’t the worst, and logging won’t stop it from happening again.
According to peer-reviewed studies on the overall likelihood of a thinned area of forest being hit with fire and on historical fire trends, the argument that thinning is the best way to address future fire seasons like the one we just had is profoundly flawed.
For one, proposals to remove trees, or “fuels,” are based on the idea that fires burn more intensely in unlogged forests, making them more severe and quicker to spread.
But a recently published examination of the intensity of 1,500 forest fires over the past 40 years in 11 Western states found the opposite. Its authors, scientists at the Project Earth Institute, Geos Institute and Earth Island Institute, found fires burned most intensely in previously logged areas. In contrast, in wilderness, parks and roadless ares, the fires burned in mosaic patterns – which maintain healthy, resilient forests.
Both sides of the thinning debate frequently point to one-off incidents to show how thinning either is or is not effective.
“You have to be careful about anecdotal information,” warned Dominick DellaSala, a renowned fire ecologist and chief scientist at the Geos Institute. “Wind speed can change, humidity levels can change, and if you don’t account for all those factors, you could conclude either way. Either the thinning helped, or the thinning didn’t help, depending on what was going on with the fire climate.”
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