In an article, titled “The West Is on Fire, It’s Past Time to Act on Climate Change,” the New York Times allowed Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown to opine that the wildfires currently scorching large areas in her state are caused by climate change. This is false. Wildfires have been common throughout the West historically, including in Oregon, often burning more acres than have burned in recent years. To the extent that wildfires have increased in intensity recently, it is not due to modest warming, but rather to decades of federal and state land mismanagement leaving Oregon’s forests in tinderbox conditions.
“[T[he 400,000-acre-plus Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, the largest in the country at the moment [is] the latest in a string of climate-related natural disasters to befall my state,” writes Brown. “We are no strangers to forest fires in the West. About half of Oregon, some 30 million acres, is forestland. But in the past decade, as our summers have grown longer, hotter and drier, our lush forests have turned into tinderboxes.”
Tinderboxes, yes, climate change, no.
Had Brown studied history a bit she would have found Oregon has suffered large fires throughout its history. As detailed in a report by Oregon’s own Department of Forestry:
“Ecologists estimate that prior to Euro-American settlement large, stand-replacing crown fires burned Pacific Northwest coastal forests every 200-500 years. Smaller surface fires revisited dry interior forests as often as every 4-20 years. West-side Cascade wildfire intervals and intensity fell somewhere in the range between.”
Dry Oregon forests were characterized by frequent, low-intensity fires often ignited by lightning, but also by Native Americans. Most likely, historic surface wildfires were quite extensive, burning from late spring through summer until wetter weather arrived in the fall.
This changed with the arrival of Euro-American settlers in the West who stopped the regular burning both to deny Native Americans of their traditional lifestyles and food production system, and to prevent fires from burning newly settled towns and farms. Forests grew thicker and older.
With the rise of widespread federal and state ownership of forests in the West, management with the ax, firehose, firebreaks, roads, and small scale “controlled burns,” to suppress the build of brush, replaced regular widespread forest fires. For nearly 80 years, the U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the Department of Agriculture, drove thousands of miles of roads deep into the forests, to allow logging. The roads also created artificial fire breaks and allowed access for firefighters into the backwoods to fight fires when they started.
In 1985, Oregon’s federal forests alone produced more than 4 billion board feet of timber annually. By 1995, concerns about the spotted owl and a change in forest management philosophy from one of productive use to ecosystem management, resulted in thousands of miles of forest roads being closed and ripped out, and timber harvests plunging to less than 1 billion board per year.
This has resulted in overcrowded forests and the easier spread of insect infestations, like bark beetles, killing trees. Many federal forests now contain more dead and dying timber than living trees. And since loggers can no longer clear forests on a large scale, and firefighters can’t get to fires, except from the air if conditions are right, wildfires are on the rise again, and hundreds of towns, homes, and business are being burnt out.
With so much fuel, these fires are different. Rather than replenishing the soil they burn so hot they often kill key microbes in the soil. This leaves millions of acres of land denuded for decades to come, looking like moonscapes. Under current federal policy of letting nature take its course, loggers usually can’t even get into burnt over areas to clear fallen burnt timber and replant new trees in areas where they might possibly take root and flourish.
So while Gov. Brown wants to blame modest warming and a fairly recent drought for the scope and intensity of wildfires in Oregon in 2020 and 2021, the true culprit is nearly 40 years of forest mismanagement.
If Brown doesn’t believe me, she should consult an October 2020 NBC story, titled “Decades of mismanagement led to choked forests — now it’s time to clear them out, fire experts say.”
“Fires have always been part of our ecosystem,” Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees told NBC news. “Forest management is a lot like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin.”
Indeed, the wildfires burning in the U.S. West in the past few years are more appropriately labeled, “Greenie Fires, Not Climate Fires,” as James Taylor wrote in a recent Climate Realism article discussing the issue.
Contrary to Brown’s assertions state and federal efforts to address racial disparities, increase electric vehicle usage, and to stop using fossil fuels to generate electricity will do nothing to prevent wildfires. Wildfires are natural. They can’t be stopped, but they can be managed and the damage they cause, to the forest themselves and the people living in and near them, can be dramatically reduced. Wise management of the forests is required. Either through regular, widespread, low intensity burning, as the Native Americans did, or through active forest management, including intensive logging and brush clearing and firefighting efforts, as governments did prior to 1990.
These tools, not huge spending on climate change, are the best hope of preventing Oregonians from seeing their homes go up in flames.