Does Logging California’s Forests Actually Make Them Burn Faster?

Creating fire-proof communities by removing fuel isn’t done with enough regularity but is what will save lives, not logging the state’s forests, which might make things worse by creating more combustible fuel.

by Jim McKay / November 30, 2018

Some California officials were taken aback when President Donald Trump blamed the state for the devasting wildfires, even as people died in Paradise, Calif., during the Camp Fire.

Officials declined to address the president’s comments, partly because they didn’t really know what to make of them. The president threatened to cut off “funding” and presumably, wants to harvest the forest.

But that view offers a lack of understanding of what makes wildfires, like the Camp Fire, which killed at least 88, dangerous, according to some experts. Overwhelmingly, they say, what spreads wildfires to homes is embers moved about by winds and that logging the forests wouldn’t help but may even exacerbate the problem.

Chad Hanson, a research ecologist for the John Muir Project, co-authored a study on this that found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging actually burn the most intensely. “More logging leads to fires that burn faster and hotter,” he said. “It doesn’t curb fires.”

That’s because what makes fuel for fire is the small stuff — twigs, grass, needles — not trees. And when the forest is logged that leaves behind a lot of that fuel. And what aids in burning that fuel is wind. Fuel and wind are the keys.

“So what happens is when you have a lot of logging, it turns the forest into more grasslands or shrub habitat and it burns faster,” Hanson said. “It leaves behind what we call “slash debris,” that is very combustible, on the forest floor.”

As the trees are removed during logging, that also removes the “canopy” that covers the forest floor and lets in the sunlight, which helps the grasses spread. Also, fewer trees means the loss of a buffer against winds.

Hanson said that instead of focusing on the forests, officials should spend time and resources on developing fire-safe communities. 

Overwhelmingly, embers are what spread wildfires from house to house. Many homes today in areas where there is wildfire danger are metal or have fire-resistant roofs. But those that have exterior vents like attic vents that don’t have ember-proof covers on them can easily collect an ember and catch fire.

“An ember can float in winds a mile ahead of flames and that’s how a large portion of those houses are burned,” Hanson said.

Houses should have fire-proof roofing, covers for vents and gutters (to keep out needles and leaves) and in neighborhoods where houses are relatively close together, fire-proof siding.
They also should have defensible space.

“Research shows that 90 percent of the time, homes are ignited by embers, not a wall of flames,” said Jamie Roice-Gomes, manager of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Living With Fire Program, in a Los Angeles Times article.

Defensible space is created by pruning vegetation within 100 feet of homes, removing seedlings and samplings, twigs, grasses and lower limbs. “When it’s done, the great majority of homes will survive a wildland fire,” Hanson said.

But It’s not done extensively for a variety of reasons, even though there is a state law in California requiring it. Some elderly people need help doing it and some don’t have the means to do it. “Just saying you must do this is not enough,” Hanson said. “That’s where our resources need to be going, not on logging the forest, which is just going to damage the forest and often make them burn faster.”