Friday, March 09, 2012

Can we stop megafires before they start?

The Pacific Northwest Research Station has a huge index of "Science Findings" written by science writers. Many of the articles champion fuel-reduction treatments (thinning) to alleviate the risk of extreme fires. But there is a controversy not evident in any USFS document: environmental groups such as the Pacific Rivers Council have questioned the impact of these treatments and whether it is even possible to stop extreme fires. It seems the "torching" and "crowning" indices the USFS uses to measure the effectiveness of fuel-reduction treatments are models that are not directly applicable to real forests. Further, it is clear the fuel-reduction alone will not provide long-term solutions without a return to natural fire frequencies or intensively-managed prescribed fire. Worst of all, thinning has most of the negative impacts associated with logging, such as soil disturbance and compaction, increased road building and use, and, ultimately, increased erosion. The controversial "Beschta Report", which makes these and other arguments, has been used by many to argue against the type of research presented in "Science Findings". The authors of this report, such as the Oregon hydrologist Jonathan Rhodes, have continued to argue that catastrophic wildfire is a natural disturbance than humans should not (and cannot) control. However, recent research from the Ponderosa Pine forests of Arizona and New Mexico does seem to indicate that thinning can decrease burn severity: Cram DS, Baker TT, Boren JC. Wildland fire effects in silviculturally treated vs. untreated stands of New Mexico and Arizona. 2006. Available from:

The NRDC has also come out against thinning for biomass energy, based on their analysis of total carbon sequestration.

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