Wildfires in the West: climate change, mismanagement, or both?

Wildfires in the West: climate change, mismanagement, or both?

Conservation Northwest / Oct 02, 2020 / Climate Change, Forest Field Program, National Forests, Wildfire

Forest management alone is not the cause for the severity and scale of today’s wildfires, climate change has exacerbated the problem. But we have tools to respond.

*Editor’s Note: Michael Liu joined our staff earlier this year after a distinguished career with the U.S. Forest Service, including as Methow District Ranger. We are honored to have his experience, expertise and community relationships on our team.

By Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest Lead

As fires raged across the West last month, my wife asked me if the cause was climate change or mismanagement of forests and grasslands. She had been reading news headlines and I suppose she figured my opinions had some credibility since I am a retired District Ranger who worked 36 years for the U.S. Forest Service. From my early days as a wildland firefighter to my later years working with incident management teams as an agency administrator, fire has been a constant in my life.

In an era of widespread, politically-charged misinformation on topics ranging from viruses and public health to forest management and wildfires, it can be difficult to know which information is accurate. Even with my long history with wildfire, the answer to my wife’s question is complicated.

Comparing historic landscape photos across the West with current conditions, a pattern of denser and more contiguous forested land becomes apparent today. As public land management agencies became more effective at suppressing wildfires during the 20th century, fewer acres of forest burned each year, creating an unnatural build-up of fuels. From dead pine needles and branches on the forest floor to young, shade-tolerant trees (which act as fuel ladders that allow ground fires to spread quickly into the crowns of trees), our drier forest types began to accumulate more biomass.

A valley in the Pasayten Wilderness after 2017’s Diamond Creek Fire, showing a natural ‘mosaic’ burn pattern. Photo: Michael Liu, USFS Methow Valley Ranger District

This reduction or in some places outright loss of the natural “mosaic” historically found from the east slopes of the North Cascades through the Rocky Mountains—featuring burned areas, sparse stands of ponderosa pine, mixed conifer forests, patchy shrubs, thicker riparian zones, and more open meadows and bunchgrass ridges—contributes to higher severity fires as well as reductions in habitat quality for native wildlife from mule deer to spotted owls.

In addition, the old fire scars on the landscape (where fires had burned) began to grow back and new ones were smaller (at least until the late 20th century) and less effective at slowing wildfire spread. Clearcutting and high-grade logging and road construction resulted in landscape fragmentation and additional impacts to wildlife and aquatic resources. In many cases this brought about more regulation and less timber harvesting and thinning, leading to dense, fire-prone monoculture stands in many areas that had previously been cut.

Around the time I started working for the Forest Service, fire ecology and its role on the landscape was in its infancy. Stand data across large landscapes hadn’t been collected and computer models were just beginning to be developed to help understand the complex interactions. Even though there were early advocates for prescribed fire as a management tool, risks to property and public health concerns around smoke were often seen as too great. Groups including the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, of which Conservation Northwest is a member, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have only recently begun to resolve such disputes. These factors, alongside a lack of collaboration between the conservation community and the timber industry (another issue that’s begun to change in the 21st century, pioneered by groups including CNW), led to the forest health problems we face today.

However, forest management alone is not the cause for the severity and scale of today’s wildfires. In fact, climate change has exacerbated the problem. With the exception of California, known for its fall fires, the Western fire season used to start around June and end in September. Now, it’s common to see the fire season starting as early as May and going well into October.

Climate change has also resulted in hotter and drier conditions, meaning higher probabilities of ignition and a greater likelihood of extreme fire behavior. This coupled with more surface and ladder fuels from past forest management results in the wildfires of today—add extreme weather and fires can be so severe that fuelbreaks the size of the Columbia River are powerless to stop their spread, as was the case with the recent Cold Springs/Pearl Hill Fire.

So where do we go from here?  A college professor of mine used to say: “If you can draw the picture, you can solve the problem.” There is a way forward. In part, that’s why I came out of retirement to work for Conservation Northwest.

Prescribed fire is one of our best tools to reduce fire severeity and damage, in both dry forests and the shrub-steppe. Photo: USFS

Through collaboration with land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and DNR, we can use landscape evaluation tools to help restore ecological resilience to our forests and watersheds while restoring habitat and better protecting human communities.

By taking a landscape-scale approach, we can better determine where and how much we need to thin, where prescribed burning is beneficial, which roads to keep open and which ones we can close or decommission, and what unique habitats need special consideration. This restoration approach focuses on building resilience by returning natural processes, structure, and function to both landscape and stand-level scales.

There are no shortcuts to this work. It requires an upfront investment in scientific research, sincere outreach and collaboration, and meaningful environmental review by experts and specialists. And that’s all before we implement tactics on-the-ground.

Fires in the dry forests, where they would naturally occur fairly frequently, and those in the shrub-steppe must be treated differently, as climate change and the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass are causing burns to become larger and more destructive in our sagelands, an issue my colleague Jay Kehne has written about.

Perhaps most importantly, our fire challenge today requires agency leadership to resist beltway political pressure for generating timber volume. We need to resist the temptation to skip the landscape assessment and jump right into road building, timber harvesting, and fuelbreak construction in the name of wildfire risk reduction. Forest thinning and timber harvesting have a role, as does prescribed burning and community preparedness, but the science is clear we can’t log our way out of this mess.

The loss of life and property from recent wildfires are devastating, and our hearts go out to those who are experiencing displacement and loss. There may be no simple answers or silver bullets, but there is hope if we take the long view.

In time, burned areas will recover, wildlife will adapt to habitat changes, and we can build resilience in our forests. That’s why your continued support in the work we do is so important. We are committed to bringing communities, science and land managers together to address these needs collaboratively, for the long run. Thank you for making this work possible.


Learn more about our work on wildfire policy ON THIS WEBPAGE, or read about our FOREST FIELD PROGRAM working on northwest forests.
We highly recommend the COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF NORTH CENTRAL WASHINGTON’S FIRE RELIEF Fund to support fire relief efforts.
This forest on the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area burned during the 2015 Okanogan fire. The entire area had been thinned in 2013, but only the right half of the photo was treated with prescribed fire in spring 2014. The 2015 fire had little impact on fire-treated area, but it burned hotter and killed more trees on the left side where the timber thinning had not been followed with a prescribed burn. Photo: WDFW