The Cause of Increasing Severity of Forest Fires

2012 has been quite a year for forest fires with a great portion of the western and southeastern parts of the country ablaze. Many of these fires, including one in Colorado, have been record breakers as far as span of the fire and the cost in property damage. As you can expect the progressive environmentalists are blaming the increased number and severity of these forest fires on global warming climate change:

As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier.

Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States.

These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and long-burning.

The progressive environmentalists are correct in part, the increased intensity of forest fires is manmade. What they’re incorrect about is what manmade phenomenon is causing the headaches. I wrote about the water shortages caused by denser forests that exist due to human efforts to fight all forms of fire. On top of water shortages there is another unintended consequence, more fuel exist to feed the fires:

For most of the 20th century, U.S. federal fire policy focused on suppressing all fires on national forests. The goal was to protect timber resources and rural communities, but this policy ignored the ecological importance of fire. North American forests have evolved with fire for thousands of years. Fire returns nutrients to soils, encourages growth of older fire-resistant trees, and promotes establishment of seedlings.

Decades of fire exclusion have produced uncharacteristically dense forests in many areas. Some forests, which previously burned lightly every 15-30 years, are now choked with vegetation. If ignited, these forests erupt into conflagrations of much higher intensity than historic levels. Grasses, shrubs, and saplings in the understory now form a fuel ladder, through which flames can climb to the forest canopy, killing entire forest stands.

The intensity of modern forest fires is due to the arrogance of central planning. Some guys in Washington decided to decree that fire is bad and that all forest fires that breakout in the United States will be suppressed. This arrogance has lead to a vicious cycle. Water is used to prevent forest fires from occurring, forests become more dense, more water is needed to prevent further forest fires due to the increase in available fuel, forests become more dense, etc. Property damage also becomes a bigger issue because fires that do breakout burn much hotter, burn longer, and cover much more ground than they naturally would. Like our economy, our issue with forest fires is spiraling towards a disastrous collapse. In order to prevent future forest fires we need to use a great deal of water, which creates a further water shortage. If we don’t prevent forest fires they have enough fuel at this point to cause great amounts of property damage (the ones have been been breaking out recently have been causing record amounts of damage already). We’re effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place… if we rely on the state to resolve this issue.

What can be done to stave off disaster? In a twist of fate I find humorous the solution to our forest fire problems and our economic problems is the same, the free market. A great deal of forest fire fuel happens to be a valuable resource, wood. Why not let logging companies go into the forests and get rid of a great deal of the fuel that is currently lying around and waiting for a mere spark? We can harness this valuable commodity for the benefit of all instead of letting it go up in smoke, taking much of our valuable property with it. Unfortuneatly the state has been doing quite the opposite, they’ve actually been reducing the amount of logging:

The fire problem is exacerbated by decreasing federal timber harvests since the late
1980s.1 In the absence of fire, and with reduced timber harvests and thinning, numerous smalldiameter trees have proliferated. Stressed trees compete for scarce water, sunlight, and growing
space. In this weakened state, trees are not only at greater risk of catastrophic wildfire, but are
also more susceptible to disease and insect infestation (Fretwell 1999).

We can see the Achille’s heel of central planning, when a central planner makes a bad decision everybody suffers. Combine the central planner that issued the decree against forest fires with the central planner that issued the decree against logging and we get a cascade of unintended consequences. Increases in wood prices, water shortages, and more property damage from hotter burning fires are all thanks to a handful of politicians in Washington DC dictating decrees that everybody in the United States is forced to obey. At least if these decisions were made only on a state level the chances of containing major damage to said states would be possible. In fact the need for clearing out forest fire fuel was well know:

The Forest Service was created in 1905 to manage the nationís forest reserves, and soon thereafter the agency adopted a nation-wide policy of fire suppression. Fire historian Stephen Pyne notes that in the early years, the Forest Service needed to prove its qualifications. Many foresters at the time recognized the value of “light burning” to clear out understory vegetation, but the Forest Service wanted to set itself apart from this common practice of rural farmers and Native Americans. “The Forest Service had insisted that it should manage the forest reserves precisely because it offered something different from frontier practices” (Pyne 1982, 106).

Native Americans and frontiersmen periodically practiced “light burning” to clear out current underbrush and reduce the severity of any forest fires that may breakout. Then some idiots in Washington decided they knew better than the people living in forested areas and decided to arrogantly force their central plan on the entire country, which lead us to the problems we face today.

Progressive environmentalists continue to demand state intervention in environmental matters and it only results in more environmental damage. You would think that they would have learned their lesson by now.

2 thoughts on “The Cause of Increasing Severity of Forest Fires”

  1. I see you are making that same mistake I always do, trying to use empirical data to undermine the statists. Remember argumemts based on emotion are the only kimd they understand, I mean they still believe in global warming despite zero evidence that stands up to science.

    Also here in South Georgia they used to do controlled burns to keep the fire risk down, then about 10 years ago a beurocrat thought it was damaging to endangered species. Well about 5 years ago the swamps caught fire, yes something that is mostly water can burn when you have enough fuel build up, so don’t tell me that fires are only caused by hot dry weather.

    1. Also here in South Georgia they used to do controlled burns to keep the fire risk down, then about 10 years ago a beurocrat thought it was damaging to endangered species.

      What’s kind of sad (although predictable) is that the Forest Service, for a short while, actually stopped their campaign of total fire suppression:

      It wasnít until 1970 that the Forest Service publicly acknowledged the ecological importance of fire, allowing some fires to burn under accepted weather conditions. In 1978, the Forest Service officially abandoned its policy that required all fires to be extinguished as quickly as possible. The Forest Fires Emergency Act was repealed the same year (Pyne 1982; 259, 290-291).

      Then an event occurred that stoked peoples’ emotions and a knee jerk reaction was made to return to the old model:

      But the late 1980s produced several extreme fire years. Annual Forest Service suppression costs from 1987 to 1990 averaged more than $300 million (OíToole 2006, 219). The 1.5 million acre Yellowstone fires of 1988 attracted nation-wide interest and concerns about fire management policy. Congress, the media, and the public questioned the wildland fire use6 policy that allowed fire to ìdestroyî Americaís first national park.

      Logic, as you just said, has no place in the realm of politics.

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