Wildfire Hyperbole: Falsely Blaming Past Fire Suppression

Whenever wildfire is discussed, you can almost guarantee that someone will say something like the following:

These unnaturally, hot mega-fires are the result of past fire suppression which has allowed an unnatural accumulation of vegetation. Forests are out of whack. And environmentalists have made it worse by their litigation, preventing needed clearing and destroying the timber industry.

How does one explain the million acre grass fire in Texas during March of 2006 that killed 12 people? Clearly it was not the result of over-grown grass thickets.

The 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire in southern California (more than 300,000 acres) that occurred prior to the era of fire suppression occurred long before the era of fire suppression.


Map above showing the possible spread of the 1889 Santiago Canyon
Fire from Keeley and Zedler 2009.

The fire suppression story has been repeated so many times that it has taken on the power of myth. We are seeing this over the past week in newspaper stories about the fires burning throughout California.

Here are some of the quotes from recent articles in the Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of Years!
“… fire officials in several Western states said climate change wasn’t solely to blame for the size and cost of fires. Other factors must be considered, they said, such as hundreds of years of overly aggressive fire suppression, leading to over-crowded forests…”
– 9/17/14

Hundreds of years? Typically, the fire suppression myth has a start time of 1910, when a fire storm burned millions of acres in Idaho and Montana. Now we are to believe we’ve suffered under “hundreds of years” of fire suppression? We’re still trying to imagine how guys in the early 1900’s were able to so successfully stop forest fires in their Levi’s with shovels, rakes, and water buckets while we can’t do it with armies of trained professionals and massive amounts of military-like equipment.


“I could spend hours showing some daylight on what it has cost us taxpayers since the demise of the timber industry at the hands of enviro-litigants,” he said. “Now we have mega-fires as a partial consequence.”
– Jim Paxon, retired US Forest Service (currently special assistant to the Arizona Game and Fish Department)
– 9/17/14

Research by a number of objective institutions, including the General Accounting Office (GAO), has clearly shown environmental litigation has not played a significant role in stopping hazardous fuel reduction projects:

“In summary, as of July 18, 2001, the Forest Service had completed the necessary environmental analyses and had decided to implement 1,671 hazardous fuel reduction projects in fiscal year 2001. Of these projects, 20 (about 1 percent) had been appealed and none had been litigated. Appellants included environmental groups, recreation groups, private industry interests, and individuals.”

Regarding the role the timber industry has played in creating flammable forests, the data is clear. Research has shown that commercial logging sets back recovery of forests after wildfires by crushing naturally growing seedlings and by creating flammable tinder that invites future wildfires. More here.

Unscorched for Two Decades!
“The drought has been drying out an area that was lush and unscorched for two decades – a possible reason why the fire has been moving so rapidly, officials said. Flames are raging through parts of the Eldorado National Forest that haven’t seen a significant fire since the Cleveland Fire in 1992…”
On the King Fire, 9/19/14

Never mind that twenty years is within the natural fire return interval for the forest.

Blowing Embers
Then we get a interesting story about the tiny 375 acre Boles Fire in Weed, California (west of Mt. Shasta) that burned 150 buildings.

“Officials said the fire began just south of town in the early afternoon and was driven rapidly north by 40-mph gusts… Cal Fire officials said the strong winds frustrated efforts to contain the blaze, blowing embers beyond containment lines and sparking new hot spots.”
– 9/17/14

Why did all these buildings burn in town? According to the fire suppression myth, possibly because they were over-grown? With credit given to the Times, wind was the focus in the article. For the real story on why homes burn and how you can help protect yours, please see our Protecting Your Home page.


The Reality: Wildfires burn hot and become large because of dry vegetation, drought, and wind. Under severe fire conditions, wildfires leap over fuel breaks, burn through thinned forests, and destroy homes because nearly everything becomes fuel.

When we have suggested that there are many more important factors than fire suppression in how and why wildfires burn, such as damaging silviculural (tree farming) practices, over-grazing, post-fire logging, and expanding development in hazardous locations, drought, and severe fire weather, we have been met with an almost quasi- religious zealot response.

“You don’t believe in the impact of fire suppression?”

Below is are two Google images showing the area of the 2014 King Fire west of Lake Tahoe, California. Note the massive number of industrial clearcuts in the area later burned (red arrow shows direction of fire). As can be observed in the second image, the fire burned right through, around, or over these clearcuts.

King Fire before with arrow

King Fire after

Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
Clearly, past fire suppression has caused some forest types to miss one or more fire cycles. But correlation does not imply causation (i.e. large, intense wildfires are the result of past fire suppression impacts).

The size and behavior of today’s wildfires are determined by multiple variables, with drought and wind being the most important. Would the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite been as big if there had been no fire suppression in the past. Based on the data, most likely. Would it have had as many “severely burned” patches. We really don’t know. We do know, however, that the Rim Fire scar is now recovering remarkably with new conifer seedlings coming up nearly everywhere. In a recent survey of a large, severely burned patch (plots along a 1,600 meter transect), our colleagues found more than 300 conifer seedling per hectare. Hardly the devastation described by the logging industry and some in the US Forest Service.

We need to stop mindlessly blaming the past and realize the only way to cope with wildfire is to adapt to nature rather than trying to force nature to adapt to us. And we need to understand, post-fire environments are not “destroyed” environments, but rather one of the richest (and fragile), most biodiverse habitats on earth.

And we need to stop blaming the government and firefighters for doing what we ask, protecting us from wildfire.

For more about the fire suppression myth, please see our Fire webpages on the subject.

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