The Beginnings of the Fire Suppression Fallacy

– How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy –
(Part IV)

How did the observation that fire suppression has caused some forests to miss several natural fire cycles metastasize into a pernicious stereotype that has convinced huge numbers of people that Nature is sick, clogged with dead trees and unhealthy vegetation, and is ready to vaporize in the next wildfire?

As is the case with fear-mongering media outlets, catastrophizing even the most insignificant events to obtain attention, images and situations are cherry-picked by proponents of the fire suppression fallacy to communicate the most dire circumstance. The propaganda has been incredibly successful, convincing politicians to allocate billions of dollars to “fix” Nature with grinding machines, chainsaws, and herbicide.

As with most stories designed to panic, the truth becomes embellished and inconvenient facts are ignored or forgotten.

Photo: A selected scene to convey the most dire circumstance; was it cherry-picked or a fair representation? This image was shown at a recent conservation conference in San Diego County to support the notion that the forests in the region’s eastern mountains are sick, “dog-haired” thickets in need of immediate treatment. Looking carefully through the trees in the foreground, green trees can be seen. Also, notice how the tops of the trees in the foreground are not shown in the frame. Some, perhaps even most of these trees are not dead. In denser pockets like this it is common for trees to self-prune their lower and middle branches, especially during droughts, since those branches receive far less sunlight and on a per-needle basis, needles in the lower and middle canopy are significantly less photosynthetically productive. Look closely at the upper right. Green foliage can be seen atop one of the mature trees in the foreground that is ostensibly dead. If the image had been expanded slightly to include the tree tops, would green crowns appear on some or most of the trees? Regardless, drought has killed groups of trees in forests for millions of years. It is a natural event that a multitude of organisms take advantage of, from nest cavity birds, to insects, to fungi. Unfortunately, the actual location shown in the image was not identified, although the presence of what appear to be invasive weeds indicate this may have been a previously disturbed site.

Photos: More typical forest scenes in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. L) An image selected to represent the average forest composition. R) A mixed conifer/oak/chaparral community with an open meadow/ranch land in the background. Location: Laguna Mountains, Cleveland National Forest.

The origins of the fire suppression fallacy can be traced back to the late 1800’s when westward expansion brought more human beings, and hence sources of ignition, into a highly flammable environment. Vast piles of logging slash (limbs and other waste from timber operations), hot cinders from trains traveling deep into the back country, unattended fires utilized to clear land, outright carelessness (Pyne 1982), and most importantly drought and high winds, all played a role in adding more, larger fires to the landscape. Between 1865 and 1910 large wildfires from the Great Lakes region to California led federal and state governments to form cooperative firefighting agreements and pass regulations attempting to reduce the likelihood of human caused ignitions and fight fires when they started.

Many of these fires, such as the 1871 Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, which killed an estimated 1,500 people, were linked to piles of logging slash. Such slash-related forest fires continued into the early 1900’s, due to the deadly combination of loggers resisting change in their practices (McMahon and Karamanski 2002) and severe fire weather. As a reminder, these huge, high-intensity wildfires burned prior to the era of fire suppression (Table 1).

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Landmark Study Finds Pattern of “Falsification of the Scientific Record” in Government-Funded Wildfire Studies

– How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy –
(Part III)

An unprecedented study was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Fire, exposing a broad pattern of scientific misrepresentations and omissions that have caused a “falsification of the scientific record” in recent forest and wildfire studies funded or authored by the U.S. Forest Service with regard to dry forests of the western U.S. Forest Service related articles have presented a falsified narrative that historical forests had low tree densities and were dominated by low-severity fires, using this narrative to advocate for its current forest management and wildfire policies. 

However, the new study comprehensively documents that a vast body of scientific evidence in peer-reviewed studies that have directly refuted and discredited this narrative were either misrepresented or omitted by agency publications. The corrected scientific record, based on all of the evidence, shows that historical forests were highly variable in tree density, and included “open” forests as well as many dense forests. Further, historical wildfire severity was mixed and naturally included a substantial component of high-severity fire, which creates essential snag forest habitat for diverse native wildlife species, rivaling old-growth forests. 

These findings have profound implications for climate mitigation and community safety, as current forest policies that are driven by the distorted narrative result in forest management policies that reduce forest carbon and increase carbon emissions, while diverting scarce federal resources from proven community wildfire safety measures like home hardening, defensible space pruning, and evacuation assistance. 

“Forest policy must be informed by sound science but, unfortunately, the public has been receiving a biased and inaccurate presentation of the facts about forest density and wildfires from government agencies,” said Dr. William Baker. 

“The forest management policies being driven by this falsified scientific narrative are often making wildfires spread faster and more intensely toward communities, rather than helping communities become fire-safe,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, research ecologist with the John Muir Project. “We need thinning of small trees adjacent to homes, not backcountry management.”

“The falsified narrative from government studies is leading to inappropriate forest policies that promote removal of mature, fire-resistant trees in older forests, which causes increased carbon emissions and in the long-run contributes to more fires” said, Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist, Wild Heritage, a Project of Earth Island Institute.

Photo: This image of the Lick Creek area (Bitteroot National Forest, Montana) was falsely misrepresented by the US Forest Service in 1983 & 2000 reports as the natural condition of a ponderosa pine forest. Note the piles of logging slash in the background. The area had been logged and was actually representative of ecological damage.

Photo: This is what the natural ponderosa pine forest actually looked like in Lick Creek (1909) before the timber industry and the US Forest Service engaged in logging and habitat clearance operations.

Part I: The Fire Suppression Fallacy
Part II: Chainsaw Medicine is Not the Answer
Part IV: The Beginnings of the Fire Suppression Fallacy

For additional information on Part III of this series, please contact:
William Baker, Ph.D.,, 970-403-3862
Chad Hanson, Ph.D.,, 530-273-9290
Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D.,, 541-621-7223
Mark Williams, Ph.D.,

Chainsaw Medicine is Not the Answer

How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy
(Part II)

As the Cal Fire and the US Forest Service continue to promote the notion that Nature is sick and needs immediate “treatment” by logging and clearing habitat, George Wuerthner, renowned ecologist and author of dozens of books on the environment, has provided a needed voice of reason.

We spent a couple days with George talking about the fire suppression fallacy, how many in the scientific, environmental, and land management communities are exploiting Native American culture to promote habitat clearance projects, and the beauty of intact chaparral habitat. The contribution below is George’s analysis of the fire suppression fallacy concerning forests which is based on the premise that Nature can not survive without human interference.

Photos: 1) George Wuerthner in the chaparral with ceanothus (C. tomentosus) blooming in the background during one of the best times to explore Nature – in the rain. 2) Fresh growth on a chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) shading a wide variety of lichens on a weathered granodiorite boulders.

“Chainsaw Medicine” is Not the Answer
By George Wuerthner

Foresters and other proponents of logging assert that our forests are “unhealthy” and require active management to fix them.

However, it is a self-serving perspective. In reality, our forests ecosystems are exceptionally healthy. They are adjusting to the ongoing drought and higher temperatures that are stressing trees and causing mortality in some not adapted to current climatic conditions.

The ongoing drought across the West is the most severe in 1,200 years. Extreme drought drives all other mortality factors. Climate factors make some trees more vulnerable to insects or disease and contribute to large wildfires.

I can absolutely assert that if the climate were to suddenly turn cold and moist, we would see large wildfire ending.

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