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Lessons Learned from Wildfire: A Compilation Resource 

A Communications Guide for Forest and Climate Activists

This information is a compilation from PNW Forest and Climate Alliance. 

Key Messages:

  • Todays large wildfires are primarily driven by climate change.
    • Climate change is supercharging fires by creating hotter and drier conditions, which means longer fire seasons and more acres burning in dry frequent-fire forests. 
    • Climate-driven fires are more extreme fire-events that are less easy to predict and more dangerous for firefighters to put out.
    • Since large wildfires are primarily driven by climate and weather conditions such as drought, heat, and high winds, we can expect more of them as the planet continues to overheat. 
    • You can’t address climate-driven fires with chainsaws and bulldozers. Forest vegetation is NOT the primary factor driving these large wildfires.
    • Humans must focus on root causes – climate change – while learning to safely adapt to a future with wildfire on the landscape.
  • To address the climate crisis and mitigate fire risk for our communities, we must protect our forests.
    • In addition to ending fossil fuel use, our native and older forests are our best tools for fighting climate change.
    • Forests of the Pacific Northwest are globally significant for their ability to sequester carbon and keep it safely stored for centuries, but only if protected from industrial logging (e.g. clearcutting, aggressive thinning, post-fire logging).
    • Old forests can help buffer communities from extreme weather events like winter storms, and also hold moisture during summer droughts.
    • Older forests are more resilient to wildfires, and tend to burn less severely and completely than heavily managed lands.
  • Industrial clearcut-plantation logging makes fire more extreme.
    • Forests that have been degraded by decades of clearcut logging are more prone to uncharacteristically severe fire especially when combined with extreme fire weather from climate change.
      Young, densely packed re-planted plantation forests are highly flammable and, once ignited, tend to burn hotter, more uniformly and spread faster across the landscape.
    • Forests with the most environmental protections tend to burn at the lowest levels of fire severity. Industrial logging removes intact canopies, downed rotting wood and disturbs soils that help to hold moisture and protect forests against high severity burns. Industrial logging also leaves behind piles of flammable slash and brush that are easily ignitable and can quickly become large conflagrations.
  • Landscape level thinning/logging forests is not effective at protecting homes and communities from wildfire.
    • Thinning or “fuels reduction” projects are often proposed to reduce fire risks, but the best available science suggests that thinning forests far away from where people live is ineffective at preventing wildfire from entering our communities.
    • One reason logging is ineffective at mitigating fire danger is that it is impossible to predict exactly where a fire will burn. Landscapes logged, or “thinned,” for fire prevention on average only encounter wildfire about 1% of the time before the thinning treatment is no longer effective due to the return of new growth.
    • New young growth will return within a few years after thinning, so logging “treatments” would need to be followed with regular prescribed burning and repeat  treatments (every ten years or so) at an unprecedented and unaffordable scale in order to have any impact on wildfire behavior.  Increasing the scale and pace of logging will not change this result because it’s impossible to predict where a fire will burn and will only lead to more logging emissions contributing to future fires.
    • “Thinning” a forest to reduce fire risk often has included logging large fire-resistant trees, building more roads, disrupting the forest soil and uprooting wildlife habitat.  This weakens the forest against stressors such as extreme weather conditions like drought and floods.
    •  So-called “thinning,” or logging projects, can result in more carbon emissions than the wildfires they are meant to prevent. Even severe wildfires emit less carbon than commercial thinning projects of the same size
    • Even if a wildfire were to encounter a forest logged for fire prevention,  under extreme fire-weather conditions fires blow right through these logged areas.
    • Fuels reduction activities—pruning trees and removing flammable brush— should be focused where it is most effective: directly around homes and communities, and especially within 60-100ft of structures.
  • Post-fire logging damages forest rejuvenation and elevates future fire risks. 
    • Post-fire logging typically removes most of the remaining trees (live and dead) and involves intense road building and maintenance, the application of toxic herbicides.
    • Post-fire logging sets the forest back along its natural process of forest rejuvenation by degrading wildlife habitat, harming forested watersheds, and removing important habitat for insect and bird species that return soon after even the highest severity fires. 
    • Post-fire logging and associated road building degrades water quality by compacting, removing vital organic material and increasing sedimentation runoff in streams. This degrades water quality and harms habitat for aquatic species.
    • Post-fire salvage logging is usually followed by replanting of commercial species at densities higher than natural regeneration, which results in the creation of highly flammable “plantations” that are likely to re-burn at a higher intensity and mortality in the future.
    • Many communities across Oregon are already facing a water crisis; we cannot afford to further endanger our watersheds with post-fire logging.
  • The most effective pathway to co-existence with 21st century wildfire is to build community-centered resilience to wildfires and smoke.
  • The most effective place to invest in fire prevention and adaptation is directly around our communities. 
  • Money directed to logging and fire suppression is money directed away from community fire resiliency.
  • Community-centered fire resiliency includes funding jobs and resources to support:
    •  fire-proofing homes and structures
    •  building smoke shelters
    • helping low income & vulnerable communities install air filtration systems
    • development of robust community first-response systems 
    • robust on-the-ground mutual aid networks in the aftermath of fires
  • Adapting to a future of wildfire means learning to work with it
  • Just like we cannot stop hurricanes, we cannot stop wildfires. Wildfire is a natural and inevitable part of our bioregion. We can’t avoid it, but we can learn to thrive with fire.
  • We can learn from indigenous communities who have been working with fire for many generations. Ongoing indigenous-led cultural burning practices in combination with natural fire ignitions can help manage fire on the landscape and keep flames away from our homes and structures.
  • Ecological Fire Management seeks to steer, slow down, or redirect fire spread and focuses on returning fire to places where fire belongs.
  • Rather than aggressively fighting to put out fires, we should work to prevent uncharacteristically severe wildfire by using the tool of prescribed burning where and when it is ecologically appropriate, and halt clearcut logging practices on the landscape.