Myth of catastrophic fires, revisited

Myrtle fire
Myrtle fire, South Dakota Black Hills, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

In 2010 we told you about a paper written by Chad Hanson, Director of the John Muir Project. His point of view was that large stand-replacement fires are a necessary part of the forest ecosystem.

Brooks Hays has a recent article at his Government from the Ground Up blog that explores that premise and says the land management agencies should embrace high-intensity fires. Here is an excerpt:

It looks like this ecological truth is not yet understood by the general public. But the Forest Service also seems to be gripped by an old-fashioned view of fire’s functions. “It’s still a good old boy network,” says [Richard] Hutton, [forest ecologist and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana], “full of rangers who honestly believe in their heart of hearts that their job is to keep trees green.” Their idea of a healthy forest is “no beetles, no fire,” he explains. “And they’ll thin and cut away trees to prevent fires or any other disruption that might prevent trees from being green.”

Making matters worse is the fact that the agency remains underfunded. And when the Forest Service is strapped for cash, Hutto points out, it’s the younger, better-educated, more ecologically-minded rangers that get the ax – and the trees follow.

“What’s missing,” says Hutto, “is ecology, in a word. There are too few ecologists in the forest service.”

Below we revisit the article we wrote in 2010.


The Director of the John Muir Project, Chad Hanson, has written a paper about wildfire and its relationship to biodiversity and climate change, titled The Myth of ‘Catastrophic’ Wildfire. Here are some of his findings, as reported by New West:

  • There is far less fire now in western U.S. forests than there was historically.
  • Current fires are burning mostly at low intensities, and fires are not getting more intense, contrary to many assumptions about the effects of climate change. Forested areas in which fire has been excluded for decades by fire suppression are also not burning more intensely.
  • Contrary to popular assumptions, high-intensity fire (commonly mislabeled as “catastrophic wildfire”) is a natural and necessary part of western U.S. forest ecosystems, and there is less high-intensity fire now than there was historically, due to fire suppression.
  • Patches of high-intensity fire (where most or all trees are killed) support among the highest levels of wildlife diversity of any forest type in the western U.S., and many wildlife species depend upon such habitat. Post-fire logging and ongoing fire suppression policies are threatening these species.
  • Conifer forests naturally regenerate vigorously after high-intensity fire.
  • Our forests are functioning as carbon sinks (net sequestration) where logging has been reduced or halted, and wildland fire helps maintain high productivity and carbon storage.
  • Even large, intense fires consume less than 3% of the biomass in live trees, and carbon emissions from forest fires is only tiny fraction of the amount resulting from fossil fuel consumption (even these emissions are balanced by carbon uptake from forest growth and regeneration).
  • “Thinning” operations for lumber or biofuels do not increase carbon storage but, rather, reduce it, and thinning designed to curb fires further threatens imperiled wildlife species that depend upon post-fire habitat.

In addition to being the Director of the John Muir Project, Mr. Hanson is also a researcher at the University of California at Davis and was elected as one of the directors of the Sierra Club in 2000.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Myth of catastrophic fires, revisited”

  1. I think Hansen is confusing intensity with severity. A fire can be very intense, but not kill all existing vegetation. Fire can also be very low intensity, but kill almost everything in its path (eg, smoldering peat and duff fires), thus having a high severity.

    I was taught by more knowledgeable people than I that certain burning conditions and regimes apply to different vegetation types, such as low intensity and low severity fires in longleaf pine-wiregrass forests every 3-10 years, and high intensity-high severity stand replacing events in subalpine forest systems every 150-400 years. So Hansen IS right that high intensity-high severity fires are needed in some areas, but to generalize vegetation and say that ALL vegetation needs this kind of fire is not correct.

    Hansen seems to have a mixture of good and bad information. Certainly not entirely bad, but research seems to be lacking a bit

  2. Sierra Club starts with an agenda and has a bias towards skewed data collection to back up their agenda. Time and time again what used to be a conservation society is now a radical left wing touch nothing in nature society.

  3. Most everything I have read is in stark contrast to Mr. Hansen’s study and remarks. I always thought low intensity fire prevented high intensity fire by keeping the fires out of the crowns and such. I was also under the impression that recent fire behavior could be categorized as high intensity. Having fought fire last year, I would hate to see the fire that Mr. Hansen categorizes as High Intensity. Maybe I am way off base here. I would love to hear some more experienced wildland people weigh in on this report.

    1. firefighter zero: I am not a firefighter and don’t believe in “wildlands,” but my PhD research at Oregon State University focused on the study of catastrophic wildfires and Indian burning patterns in western Oregon. Before resuming my academic career in my late 30s I owned and operated a reforestation business for 20 years that performed over 85,000 acres of forest restoration projects — including more than 18,000 acres of prescribed burns, none of which resulted in a single “slop-over” (not a single unplanned, unmapped acre was burned during that time).

      Hanson is way out of his element here, and is just cherry-picking his data and making stuff up. His agenda seems to be to make a living by stopping active forest and wildfire management via litigation and normative science promotions.

      Bob Zybach, PhD Environmental Sciences


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