Federal Government to Blame for Faster, More Destructive Wildfires in California, Scientists Say

An NBC Bay Area investigation explores a fiery debate that’s impacting millions of lives and tax dollars

Nearly 300 scientists from across the country and abroad believe actions taken by the U.S. Forest Service are contributing to faster, more devastating wildfires throughout California.  

“We need to fundamentally change the way we think of fire in our forests,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist who is spearheading an effort to scale back a long-time process known as "post-fire logging." For decades, the Forest Service has partnered with private logging companies to clear away burned trees after a wildfire. The federal government argues once those dead trees fall over, they become piles of fuel for the next fire, which can burn so hot, nothing will grow.

“It’s a dangerous falsehood,” said Hanson, who has spent the past 16 years studying how forests regenerate after a wildfire. “It’s actually the opposite of the truth.”

Hanson is the founder of the John Muir Project, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based out of Big Bear, California. Hanson is among 290 scientists who have penned joint letters to Congress, urging lawmakers to scale back post-fire logging.

“These areas that are post-fire logged actually typically burn more intensely than areas that are not,” Hanson said. “What they're removing from the forest in these post-fire logging operations is almost entirely noncombustible material stuff that just doesn't burn.”

Scientists Argue Logged Areas Can Burn Up to Five Times Faster

Forests that are post-fire logged can burn up to five times faster than areas that have been left alone, according to Hanson. “They actually can impede and slow the fire,” he said.

The Forest Service, however, maintains the practice of removing burned trees after a wildfire is crucial to preserving habitat and safety for nearby communities. Failing to do so, the agency argues, can result in even more destructive wildfires in the future.

“The Forest Service has several research branches, and there's hundreds of scientists that feel that ... this is the right thing,” said Dr. Frank Aebly, District Ranger for the Mendocino National Forest. “What [critics] fail to consider is these treatments after the logging operation. We don’t just go in there and log and then walk away.”

Dr. Frank Aebly, a District Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, believes a combination of controlled burns, tree planting, and post-fire logging reduces the amount of destruction caused by future wildfires. He also credits his agency's work for helping burned forests regenerate at a faster pace.

The Forest Service lights controlled burns to clear away flammable brush and plants new trees after removing those that were burned. While Aebly acknowledges post-fire logging may not be the best solution in every situation, he said it remains an important practice. 

“There are areas – the right time, the right place – where we need to be able to use that tool,” he said.

Leaving piles of burned bark in the forest, he said, can fuel wildfires so hot that trees can no longer grow in the charred soil.

“It’ll take several hundred years for the trees to start to pop up underneath from under the brush and turn into a forest again – if that ever happens,” he said. 

What's Fueling Faster Wildfires?

The federal government believes cutting down and clearing away burned trees, a practice known as post-fire logging, can safeguard areas from larger wildfires in the future. Leading scientists, however, argue the process can result in faster-moving flames and more destructive disasters. Click below to hear the opposing views on post-fire logging.


Deadliest and Most Destructive Wildfire

The fiery debate on how often post-fire logging should be utilized has huge implications for the lives and property of people who live near national forests.  The Camp Fire, which ignited on Nov. 8, 2018, remains the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history: 86 people lost their lives and more than 18,000 buildings were destroyed. The speed of the fire made it impossible for many people to evacuate.

Alicia Rice, 34, barely escaped the flames when fleeing the town of Paradise. 

“Everything behind and everything to the sides of me was on fire," said Rice, who remembers phoning her daughter at school while trying to escape. “That was probably the most traumatic moment for me during the whole ordeal, talking to my daughter and not knowing if it would be the last moment that we did.”

‘Explosions Every Few Seconds’

Rice, who uses the name "Jackie Rabbit" in her line of work as a tattoo artist, recalls ominous clouds of smoke filling the entire community as homes and vehicles were set ablaze.

“There was explosions every few seconds,” she said.

The fire closed in on her car as traffic came to a standstill. Realizing she could soon be trapped by the flames, Rice ditched her vehicle and ran for her life.  She later learned her car, which had a full tank of gas, exploded. The company that towed her vehicle later told Rice drivers found alongside her vehicle died in their cars.

“There wasn't enough time for everyone to be notified,” said Rice. “Minutes were life and death.”

At one point, the fire in Paradise grew about the size of a football field every second.  

Hanson believes post-fire logging in the area, following the Butte wildfire about a decade ago, allowed highly flammable grass to grow, leaving the community even more vulnerable. 

“[Post-fire logging] speeds up fires,” said Hanson. “People had two or three hours less time to evacuate than they otherwise would have.”

Hanson remains convinced similar actions, spearheaded by the Forest Service, continue to leave California more susceptible to future disasters. He and a contingency of scientists, including professors from Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, argue removing dead trees can “increase the flammability” of a forest.

Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest and fire ecologist, has spent the past 16 years studying how forests regenerate after wildfires.

Selling Burned Trees is Big Business

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit joined Hanson at the Stanislaus National Forest, just outside Yosemite. The Rim Fire scorched the area nearly six years ago. Today, however, the burned trees are a favorite to insects and birds, including woodpeckers that drill into the bark to find food. Nearby, new trees are sprouting, too. Hanson also says allowing dead trees to fall down and rot creates a sort of natural fire barrier.

“They soak up and retain huge amounts of soil moisture, so they're actually much more like giant sponges than they are like fuel,” he said.

Selling off burned lumber is big business for the federal government, which partners with private logging companies to remove dead trees. Even though the bark is burned, there’s often plenty of usable wood inside the trunks. As a result, lumber companies are quick to arrive when the smoke clears. The Forest Service earned nearly $200 million through lumber sales just over the past five years, according to figures provided by the agency.

“That's a strong, what we call, 'perverse financial incentive' to prioritize logging,” said Hanson.  

The Forest Service doesn’t see it that way.  

“I don’t see a conflict of interest," said Aebly, a geoscientist and veteran ranger. While he acknowledges the Forest Service generates money from the sale of burned trees, he says the revenue is utilized to protect and maintain the nation’s forests, including those stricken by wildfires.

“Fire will weaken a tree in a number of ways,” said Aebly. “It could burn out a cavity at the base. It could burn the roots up so that they're not structurally sound anymore and sometimes all it takes is a slight breeze and that fire-injured tree can come down very easily.  

While some scientists disagree with the tactics, Aebly says the country’s forests have benefited greatly from his agency’s practices.

“They're not done in a vacuum,” he said. “They're done with collaboration. They're done with thought.” 

He adds, “Science is always going to have conflict and different interests and different interpretations of results.”

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She Lost Her Home and Nearly Her Life

Regardless of what may be to blame for fueling wildfires, there is no mistaking the end result in Paradise.  

Rice lost her home and nearly her life. She and her daughter survived, but worry if they’ll have enough time to outrun the next fire.

“If there's even a possibility that there might be a better way, absolutely we need to give that a chance,” she said. “What we've been doing obviously doesn't work.”  


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