Bad Science Making California Fires Worse, Says Congressman

Congressman Ro Khanna says U.S. Forest Service policy to clear cut after a wildfire is making California’s forest fires spread faster and burn hotter. Khanna points to the work of nearly 300 scientists whose research backs him up. Because of that, the Santa Clara Democrat wants a complete overhaul of forest management policy.

“Because we don’t have the right science, it is costing us lives, and that is the urgency of getting this right,” said Khanna. In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, he writes: “Logging operations leave behind flammable debris commonly known as slash. Wildfires spread faster and burn more intensely in an area that has been clear cut for timber.” 

Khanna is basing his criticism on research by 290 scientists, who say their studies prove that clear cutting a forest after a fire sets the stage for a hotter, more damaging fire in the future.

Dr. Chad Hanson is one of those scientists, a forest and fire ecologist and founder of The John Muir Project. Hanson says decades of research show that logging is the worst thing to do after a forest burns. “It basically spreads these invasive grasses called cheat grass, for example, and other ones that form this really thick mat across the area after logging and that grass just spreads flames very rapidly and fires burn very intensely through that,” said Hanson.

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

For decades, that’s precisely what the U.S. Forest Service has done - partnering with private logging companies to clear away burned trees after a wildfire. Frank Aebly is a geoscientist and district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. He says that after a fire, dead trees begin to fall and create a serious hazard. “They'd start coming down - the smaller ones first - the larger ones later but eventually they most of them would be down on the ground. And that presents a fuel loading problem when brush and other understory vegetation starts to grow up around these large logs. The brush and the understory vegetation is very volatile.”

Dr. Frank Aebly
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.

Aebly says the Forest Service has a multi-stage process of thinning a forest, removing flammable material, and planting new seedlings. “Once all those treatments are completed the fire intensity is significantly less,” he said.

But Hanson vehemently disagrees with Aebly.

“It’s a dangerous falsehood. It’s actually the opposite of the truth,” said Hanson.

Hanson points to research which concludes that when dead trees fall, they become natural fire barriers. “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.

Hanson joined hundreds of other scientists, including professors from Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley – who have written Congress, urging lawmakers to scale back post-fire logging, citing research that shows removing dead trees can “increase the flammability of a forest.” Their field studies show removing dead trees can “increase the flammability” of a forest.

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.


Based on that research work, Rep. Khanna is spearheading a movement which he hopes will bring forest policy in line with the latest science.

“Our government too often has not paid attention to science, reason and technology,” he said, adding, “what’s at stake is the safety of Californians, what’s at stake is the safety of our forest and open space.”

Khanna plans to hold hearings on Capitol Hill focusing on this issue of how to use the latest science and technology to control wildfires, and says it’s time scientists – and new ideas - had a seat at the table.

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