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Night operations on the Caldor Fire in September, 2021. Acacia England/US Forest Service

The Logjam in Biden’s $50 Billion Dollar Wildfire Plan

The administration’s plan to thin forests ignores an important way that wildfires spread and set houses aflame.

By Jessica Applegate and Paul Koberstein (This article was first published in Undark Magazine)
Nov 23, 2023

ON MAUI, A SOLITARY BEACHFRONT home, unscorched by the wildfire that devastated the town of Lahaina in August, stands amid the ashes of dozens of incinerated homes. And in Northern California, a large, mostly unscathed forest mysteriously surrounds the devastated town of Paradise, lost five years ago to another wildfire.

These puzzling scenes illustrate a difficult truth about wildfires. Many structures in these towns were destroyed by firebrands — hot burning embers that can be carried by strong winds over many miles — not by flames from the original fires. Nearly 200 people perished in the Lahaina and Paradise fires combined. Several other communities in the American West have been lost this same way.

The scenes also point to an obvious way to protect people from wildfire. The Lahaina home was recently remodeled, which unintentionally hardened the structure — making it resilient to fire.

Wildfires are a yearly threat to anyone living near a forest, grassland, or chaparral, which includes about half of all U.S. addresses. President Joe Biden’s administration has introduced an ambitious 10-year, $50 billion plan it claims will protect those homes, to be funded partly with taxpayer dollars and other sources yet to be determined. The administration’s plan focuses on a massive increase in logging across the country in order to reduce fuels in bone-dry forests. Very little will likely be spent on making homes near forests more fire resilient. But the fires in Paradise and Maui show that the administration is on the wrong course.

Reducing fuels usually means thinning, or partially logging, a forest, and later setting it on fire in a controlled burn. This strategy may make a fire less likely to spread but won’t always protect the public from one, according to John Winn, a U.S. Forest Service press officer. “There are no absolute guarantees,” he told us in an email, “particularly under extreme weather and fuel conditions.”

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After thinning this California forest, loggers prepare to set fire to the left-over slash. U.S. Forest Service video image.

Disturbingly, the Forest Service is not informing the public about this concern. We reviewed several documents explaining the agency’s wildfire strategy to the public, which point to tree-cutting, usually followed by prescribed burns, as the way to reduce the risk that an ignition “could expose homes, communities, and infrastructure to wildfire.” The tone is uniformly upbeat and positive. There’s no mention of the harrowing firebrand threat and little to no information about how people can harden their homes — their only proven defense against them.

What’s more, the Forest Service often exaggerates the benefits of cutting down trees to prevent fire. For example, one of the agency’s informational videos gives sole credit to a forest treatment project, which included tree thinning and controlled burns, for slowing down the massive Caldor wildfire in 2021 and saving “businesses, homes, and lives” in the resort city of South Lake Tahoe, California. However, daily incident reports filed by fire supervisors on the front lines and media reports suggest something else was responsible for saving the town: The fast-moving fire’s progress stalled the very day the wind died down. The video does not disclose the full reason the fire slowed.

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Craig Clements

“If the wind was still blowing the way it was, I don’t think South Lake Tahoe would have escaped the damage,” Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San José State University, and a certified firefighter, told us in a Zoom interview. Clements added that the treatment project “obviously helped, but people are forgetting the situation in the atmosphere and the weather basically changed overnight. So you have two causes of why that fire stopped.”

Tellingly, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore repeated this false narrative when justifying the thinning program before Congress last year. At his request, Congress forked over $3.5 billion as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help fund it. Additional funds to make up the rest of the $50 billion could come from future appropriations and timber sale receipts.

Unsurprisingly, the Biden wildfire plan was warmly received in Congress, where members were eager to do something, anything, about wildfire. In June 2023, during a hearing on wildfires before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the air outside the capitol building was thick with smoke drifting south from hundreds of out-of-control wildfires in Canada. Senators from both sides of the aisle cited the debilitating smoke as evidence of the growing wildfire threat, and embraced the Biden plan as the way to address it. “The dollars fund projects critical for reducing wildfire risk and for defending America’s forests. They are going to protect lives and livelihoods,” said Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming.

THOUGH RELATIVELY RARE, LARGE-SCALE WIND-DRIVEN WILDFIRES like Caldor are responsible for destroying the vast majority of structures burned by wildfire, according to a 2023 pre-print study by James Schmidt, a retired Forest Service geographical information systems analyst. An insurance industry group also found that up to 90 percent of burnt structures are first ignited by firebrands or fires set by firebrands. Tree-cutting is ineffectual against these raging wildfires because the firebrands they generate can easily fly over thinned forests and spark new fires in the distance. For example, during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, strong winds lofted firebrands across an interstate freeway, the expansive river, and another two-lane highway — a distance of about 2 miles — before starting another fire in the state of Washington.

And, in a case study for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, researchers found that strong winds carried firebrands from the 2018 Camp Fire almost 4 miles before dropping them onto rooftops in Paradise. A high-pressure ridge extending all the way into Canada drove the Camp Fire on its fateful journey toward Paradise. In the High Sierras, wind speeds can far exceed the force of a Category 5 hurricane, such as the 209-mph gusts registered near the fire’s perimeter at Kirkwood Mountain in 2020.

Tree-cutting is ineffectual against these wind-driven wildfires because the firebrands they generate can easily fly over thinned forests and spark new fires in the distance.

While many researchers promote increased thinning as a way to address wildfires, a close examination of their research finds shortcomings with this approach when it comes to wind-driven fires. For example, fire ecologist Susan Prichard of the University of Washington and her colleagues conceded in a 2020 study that such fuel reduction treatments “can be overwhelmed in wind-driven wildfire events with extreme fire behavior.”

Some fire experts doubt cutting down trees could ever prevent wind-driven wildfires from causing destruction. “If we’re going to have these crazy, super fast-moving dry winds under very arid conditions, there is nothing we can do unless we’re willing to clear-cut all the forest,” Andrés Holz, a wildfire scientist at Portland State University, told us over Zoom.

Dominick Dellasala, chief ecologist with Wild Heritage, a conservation group affiliated with California’s Earth Island Institute, went even further. “You would have to pave the entire forest with asphalt,” he told us.

As Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, a California forest advocacy group, wrote in his book “Smokescreen,” “You can’t fight the wind with a chainsaw.”

The Caldor fire was fed by wind gusts that reached a speed of 41 mph as it raced up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. On Aug. 16, 2021, the second day after ignition, Caldor burned more than 47,000 acres, including most of the former gold rush town of Grizzly Flats. Over the next two weeks, the strong, steady wind at its back, Caldor burned almost 11,700 acres per day. Then suddenly, on Thursday, Sept. 2, the rate of growth declined 90 percent. That was the day the wind died, according to daily incident reports issued jointly by the Forest Service and the state of California. On the night of Sept. 3, firefighters “will take advantage of lighter winds and cooler temperatures to construct additional control lines.”

At its peak, the force fighting the blaze included 5,000 firefighters accompanied by a fleet of fire engines, helicopters, water tenders, and bulldozers. The moderating wind gave them the break they needed. All of this caught the attention of the news media, which had been tracking Caldor’s every move. A headline on Sept. 2 in USA Today blared, "Lighter winds aid crews fighting Caldor Fire raging near Lake Tahoe." And on Sept. 6, the New York Times observed that the shifting wind helped to slow the fire’s advance toward the city. “Giant funnels of smoke poured from forested hillsides. But despite the ominous scene, the authorities on Thursday morning said the wind was working in their favor, and that for now, they hoped to keep the blaze from reaching Lake Tahoe.” In the end, South Lake Tahoe was saved.

IF ALL GOES ACCORDING TO PLAN, the timber industry will enjoy a financial bonanza, but the climate will take a significant hit.

The areas targeted for thinning contain some of the most economically valuable, old-growth and mature trees, including in national parks, national forests, roadless areas, and wildernesses. It seems likely that old-growth forests will be logged, and at least one project removing old-growth trees has already begun. These forests, many of which have never been logged, provide important wildlife habitat and are a vital carbon sink. In California, the industry expects to see two to 10 times their current processing capacity being removed from forests, said Helena Murray, a program manager for the Forest Service’s Wood and Biomass Utilization Program, at a public meeting in March.

Tree-thinning projects significantly reduce the amount of carbon sequestered in forests, according to a 2018 review study, worsening climate change. “Any thinning in MOG [mature and old-growth forests] is completely unnecessary and will do more harm than good,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for Wild Heritage, a project of the Earth Island Institute, wrote to us in an email. “They will put more emissions into the atmosphere than the fires they hope to prevent.”

When we asked the Forest Service if an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, had been conducted on the agency’s overall wildfire strategy — which it ordinarily does before proceeding with any major project — press officer Wade Muehlhof wrote to us in an email that EIS are not done at the national level. Instead, he wrote, the Forest Service will analyze each project individually. But their analysis of a California tree-thinning project near several major wildfires in recent years provides no information about its climate or carbon impacts.

Nevertheless, the Forest Service is determined to proceed with its thinning program as its solution to what it calls a “wildfire crisis.” Though it has identified hundreds of communities at an even higher risk than Paradise, when we asked Winn how much funding from the Forest Service has been made available to help cover the costs of home hardening, he wrote “It is my understanding that grants and funding for home hardening is being handled by local municipalities and state governments.”

Kimiko Barrett, a Montana wildfire expert and member of Biden’s Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, pointed out in a webinar last year that there is no funding for mitigation measures at the home or parcel level, and insisted that such direct federal assistance to homeowners is urgently needed. “We have very, very flammable homes placed in very, very flammable locations,” she said.

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