Wildfire: A Triangular Analysis

Global warming is real and urgent, and is primarily caused by the burning of carbon-based fuels

James Montgomery -
Wildfire: A Triangular Analysis

The purpose of this article is to convince people of a scientific bent that global warming is not the primary cause of the increase in catastrophic wildfire in the West. It is a factor, but the biggest cause- and the easiest to fix- is the huge buildup of fuel in the forests and brush fields of the West.

We intend to show this by the use of scientific analysis and the introduction of evidence. This may be quixotic on our part, as many people who think they are scientifically-minded are not. A great many of them are actually true believers in what they are told in the news media by carefully-selected scientists and commentators. However, we hold out hope that some people’s minds are open enough to be swayed by the evidence.

The primary tool we will use in this analysis is the fire triangle, pictured above. This is a graphical tool used to represent the three contributory elements of fire; oxygen, heat and fuel.

It is fundamental to an understanding of basic fire science.

FB IMG 1603813315718 The first element is oxygen. Obviously, there is always plenty of air for any fire, anywhere on earth that anything grows. Firefighters take advantage of this leg of the triangle by smothering fires, but we certainly cannot prevent wildfire by removing the oxygen from the atmosphere. The scientific term for fire is “rapid oxidation.”  When the wind blows, it force-feeds oxygen to a fire. Everyone who lives anywhere that is even remotely threatened by wildfire knows that windy days are the days that fires can blow up. However, when it comes to stopping wildfire, all we can do is be especially careful on windy days. It does not appear that anyone will soon figure out how to catch the wind.

The second element is heat. This is where global warming is a factor. Since 1980, the earth’s average temperature has increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit. This is less alarming than the picture painted in the popular media, but is still significant. The North polar ice-cap is melting, and sea levels are rising.

Global warming is real and urgent, and is primarily caused by the burning of carbon-based fuels. As a planet, we need to solve this problem. However, one degree is not enough to account for the huge increase in mega-fires within only a few years.

It is worth noting that global warming is a worldwide problem, requiring a worldwide solution. Mega-fires are relatively localized phenomena, which are amenable to localized solutions.

The third leg of the fire triangle is fuel. Since 1980, fuel levels in the forests of the west have risen by hundreds of percentage points. Fuel density in forests is measured in tons per acre.  Coarse Woody Debris (CWD)is one element and a certain level of CWD is healthy for the plants and animals that live on and in the soil. Typically, foresters consider 10-30 tons/acre as optimum. At this level, fire is good for the forest, as it stays on the ground and converts CWD to more biologically usable types of carbon compounds.

When CWD levels exceed 50 tons/acre, it can become the major heat producer and carrier of the fire. At this point, fire climbs up into the trees and ignites them. This is called torching. When this happens, healthy trees go rapidly up in flames, ignite the trees around them, and send cinders and flaming debris floating downwind, igniting more trees.

It gets worse. Small ground fires burn at between 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not enough to kill the microbes and fungus networks in the soil. Mega-fires can sometimes burn at up to 400-500 degrees, which sterilizes the soil, killing all of the micro-organisms that help the forest regenerate.

Terribly destructive fire tornadoes, a product of plume dominated mega fires will more readily develop in area with heavy fuel loading and although they are a rare, they have been here before and will be here again.

Re-burning occurs when a forest burns, and large numbers of burnt trees are left standing. After a time, typically 5-10 years, these trees decay to the point where they break up and fall to the forest floor, greatly increasing the level of CWD.  This is why so many previously burned areas can burn again a few years later. These re-burns are typically hotter at ground level than the original fire, often sterilizing the soil. Re-burns can be prevented by salvage logging.

In recent years, fuel densities in many western forests have increased to hundreds of  tons/acre of CWD. [“Coarse Woody Debris: Managing Benefits and Fire Hazards in the Recovering Forests” –Brown, James K.; Reinhardt, Elizabeth D.; Kramer, Kylie A. – GTR-RMRS-105 ] This is why they are burning in historically unprecedented sizes and intensities. The primary cause of the increase in available fuels is the cessation of virtually all logging and related forestry practices on public lands. This fact is known to a great many fire scientists and foresters, but has been suppressed in the main-stream media.

A little history is in order, here. Following World War II, the baby boom led to a building boom, driving the price of lumber up. Loggers and timber companies responded by cutting more timber. By the mid-1970’s, or earlier, our forests- especially the redwoods- were being serious over-logged. Huge clear-cuts proliferated. At this time, the Sierra Club and others began using lawsuits to stop logging sales. Backed by huge contributions, they got quite good at it.

Eventually they got so good at it, they became able to prevent nearly all logging, including selective and salvage logging. For over 40 years, needles, branches and fallen trees have been building up on the forests floors. Now, they are burning in vast conflagrations.

It is ironic that the forests these powerful environmental lobbies originally sought to preserve are now burning at a faster rate than they would be logged, even if we were to revert to the old cut-and-run logging tactics of the past. These huge, extremely hot fires are actually more damaging to the earth than clear-cutting, sterilizing soils and destroying the microbes and fungi that contribute to regeneration of the forest.

There is irony, too, in the fact that the main-stream media refuse to air these facts and viewpoints, while they hammer home the facts of climate change. Mega-fires release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and hugely contribute to global warming. The Carr fire alone emitted as much carbon as all the electricity generation for California for a year. If you are concerned about climate change, you should re-read the last sentence. Click on the link. Huge wildfires are massive contributors of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere!

This should not be a partisan issue. Conservative houses burn just as readily as liberal houses. Democratic lungs are just as vulnerable to smoke damage as Republican lungs. Children’s lungs are the most vulnerable of all. This is a matter of concern to everyone who lives in fire-prone areas, which includes nearly all of California. A lot of people have been trying to bring to light the great build-up of fuels in the forest, but they have been essentially frozen out by the corporate-controlled main-stream media. As to why this should be so, we will not speculate herein. Our goal is simply to try to break the silence on this issue and introduce the idea to the public that we should be doing something about reducing the fuel load in the forests and brush fields we inhabit.

So, what is to be done?

The stranglehold of the powerful environmentalist lobby must be broken. This will not be easy, as their control of the minds and pocketbooks of the urban public is very strong. In theory, fuels reduction could be done without logging, but the cost far exceeds what Congress is likely to allot.

Fuel reduction on a large scale can realistically only be financed by harvesting some of the trees for sale, and using the equipment to remove excess CWD at the same time. Utilization of the fuel in many forms including biomass is essential.  In Europe, this has been a part of responsible forest stewardship for several centuries. Incidentally, this would reduce the price of housing, as well.

In brushlands, other techniques will be needed, including hand-clearing by homeowners, raking with bulldozers, and the use of browsing animals, such as goats. The City of Redding, by the way, has begun a program of using goats for brush control. Bravo, Redding!

In summary, we say that global warming is a very real and urgent problem. We must overcome our reliance on fossil fuels. (There are a lot of good reasons to do this, even without global warming). However, global temperature increases are only a relatively small contributor to catastrophic wildfires. The biggest cause is fuel build-up in the forests and brush fields of the West.

If we want to stop the terrible consequences of gigantic wildfires, we need to practice sound scientific management of our forests, by forestry professionals. The lawyers have done a terrible job of forest management.


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To read more on this topic see: California Knew the Carr Wildfire Could Happen. It Failed to Prevent it.