News Tip: Misguided Forest Management Fueling Western Wildfires, Expert Says

Wildfires force more than 10,000 evacuations of homes near Los Angeles 

As of July 25, more than 10,000 homes had been evacuated because of the fast-spreading Sand Fire north of Los Angeles. About 300 miles up the coast, crews are battling another fire near Big Sur.

Years of misguided forest management -- exacerbated by the effects of climate change, prolonged drought and urban sprawl -- have left much of the West vulnerable to devastating wildfires like these two now raging in California, says a widely cited Duke University fire ecologist.

• Quotes:  “Wildfires that burn hotter, spread faster and occur more frequently may be the unintended legacy of decades of misguided forest management practices. The plan to create ‘fire-proof’ forests by suppressing all wildfires and allowing logging and grazing on fire-prone public lands has backfired,” says Norman L. Christensen, professor emeritus and founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“Current wildfire management practices don’t give top priority to the most hazardous fuel source -- ground fuel such as dry grasses, pine needles and low shrubs. These fuels can create enough heat to scorch a tree up to a height of 150 feet. The practice of suppressing all wildfires has allowed this debris to build up to dangerous levels.”

“Indiscriminate logging aggravates the problem by thinning a fire-prone forest’s canopy and littering its floor with sawdust and other combustibles. Loss of canopy increases wind speed and air temperatures and decreases humidity in the forest. This allows ground fuel fires to spread faster and farther than they would normally.”

“The federal government must now reprioritize where its wildfire management dollars are spent. With drought, climate change and urban sprawl exacerbating the problem, we should focus our resources on wildfire management in the urban-forest interface, not in remote areas where fires pose no threat.”

• Bio:  A native Californian, Norman L. Christensen has studied fire ecology for more than 30 years. In 2003, he testified before Congress about the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. He is a fellow of the Ecological Society of America and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received the A. Starker Leopold Award from the National Park Service for his leadership in drafting new wildfire management policies for park lands following devastating fires at Yellowstone in 1988.

• For additional comment, contact Christensen