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Impact of forest thinning on wildfires creates divisions

by Mary Sewell

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Firefighters and numerous studies credit intensive forest thinning projects with helping save communities like those recently threatened near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada, but dissent from some environmental advocacy groups is roiling the scientific community.

States in the U.S. West and the federal government thin thousands of acres of dense timber each year and carve broad swaths through the forest near remote communities, all designed to slow the spread of massive wildfires.

The projects aim to return overgrown forests to the way they were more than a century ago when lower-intensity blazes cleared the underbrush regularly and before land managers began reflexively extinguishing every wildfire as soon as possible. Such so-called fuel reduction efforts also include using fire to fight the fire, with fires deliberately set in the cooler, wetter months to burn out dangerous fuels. Forest managers credit such burns with helping protect the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. The state of California eased some regulations to increase the use of that tactic.

While most scientific studies find such forest management is a valuable tool, environmental advocates say data from recent gigantic wildfires support their long-running assertion that efforts to slow wildfires have instead accelerated their spread.

The argument is fueling an already passionate debate.

It has led to a flurry of citations of dueling studies and fed competing claims that the science may be skewed by ideology.

The debate came to a head over this year’s giant Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon.

“Not only did tens of thousands of acres of recent thinning, fuel breaks, and other forest management fail to stop or slow the fire’s rapid spread, but … the fire often moved fastest through such areas,” Los Padres ForestWatch, a California-based nonprofit, said in an analysis, joined by the John Muir Project and Wild Heritage advocacy groups.

James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, called the groups’ conclusions “pretty misleading,” “irresponsible,” and “self-contradicting.” C” aims that modern fuel-reduction thinning makes the fire worse are not credible,” “Johnston said.

The debate focused on a project where the Klamath Tribes and The Nature Conservancy have spent a decade thinning smaller trees and using planned fires.

The U.S. Forest Service said the treatments slowed the fifire’spread and lessened its intensity, while critics said the blaze made its fastest northern run through the same area, spreading 5 miles (8 kilometers) in about 13 hours. Scientists say climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, accelerating the need for more large-scale forest treatments.

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