Tony Schick and Jes Burns, OPB
For decades, Oregon’s timber industry has promoted the idea that private, logged lands are less prone to wildfires. The problem? Science doesn’t support that.
As thousands of Oregon homes burned to rubble last month, the state’s politicians joined the timber industry in blaming worsening wildfires on the lack of logging.
Echoing a longstanding belief in the state that public forests are the problem, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents eastern Oregon, equated the federal government’s management to that of “a slum lord.” And Democratic Gov. Kate Brown on “Face the Nation” accused Republicans in the state Legislature of blocking measures, proposed by a wildfire council, that would have increased logging on public lands.
In the decades since government restrictions reduced logging on federal lands, the timber industry has promoted the idea that private lands are less prone to wildfires, saying that forests thick with trees fuel bigger, more destructive blazes. An analysis by OPB and ProPublica shows last month’s fires burned as intensely on private forests with large-scale logging operations as they did, on average, on federal lands that cut fewer trees.
In fact, private lands that were clear-cut in the past five years, with thousands of trees removed at once, burned slightly hotter than federal lands, on average. On public lands, areas that were logged within the past five years burned with the same intensity as those that hadn’t been cut, according to the analysis.
“The belief people have is that somehow or another we can thin our way to low-intensity fire that will be easy to suppress, easy to contain, easy to control. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist who pioneered research on how homes catch fire.
The timber industry has sought to frame logging as the alternative to catastrophic wildfires through advertising, legislative lobbying and attempts to undermine research that has shown forests burn more severely under industrial management, according to documents obtained by OPB, The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica.