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Has the Forest Service Been Making Wildfires Worse?

The Bear fire was one of the largest of the over 8,000 wildfires that have beset California this year. Now incorporated into the still-burning North Complex Fire, the Bear started in the Plumas National Forest, sparked by a series of lightning strikes on August 17 across the northern Sierra Nevada. It burned slowly at first, taking three weeks to grow to 12,000 acres. Then, on September 9, it transformed, traveling with such ferocity that it engulfed 183,000 acres in less than 24 hours, moving as fast as three miles an hour. “This is unheard-of,” Chad Hanson, a wildfire ecologist who has spent two decades studying fire in California, told me. “Most fires move at one-fiftieth that speed.”


Weather and climate—drought, high winds, heat waves with triple-digit temperatures—have exacerbated the Western wildfires. But there’s also another factor that researchers and activists are calling for policymakers to recognize: commercial logging. On September 9, the Bear fire entered into an enormous tract of previously logged national forest and private commercial timberlands. This, coupled with the heat and the wind and the lack of rain, set the stage for its monstrous expansion. “Logging, it turns out, makes fires bigger, hotter, and move faster,” Hanson told me. “Almost all the major fires in forested ecosystems in California and Oregon are being intensified by logging.”


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