The McKinney Fire and Logging: Did Demise of the Industry Fuel Worst Blaze of 2022?

Some residents blame the deadly McKinney Fire on the decline of commercial logging. Are they right?

PUBLISHED AUG 12, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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The McKinney Fire quickly became California's worst blaze of 2022.

The McKinney Fire quickly became California's worst blaze of 2022.   United States Department of Agriculture / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

The McKinney Fire, which ignited on July 29 and over the next 12 days burned more than 60,000 acres and 185 structures, is the first California wildfire of 2022 to claim fatalities. The four deaths inflicted by the blaze were one more than the entire count of wildfire deaths in 2021, and the most since the record-setting fire year of 2020 saw 33 lives confirmed lost.

Debris from the fire in Siskiyou County is believed to be responsible for a massive die-off of fish in the Klamath River, near the site of the blaze, as well.

What caused this latest disaster? While investigators had not issued any conclusions almost two weeks into the fire, an NBC Bay Area investigation reported that the flames started directly below a power line owned by the Portland, Ore., based utility company PacifiCorp. 

The power line was reported to experience trouble on the day that the McKinney Fire started, with 300 PacifiCorp customers in the area losing power for 20 hours starting the night before the fire. But while a faulty power line could have sparked the fire, why did the inferno so quickly explode into California’s largest of the year?

Did ‘Liberal’ Policies Cause the McKinney Fire?

In the county where the fire struck, residents quoted in a report by the Los Angeles Times have blamed “liberal” government policies, specifically the decline of the local logging industry which began to collapse there in the late 1980s, in part due to environmental restrictions. Like many counties in the far north of the state, Siskiyou’s politics are predominantly conservative. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump won the county by 16 percentage points

The factors behind the McKinney Fire’s rapid growth and destructive force are complex, according to experts quoted by the Times, and they include lightning storms which continued to set new fires several days after the initial blaze, helping to slow firefighters’ efforts to contain the inferno. In the two days after the fire started, 193 lightning strikes were recorded in Sisikyou County. The fact that firefighters were forced to divide their efforts, combatting two smaller nearby fires, may have also impeded their progress. 

The lack of logging, however, was one factor that did not accelerate the fire. Actually, logging makes fires worse, according to experts. The McKinney Fire started in terrain that had been extensively deforested by loggers. That caused smaller, less fire-resistant trees to grow in place of the larger trees cut down years ago. The thicker concentration of younger trees burned more easily than the older trees would have, had they still been present, according to the Times report.

The True Effect of Logging on Fires

Siskiyou residents are far from alone in their assertions that continued logging would help prevent wildfires. In 2013, the United States House of Representatives, then controlled by a Republican majority, passed a bill titled the “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act.” The bill was never taken up by the Senate and Pres. Barack Obama pledged to veto it, if it had ever reached his desk.

But according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Republican bill, were it to pass, “would substantially increase the amount of timber harvested on federal lands.” Republicans portrayed the bill as an anti-wildfire measure—their logic being, the fewer trees there are, the less trees will burn.

The McKinney Fire provides some evidence that the Republican claim is not true, but so does a research study by Australia’s University of Queensland, published in 2020 by the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution

"Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height," said University of Queensland Professor James Watson, an author of the study. "It can leave up to 450 tons of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground—by any measure, that's an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes. By allowing these practices to increase fire severity and flammability, we undermine the safety of some of our rural communities.” (One hectare is 10,000 square meters.)

The conservation group Oregon Wild researched the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned 257,314 acres in Tuolumne County, Calif., making it at the time the third-largest in California history. The Oregon research found that “protected forest areas with no history of logging burned least intensely.”

The group also found that “logging removes the mature, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees. The small trees planted in their place and the debris left behind by loggers act as kindling; in effect, the logged areas become combustible tree plantations.”

Forest Management Can Help Prevent Fires

Though unfettered logging has exactly the opposite effect on wildfires that its advocates claim, a well-planned program of forest management, on the other hand, plays a significant role in reducing the frequency and severity of fires, according to expert analysis such as a 2018 report by California’s Little Hoover Commission

The LHC found that “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overcrowding that leaves them susceptible to disease, insects and wildfire.” In particular, the commission recommended  the increased use of “prescribed fire,” sometimes called “controlled burns,” to help bring forests back to life and put the brakes on wildfires.

Prescribed fire refers to the practice of deliberately setting fires under strictly supervised conditions, to clear out dead and dry vegetation that is highly combustible and serves as fuel for wildfires. Controlled burning also helps rejuvenate forests by saturating the ground with nutrients from the ashes of burned vegetation, and opening areas to sunlight, promoting the growth of fresh, healthy new vegetation.

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for California to “do more in active forest management, vegetation management,” but not all experts are so sure such measures would help—because the accelerating effects of climate change may cripple attempts to control wildfires by managing the forests. Instead, they say, prevention efforts should center on making homes and other structures less vulnerable to fire.

“This is a climate change issue, and you can’t address it with chain saws and bulldozers or even drip torches,” fire ecologist Chad Hanson told the Los Angeles Times in 2021. “The only effective way to protect communities from wildland fire is to focus directly on homes.”

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