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.”
In 2015, when Hanson approached the service to warn that logging would lead exactly to the explosion of a fire like the Bear, the agency ignored him. The John Muir Project, a nonprofit Hanson co-founded in 1996, filed suit in federal court to stop the agency’s so-called “fuel-reduction” logging program in California’s national forests, but the judge in the case deferred to the Forest Service—and the program continued unabated.
The Forest Service has long been a friend to the timber and paper products industries, as I documented in my 2019 book about public land management in the American West: For decades it has parroted the dubious claims of industry-funded scientists that intensified logging is needed to reduce the severity of wildfires. Both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations in the last two decades—from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump—have bought into these claims.
Under Obama, the annual volume of trees felled in national forests was higher than in all the years during the George W. Bush administration but one. In the year Obama took office, 2009, the cut was about 1.9 billion board feet (a billion board feet is roughly equivalent, depending on the ecosystem and the growth rate of tre