Save the air: Cut trees to reduce wildfire risk |

Save the air: Cut trees to reduce wildfire risk

Which poses the greatest danger to our air quality: a fleet of SUVs or a large forest? Most people would opt for the SUVs, and they would be right – but not if the forest in question is on fire.

Quite a few forests in California are on fire, of course. Indeed, catastrophic blazes all over the West are sending millions of pounds of dangerous particles and vast amounts of hydrocarbon and nitrogen gases into the air daily, and they’re doing it in quantities that dwarf what our SUVs can produce.

So why do many of the same activists who wage war on all things SUV try to block every effort to thin and clear the forests of the overgrown trees and brush that make such fires possible?

Each year, scientists, foresters, firefighters, citizens and politicians call for something to be done about the overgrowth choking our national forests – and each year, self-styled forest advocates use litigation and other delaying tactics to keep anything from being accomplished. And as they congratulate themselves, more greenhouse gases drift into the atmosphere, and more forests are destroyed.

This same cognitive dissonance can be found in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget. Its anti-pollution spending will hit nearly $8 billion in fiscal year 2003, while the federal money available for thinning forests and clearing brush – less than $2 billion – keeps dropping. And the public doesn’t seem to care.

They should. Wildfires release tremendous quantities of smoke pollution that contain vast amounts of fine particulate matter. “These smaller particles also contain a significant quantity of organic compounds known collectively as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which include a number of toxic and potentially carcinogenic substances,” UC Davis air-quality specialist Dr. Tom Cahill says. “Since the fine particles are readily inhaled and retained in the lungs, and may settle onto the surface of vegetation, increased concentrations of smoke represent a potential hazard to both human health and the environment.”

The soot and haze particles vented to the atmosphere make wildfire pollution deadly. These effects last well beyond when the flames and smoke have disappeared because these small particles do not readily settle in one place. Catastrophic fires release massive amounts of “fine” (sub-2.5 micron) and “medium” (2.5 to10 micron) particles. Every 1,000 acres that burns produces as many “fine” particles as all the cars in Southern California do in a day. It would take every vehicle in Los Angeles nearly two months to pump out as many smog particles as the 50,000-acre McNally Fire in the Sequoia National Forest emitted in a few days.

Worse, it turns out the smaller kinds of particles set loose by wildfires are particularly dangerous, especially to children and the elderly, according to an EPA report released earlier this year. The agency reviewed numerous death and hospital admissions studies conducted nationwide and found a significant correlation between small-particle inhalation and deaths. A Centers for Disease Control report on the huge fires that broke out in Florida in 1998 showed a 91 percent rise in asthma treatments and a 132 percent rise in hospital admissions for bronchitis at the time of the fires. The ones most affected were children and the elderly.

The EPA has also linked the “fine” particles released by forest fires to the epidemic of childhood asthma in the United States. Children breathe twice as much air per pound of body weight as adults, and they account for 40 percent of all asthma cases (even though they make up only 25 percent of the population). An EPA fact sheet includes a sobering list of the respiratory diseases these particles cause in the elderly. Who knows how much this costs, not only in dollars but in pain and suffering?

So far this year, more than 4 million acres have burned in western federal forests. This means more than 320,000 tons of particle pollution have been released into the atmosphere – or more than 10 years’ worth of driving by every car in California.

Air pollution is manmade, and we spend billions trying to reduce it. But since fires are “natural,” few think about the air pollution they cause. Yet catastrophic fires are manmade too, the fruit of years of improved firefighting, reduced harvesting, little brush clearing, no thinning – and endless litigation lodged by activists.

Those fighting for absolutely no commercial timber harvesting on public land may not realize it, but they are sentencing our forests to death and destruction by wildfire. And they’re subjecting the rest of us to significant health risks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can defend our forests from catastrophic fire. But not unless we actively manage our federal forests, and that means we must do some cutting. It’s the best way to preserve our trees – and our health.

Jeffrey Young is a senior writer at the California Forest Products Commission (, a founding editor of MacWorld magazine and, and the author of several books on business, science and technology.

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