Profit motive and private property—keys to preventing forest fire damage

Profit motive and private property—keys to preventing forest fire damage

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Wildfires are again burning in Western North America this summer, causing damage worth hundreds of millions of dollars, costing as much to fight, and reducing air quality across the continent. The arguments in this post from 2016 still hold.

A large forest fire—covering an area of about 160,000 hectares, according to the latest reports—has been ravaging the city of Fort McMurray, the center of Alberta’s oil sands industry, for more than a week. The fire has destroyed hundreds of homes and several businesses. But thanks to fire-fighting and transportation equipment and the fossil fuels that power them, no human lives have been lost, and the town’s 88,000 residents have been evacuated safely.

The media coverage of the inferno has been extensive, and many commentators, such as Canada’s Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, have assigned the blame for forest fires on climate change. Elizabeth May suggested that by giving up fossil fuels (including oil from oil sands) we will prevent wildfires. She follows the familiar environmentalist argument: fossil fuels release CO2 into the atmosphere, warming the climate, which leads to hotter and drier weather conducive to forest fires.

However, the human-caused climate change argument defies facts and logic and abandoning fossil fuels would do nothing to prevent forest fires—quite the contrary, without fossil fuels, we would be much less able to prevent and fight fires and the damage they cause.

The climate is always changing—regardless of human activity. CO2 emissions have increased significantly in the last 100 years due to industrialization, but the level of carbon in the atmosphere has gone up only from 300 parts per million to 400 ppm, and the global temperature has increased by less than one degree Celsius (and stayed flat in the last 15 years), despite the carbon emissions. Therefore, the idea that we can lower global temperature—and thus reduce the threat of forest fires—by stopping to use fossil fuels, is not supported by facts.

The climate is always changing—and forest fires tend to be more prevalent during hot and dry periods. For example, the Great Fire of 1910 in the northwestern United States and British Columbia followed a very hot and dry spring and summer (although there was very little fossil fuel use at the time) and burned more than 1.2 million hectares and killed 87 people in just two days.

The weather this year has been similar in Alberta, with less than average snowfall and an unseasonably hot and dry spring—helping the Fort McMurray fire burn. Wildfires are part of the natural lifecycle that allow untended forests to renew. In properly maintained forests, however, such renewal can be achieved through good forestry practices, which also help minimize fires and prevent the loss of human life and property—and are motivated by the profit motive and private property.

Consider the case of Finland. Over 70% of its area is covered by forests which are mostly privately owned. Individuals (such as farmers) hold 60%, and forestry companies and other organizations own about 15%. The government’s share is about 25%, mostly in sparsely populated northern Finland. The private ownership of forests has created a great incentive to manage them well for long-term profitability. Although the average size of a Finnish forest property is only 30,000 hectares, it is an important source of income for the owners, whether individuals or companies.

Private ownership and profit motive have encouraged the development of advanced forest management and harvesting practices (e.g., thinning, and clearing and utilization of debris) that help prevent fires. An advanced fire prevention system and forestry roads have also helped minimize damage from fires in Finland. The average area of forest burned annually in 2001-2009 was 643 hectares, compared to over 117,000 hectares in 2005-2014 in Alberta (adjusted for its larger forested area), where the government owns more than 50% of forests.

Forest management and harvesting practices as well as fire prevention practices developed by private owners seeking profits—enabled by profit-seeking fossil fuel companies and manufacturers of equipment for forestry, fire prevention and fire-fighting—have been adopted also by the Finnish government in managing the northern forests.

In Alberta, government forests are not well managed, according to experts. This is also true elsewhere in North America While it is too late to prevent the damage in Fort McMurray now, the solution to minimizing losses from fires in the future is to sell the government forests and let private owners manage them for long-term profitability—by protecting their own property and respecting the property rights of others (through good forestry management to reduce the fire hazard). Instead of owning forests, the government should focus on its proper role: holding citizens accountable for respecting the property and other individual rights of others.

Originally posted 8 May 2016.

Photo by Malachi Brooks on Unsplash

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4 Responses

  1. Indeed, over half a century ago some forestry companies on Vancouver Island set up an aerial forest fire fighting operation to protect their forest land and some they had logging rights to.

    Their biggest airplane was the Martin Mars, a seaplane surplussed by the US Navy.

    Entrepreneurial manager and pilot Dan McIvor purchased all remaining Mars and their large quantity of spare parts, had them modified to drop liquid on fires, and put them to use.

    His maxim was to hit fires early and hard, the 7200 USGal dump of the Mars does the latter, its response time was reasonable given its basing on Sproat Lake near Port Albernit BC. Big dumps of liquid damp down raging fires so they are less likely to spread embers. Big tankers can quickly spread fire-stopping liquid using salvoed drop doors, even a gaggle of small tankers takes too long.

    (Much of the forest land on Vancouver Island was privately owned, from a grant made to Canadian Pacific Railway for building the E&N railway from Victoria to Courtenay.
    Whereas most forest land on the mainland is owned by BC.)

    Unfortunately cheapness and politics have resulted in BC avoiding use of the Mars – while California uses them including in September 2020, and not using Coulson’s newer heavy tankers that operate in the US, Chile, SE Asia, and Australia.

    This 2021 season BC once again was not prepared for a bad season, did not have enough ground crews nor air tankers on contract – cannot borrow air tankers from most other jurisdictions as they are having a busy fire season, and is not engaging what is available.

  2. Precautions can be taken by individuals and communities to protect people and structures against fire:
    – creating fire breaks around communities
    – keeping ground near buildings clean and removing bushes (embers can ignite grass then fire spreads), but eco-activists try to prevent cleanliness by co-opting government force)
    – keeping roof gutters free of pine needles (one ember ignites them thus the roof if not metal)
    – water reservoir, pumps, and spray distribution system

    One family in the Okanagan saved their buildings by aggressively removing nearby trees and having water to pump, media reported recently.

    Nothing new, proven repeatedly, but people procrastinate, and some who drop out to the bush do not have the financial ability to live there safely.

  3. In the US, much forest land is privately owned. Here’s information on Weyerhauser land in the northwest US, emphaszing work after Mt. St. Helens exploded:
    As the mountain was building toward eruption Weyerhauser was harvesting, sometimes with helicopters airborne continually to evacuate people.

    One thing to note is terrain – much of BC is quite rugged, so harvesting is difficult – much is left alone, selective harvesting as often done by small land owners like farmers is probably not practical even using horses. Certainly labour intensive.

    In the western US a large proportion of forest land is government owned, notably federal, but state, county, and city sometimes take responsibility for fighting fires. (The city of Lake Elsinore California hired a Mars fire tanker one summer, to sit on its lake ready to fight fire. A thousand people were on the shore of the lake to watch arrival of the Mars to help them.)

    (Weyerhauser information on fires is at
    But not clear who fights fires on Weyerhauser land, reading its web pages it seems the company is monitor and first responder including with aerial monitoring and helicopters on standby, then additional government resources are brought in.
    Aggressively: “We always assume a spot fire will get bigger until it’s actually out,” …) That takes enough resources on standby to attack quickly and in quantity. (A typical problem in BC is lightning, which starts many fires at about the same time. Of course humans are also a major cause, willfully careless buttmouths especially – policing can help reduce that risk.

    1. Thank you for all this information on forest ownership and and forest fire prevention and fire fighting. The confirm my arguments that I based on the evidence from Finland.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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