FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wildfires and the Press: How to Interpret a News Account

shutterstock_146934515

The Washington Post recently published an article on wildfires (“Was 2015 a record year for wildfires? Dispute fans a debate over U.S. forests“) that is a mixed bag of information. There are some great quotes from Chad Hanson and a few others that counter the industrial forestry perspective that we can and need to log our way out of large fires. However, the idea that most historic fires were small and did not burn up and kill trees may not be accurate.

There are two things going on.

One is the climate today is different than it was much of the last century so comparisons may not be accurate, and there is the problem of conflating different tree species that have very different burning histories.

The perspective, in particular, that dry forests were dominated by low severity high frequency fires that did not kill trees is based on a climate that is different than prevailed for much of the last century which was cooler and wetter than today. When you compare the historic role of fire, even in the drier forests, with fires that were burning under similar major drought conditions back through the centuries, you find similar occurrence of mixed to high severity fires burning–even in the dry forest ecosystems. Also where species like ponderosa pine are at higher elevations mixing with other species as in the Colorado Front Range, you find ponderosa pine burning in mixed to high severity more than in lower, drier areas.

Thomas Swetnam is correct when he says that figures from the earlier part of the last century did include fires in the Eastern US that are no longer occurring or considered in the numbers. However, there are other indications that large fires were still common under certain climate conditions. And Swetnam certainly appreciates the role of climate in fires.

However, the total acreage figure also has a lack of precision in another way. It fails to make distinction of fire by ecosystem type. Most of the acreage burning across the West and in Alaska are in the higher, moister forests of lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, and other species–these forests have always burned in large mixed to high severity blazes. And since the natural fire rotation in these forests is so long, fuels naturally accumulate. So to use these acreages and these fires to terrorize the public to suggest “fuel build up” has occurred as an excuse to support a logging program is disingenuous. The Forest Service should acknowledge that most of the acreage burning are forests that have historically always burned at high severity.

One of the assumptions behind current Forest Service policy is that logging will reduce large fires. Yet the review articles that have looked at this issue have all concluded that under “severe” fire weather/climate, thinning/logging does not preclude large fires. So the starting assumption of most of the current FS work is not well supported by science. And of course, we have many examples of clearcut forests–areas with very limited fuels– that burn quite regularly when the weather conditions are right.

Even in the days long before there was “fire suppression” you had large blazes that often killed trees. Keep in mind the 1910 Burn that raced across 3-3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana occurred long before anyone could blame fire suppression. similar other large fires are recorded either in the geological record (sediment traces in geological studies, pollen and charcoal studies) as well as in other ways like looking at early government records of expeditions, General Land Office, etc.

Furthermore, these large blazes are not a disaster as pointed out. The forest has evolved with large fires over evolutionary time. Even in the pine forests, there were occasional large blazes, and the forest ecosystem rolls with the punches. Many species depend on these large fires.

One can’t know what was really said by someone in a news report–reporters do get quotes wrong–but I would agree with the Chris Topik, TNC representative, that more people are living in the forest and thus vulnerable to fire. But I disagree with his implied solution that we need more logging of the forest, rather it rests with the county governments to limit home building in these areas, and to reduce the flammability of homes not the forest. We simply cannot log our way to a fire-proof forest.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail