FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires

Photo Source U.S. Department of Agriculture | CC BY 2.0

With the shocking loss of thousands of homes and dozens of lives in the Camp and Woolsey fires in Northern and Southern California, people are looking for answers as they try to understand how a tragedy such as this can be prevented in the future.

As people struggled to evacuate, President Donald Trump in a tweet blamed the fires on poor forest management and repeated the claims before his visit to California. While Trump did not explicitly call for an expansion of logging in his latest response, he has previously touted this strategy as a way to curb fires. Meanwhile, the federal government is moving to allow commercial logging in areas such as the Los Padres National Forest outside Santa Barbara, claiming it will prevent fires. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has also blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for preventing the government from properly managing forests.

It is deeply troubling that Trump and his administration would support logging as a way to curb fires when studies have shown it’s ineffective. In the most comprehensive scientific analysis conducted on the issue of forest management and fire intensity — which looked at more than 1,500 fires on tens of millions of acres across the Western United States over three decades — we found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging actually tend to burn much more intensely, not less.

This may seem counterintuitive, but logging leaves behind combustible twigs and branches on the forest floor, which can make fires spread faster. It also reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, which creates hotter and drier conditions, and the invasive weeds that take over readily burn. Denser forests buffer and reduce the winds that drive wildland fires, but this effect is largely eliminated by logging.

The fact is that Northern California’s Butte County, which has been ravaged by the Camp Fire, had been heavily logged in previous years. In the area immediately to the east of Paradise, dead trees had been extensively logged and removed on both private and public lands, and commercial “thinning” operations had been conducted across large expanses of the nearby Plumas National Forest, supposedly to protect nearby towns from wildland fire.

But the Camp Fire burned through these heavily logged areas rapidly, leaving residents of Paradise and the surrounding towns with far too little time to evacuate.

Trump’s call for increased logging also creates a dangerous and false sense of security. When politicians and federal land managers claim the latest commercial logging project will protect residential areas from encroaching wildland fires, people may not see the need to fireproof their homes.

The way forward to protect communities from wildland fire is not through the stump fields that Trump would like to create on our national forests and other forestland. It is through a purposeful and concerted focus on the communities themselves. We must help the residents living near wildlands make their homes fire-safe.

This involves basic precautions such as fire-resistant roofing, ember-proof exterior vents to prevent the wind from blowing firebrands into attic spaces, and rain gutter guards to keep dry leaves and needles from accumulating. Residents should also maintain their “defensible space,” or areas within 100 feet of their homes, by pruning branches, small trees, shrubs and grasses at least once every year. This is the only type of “thinning” that will effectively protect homes.

In fact, when these steps are taken, and when homeowners are given the information and assistance they need, the great majority of homes survive even large wildland fires.

There is more that can be done, too. We must create and fund programs to ensure rapid and reliable warning as well as evacuation assistance for people and animals in particularly vulnerable areas. More should also be done to prevent unplanned human ignitions during extreme fire weather, with more rangers and law enforcement officers to stop illegal fireworks and campfires. Some power lines should be moved underground, while others should be shut down during extreme fire weather.

But none of this is possible if we continue operating with outdated and misinformed fire management policies focused on suppressing backcountry fires and increasing logging. We need a 21st-century approach that simultaneously protects residents while preserving these rich ecosystems.

As a society we have a choice to make here. We can listen to voices promoting the politics of fear and opportunism, or we can pay attention to the science and prioritize community safety. Lives and homes hang in the balance of that decision.

This column originally appeared on CNN Opinion.

More articles by:

Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project. He has a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of California at Davis, and focuses his field research on forest and fire ecology, particularly in California. He is coeditor and coauthor of the book: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.

February 21, 2019
Nick Pemberton
Israel, Venezuela and Nationalism In The Neoliberal Era
Chris Orlet
The Bill and Melinda Gates’ Fair Taxation Scaremongering Tour
Bruce E. Levine
“Heavy Drinking” and the NYT’s Offensive Obit on Herbert Fingarette
Lisi Krall
This Historical Moment Demands Transformation of Our Institutions. The Green New Deal Won’t Do That
Stephanie Savell
Mapping the American War on Terror: Now in 80 Countries
Daniel Warner
New York, New York: a Resounding Victory for New York Over Amazon
Russell Mokhiber
With Monsanto and Glyphosate on the Run AAAS Revokes Award to Scientists Whose Studies Led to Ban on Weedkiller in Sri Lanka and Other Countries
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Fake National Emergency Moves America Closer to an Autocracy
Alex Campbell
Tracing the Threads in Venezuela: Humanitarian Aid
Jonah Raskin
Mitchel Cohen Takes on Global and Local Goliaths: Profile of a Lifelong Multi-Movement Organizer
Binoy Kampmark
Size Matters: the Demise of the Airbus A380
Elliot Sperber
For Your Children (or: Dead Ahead)
February 20, 2019
Anthony DiMaggio
Withdrawal Pains and Syrian Civil War: An Analysis of U.S. Media Discourse
Charles Pierson
When Saudi Arabia Gets the Bomb
Doug Johnson Hatlem
“Electability” is Real (Unless Married with the Junk Science of Ideological Spectrum Analysis)
Kenneth Surin
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Another Boondoggle in Virginia
John Feffer
The Psychology of the Wall
Dean Baker
Modern Monetary Theory and Taxing the Rich
Russell Mokhiber
Citizens Arrested Calling Out Manchin on Rockwool
George Ochenski
Unconstitutional Power Grabs
Michael T. Klare
War With China? It’s Already Under Way
Thomas Knapp
The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall, It’s About the Separation of Powers
Manuel García, Jr.
Two Worlds
Daniel Warner
The Martin Ennals and Victorian Prize Winners Contrast with Australia’s Policies against Human Dignity
Norman Solomon
What the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign Means for Progressives
Dan Corjescu
2020 Vision: A Strategy of Courage
Matthew Johnson
Why Protest Trump When We Can Impeach Him?
William A. Cohn
Something New and Something Old: a Story Still Being Told
Bill Martin
The Fourth Hypothesis: the Present Juncture of the Trump Clarification and the Watershed Moment on the Washington Mall
February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail