Wildfires on a Warming Planet: Debunking the Myths

If you read only one book about wildfire issues, I recommend that it be Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate (University Press of Kentucky, 2021) by Dr. Chad Hanson. This book exposes how misinformation about fire is leading to bad policies that harm forests and increase global warming. Smokescreen then points the way to genuine solutions.

Dr. Hanson is a scientist at the forefront of fire ecology research. He is also the director of a grassroots forest protection organization, so he understands the on-the-ground implications of fire science. In Smokescreen, he interweaves his own personal experiences with exploration of many exciting scientific discoveries, making for an informative, accessible, and engaging read.

The central message of Smokescreen is that timber industry, the US Forest Service, and their allies are using misinformation to push for more logging of national forests under the guise of fighting “catastrophic” wildfires. However, more and more science is revealing that our forests have evolved with big, intense fires. Indeed, many animals and plants benefit from the great habitat created by these fires. In contrast, logging done under fire-related pretexts is the real catastrophe, destroying forests and imperiling wildlife.

In addition to causing ecological damage, logging under fire-related pretexts also damages our climate, releasing stored forest carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, fire circulates forest nutrients, stimulating new growth and more carbon sequestration. Smokescreen shows how fully protecting national forests from logging is an integral part of an overall solution to the climate crisis. Just as climate justice activists who challenge public lands fossil fuel extraction declare that we must “keep it in ground,” likewise when faced with public lands logging, we need to make parallel calls to “keep it in the forest.”

While debunking wildfire myths is crucial for saving our forests and our climate, Smokescreen shows it is also needed to save our communities. Communities built next to fire-dependent ecosystems are being falsely told that more logging will keep them safe, but the reality is that logging can actually increase fire speed and intensity. In contrast, non-logging actions directly in and around homes– such as installing low-cost vent screens to keep out flammable embers—can be highly effective in protecting communities during intense wildfires.

Dr. Hanson also devotes a chapter of Smokescreen specifically to the role of fire in the eastern US. Here he explains why many eastern land managers “mistakenly believe that historical fire frequencies were much higher than they really were. This leads to forest mismanagement, including the imposition of prescribed burns at rates that far exceed natural historical fire frequencies…”

By exposing fire myths and then presenting real solutions, Smokescreen ultimately offers a positive pathway. As Dr. Hanson wryly notes, “Now for the good news: you are being deceived. If everything you were told almost daily about forests, wildfires, and climate were true, there would be little hope. The truth, however, is that hope lies just beyond the falsehoods.”