Wildfires and Climate Lies: On the Myth of the “Tidy Forest”
Chad Hanson: We Need Our Old, Messy Woods
Here’s the bad news: you are being deceived every day, misled by people you should be able to trust—elected representatives, government agency officials, and even some scientists, environmentalists, and environmental writers and journalists. Many of them don’t even realize they are spreading falsehoods that threaten imperiled wildlife species and human communities and exacerbate the climate crisis. They are simply repeating notions and beliefs that have been stated over and over again, with seeming authority, in the public dialogue about large forest fires.
If you care about forests, biodiversity, and climate change, as I do, there is a significant chance that, despite your best intentions, you too have trafficked in some of these falsehoods. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I did it unknowingly for years, before I started asking critical questions and delving deeper into the evidence pertaining to forest ecosystems, wildland fires, and climate change.
The challenge of solving the climate crisis is monumental but conceptually simple: we need to rapidly move beyond fossil fuel consumption and simultaneously draw down the large, human-caused excesses of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, while helping the most vulnerable communities adapt to the climate change effects we cannot avoid. Many people in the environmental community are still laboring under the misapprehension of the late 1990s that we can effectively mitigate climate change simply by transitioning to a clean energy economy that does not rely on fossil fuels. But as the global scientific community and the United Nations have now realized, this is not nearly enough.
Due to human activities, such as fossil fuel consumption and logging, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases reached 415 parts per million in 2019, and they continue to climb, hitting 417 parts per million in June 2020, even as the global coronavirus pandemic caused a substantial reduction in fossil fuel consumption. These levels need to be well below 350 parts per million to avert the most severe human and ecological impacts of global climate change. The problem is that atmospheric CO2 has an extremely long “residence time.”
This means that even if the world stopped consuming all fossil fuels tomorrow, most of the excess greenhouse gases would still remain in the atmosphere by the late 21st century—long after the most catastrophic effects of climate change had occurred—if we do nothing else to avert the climate crisis. Even with a 93 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption over the next few decades, we would also need to dramatically decrease logging and increase forest carbon storage to overcome the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
This is why forest protection is essential. Many forests around the world are currently far below their carbon sequestration and storage capacity due to many decades or centuries of logging and the removal of carbon. We can change this if we protect existing forests, including carbon-rich forests and those that may contain lower levels of carbon but could store more, and if we facilitate the recovery of native forest ecosystems in a substantial portion of the world where vast areas of forests were cleared for livestock grazing or agriculture. If we take these steps, our forests will be able to absorb far more CO2 from the atmosphere, since trees and other plants “breathe in” CO2 and use it to grow and to add wood to their trunks and branches.
In combination with a swift move away from fossil fuels, these forest protection steps would allow us to limit temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change, including extreme heating and the direct impacts on human health, major flooding, exacerbation of drought cycles, rising sea levels and the displacement of hundreds of millions of people in coastal communities, and the contraction of numerous ecosystems. In fact, forest protection—both the protection of existing forests and the recovery of native forests that have been lost to land-use practices—could account for approximately half the necessary climate change mitigation globally, while the other half could be provided by a quick and purposeful move to clean energy that does not emit carbon. These two central aspects of the way forward are essential but quite different. Ending fossil fuel consumption is about preventing things from getting worse. Increasing forest protection is about making things better.
We need to start thinking of forest protection as a coequal part of solving the climate emergency, along with a shift away from fossil fuels. Just as we understand the need to use clean energy that does not pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, we must recognize the need to transition away from wood products and toward tree-free alternatives for building materials and paper, as hundreds of US climate scientists and ecologists have urged, and we must enact policies to encourage more recycling and reduced consumption of wood. This also means rethinking our food consumption patterns and eating far less meat, especially from grazing animals such as cattle and sheep, given the role of livestock grazing in deforestation and forest degradation in many parts of the world, including the rainforests of Brazil. And we need to recognize that preserving forest ecosystems and preventing the exploitation of wildlife can not only protect the climate and preserve biodiversity but also prevent “zoonotic spillover” of deadly viruses into human populations. In short, we need to adopt a 21st-century view of forests in this era of climate crisis.
However, demonizing forest fires and spreading sensational but spurious myths about them fundamentally undermine solutions to the climate crisis by keeping the focus on efforts to “stop” fires and “manage” forests ostensibly to prevent future fires. This not only fails to stop natural fires driven primarily by weather and climate but also diverts scarce resources away from creating fire-safe communities. Worse still, it results in even more logging of forests—an outcome that increases carbon emissions overall, exacerbating climate change. And ironically, logging often increases fire intensity, in addition to fragmenting habitat and threatening imperiled wildlife—all at a time when we need to increase forest protection to mitigate climate change and save endangered species, while directing resources toward adaptation measures such as creating fire-safe communities.
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. There is still time to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis if we act with urgency and purpose to rapidly transition beyond carbon fuel consumption, dramatically increase forest protection, and simultaneously enact adaptation measures to help the most vulnerable communities. For this three-tier path forward to work, we must be willing to question long-held myths and assumptions that are acting as impediments to meaningful progress. This is no small challenge, and the myths and misconceptions about forests, fires, and climate are deeply rooted, as we saw in three recent high-profile fire seasons.
During the summer and fall of 2018, in the hot, dry, windy conditions that have become more common due to climate change, numerous large wildfires began in California and spread quickly—several of them apparently from human-related causes near residential communities. Two of these fires, the Camp fire in the northern Sierra Nevada and the Woolsey fire in Southern California, were particularly devastating for people and received extensive media coverage. In the 153,000-acre Camp fire, more than 14,000 homes were destroyed and 85 lives were lost in the communities of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia. It was the largest loss of life in a single fire in California’s history.
In the 97,000-acre Woolsey fire, more than 1,600 buildings were destroyed, 3 people died, and nearly 300,000 were evacuated from their homes. The media coverage was nearly constant, given that the fire burned through the Santa Monica Mountains just west of Los Angeles, including the Malibu Beach area and the canyon communities above Malibu. Many of the rich and famous lost their homes, including Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, rock legend Neil Young, rapper Lil Pump, Kim Basinger, and Robin Thicke. Numerous other celebrities, including Guillermo del Toro, Kim Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner, and Rainn Wilson, had to evacuate as the flames approached.
Before the 2018 California fire season even reached its peak, politicians who were aligned with the logging industry were already posturing. They asserted that the human tragedies caused by these fires were the result of “overgrown” forests, too many dead trees, and environmental laws that restricted the logging industry and national land management agencies, such as the US Forest Service, from conducting logging activities, which they termed “thinning” and “fuel reduction.” They claimed that logging would have curbed or stopped the fires. Using this “catastrophic wildfire” political narrative, the Trump administration demonized the environmental community, calling for a large increase in logging levels in remote forests and the rollback of environmental laws, ostensibly to protect communities. Amidst the panic of the moment, three Democratic governors of liberal Pacific coast states joined the Trump administration’s call for additional logging.
However, as scientists and climate activists began to examine the facts of the 2018 California fires more closely, a very different picture began to emerge. Scientists noted, for example, that the Woolsey fire burned entirely in grassland, chaparral (native shrub habitat), and oak savannas. The closest forestland was many miles away, so how could “overgrown” forests and dead trees have driven the Woolsey fire?
The Camp fire occurred mostly in a forested area, but it was soon revealed that the several thousand acres that burned so rapidly in the first few hours—before the fire reached the communities of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia—had been heavily logged in preceding years. After a lightning fire occurred in the area in 2008, thousands of acres were subjected to logging and clear-cutting on both private timberlands and US public lands, and the great majority of the fire-killed trees, and many of the live ones, were removed. Additional areas were logged under the guise of “thinning.” In fact, several years before the Camp fire occurred, the US Forest Service had told the public that this logging would save communities from wildland fires. There were no lawsuits filed by environmental groups against these logging projects, and no court injunctions were issued to halt them.
These revelations about logging prior to the Camp fire were consistent with recent scientific studies that had found that such logging typically results in more intense wildfires when they do occur. It may seem counterintuitive that forest fires often burn hotter when more trees have been removed, but it makes sense once the reasons are understood. Even in the largest forest fires, most areas burn at relatively low intensities; most of the mature trees survive, and the fire consumes the majority of the easily burned material that primarily drives the flames, such as needles and twigs on the ground and the foliage of very small trees and shrubs. Even when a fire burns an area a second time, years later, only a small portion of the standing dead trees and downed logs are consumed. The logs on the ground soak up and retain large amounts of moisture, acting like giant sponges that interrupt the spread of fire across the forest floor. Lush understory vegetation naturally grows in high-intensity fire patches; this, along with regenerating trees, creates a quasi-wetland effect in such areas. As a result, even high-intensity fire areas that later reburn experience mostly low-intensity fire effects.
In sharp contrast, where postfire logging removes most of the snags and logs, it leaves behind a desiccated landscape prone to hot, dry conditions and the spread of highly combustible invasive grasses. This situation, in combination with the tree plantations established after postfire clear-cutting and the kindling-like “slash debris” left behind by loggers, tends to make fires burn more intensely, even though most of the woody material has been removed by postfire logging operations.
A similar situation often occurs where forests are logged under the guise of “thinning.” A typical thinning project kills and removes the majority of trees in a given stand, including many mature trees and even some old-growth trees. In addition to leaving behind combustible slash debris, this reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy, creating hotter and drier conditions on the forest floor and stimulating the growth of understory grasses, shrubs, and small trees that can readily carry flames. Further, in these thinned areas, the winds that drive wildland fires can move through the forest more rapidly, and the fires often burn more intensely because there are fewer trees to buffer and slow the winds.
The initial claims of pro-logging politicians did not stand up to scrutiny after the 2018 California fires. The Trump administration, for example, issued a press release that exaggerated the carbon emissions from these fires, while downplaying the emissions from fossil fuel consumption in the energy sector and simultaneously promoting logging. But the administration failed to mention that annual carbon emissions from the US energy sector are dozens of times higher than yearly emissions from wildfires, as are the carbon emissions from logging in US forests. The administration also neglected to mention that wildland fires distribute nutrients in forests and stimulate growth—a process that begins just days after the flames have passed and accelerates over time, pulling increasingly large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Coal mines, in contrast, do nothing of the sort.
From a community safety standpoint, the initial claims about the 2018 California fires also fell flat, especially when it was revealed that the great majority of the homes destroyed were already on fire before the flames even reached their neighborhoods. How is this possible? Most homes that do not survive wildfires are ignited by flaming embers, or firebrands, driven by the wind a mile or two in advance of the flames. These embers land by the thousands, entering houses through unprotected exterior vents, such as in attics, and starting fires inside the dwellings. As discussed in detail later, there are simple cost-effective measures that can dramatically reduce the chances of a home burning in a wildfire. However, these solutions will remain largely unimplemented as long as our public dialogue is focused on the catastrophic wildfire political narrative and on management actions out in the wildlands.
Excerpted from Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate by Chad Hanson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, University of Kentucky Press. Copyright © 2021 by Chad Hanson.