The Missing Factor in Western Wildfire Reporting

Felice Pace, Water Chair

 

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I’ve been studying how the media reports on wildfires since 1987. This report is about what I’ve learned.

In their public relations, the Fire Establishment seeks to manipulate public fear of fire to forestall questioning of fire suppression strategies and tactics. Reporters often assist them, sensationalizing wildfire, ignoring fire suppression ineffectiveness and parroting the Fire Establishment’s explanations of causes and solutions. 

When they speak to reporters, most wildfire managers and many fire “experts” emphasize “over 100 years” of wildfire suppression as the reason wildfires have become destructive and unpredictable. Some mention climate change as a factor. But the role of past forest management in how wildfires burn and how destructive they become is rarely mentioned, much less analyzed in detail.  

Denying the role forest management plays in wildfire destructiveness is dangerous for one simple reason: If we do not acknowledge the factors affecting wildfire destructiveness we are unlikely to do what is needed to ameliorate the destructiveness. Furthermore, when we deny the role of forest management in wildfire behavior, we ignore one of the few ways humans can influence how destructive wildfires become. We can not control wind and weather; we can change how western forests are managed in ways that moderate wildfire behavior. 

How logging impacts fire behavior

The dominant form of forest management on timber industry lands is clearcutting followed by dense tree plantations that are themselves clearcut after 30 to 80 years. On national forest lands, vast plantations of young trees result from “salvage” logging after wildfires. Salvage logging removes large green as well as dead trees and replaces them with vast uniform plantations of young trees.

Research confirms what firefighters and forest activists see on the ground: while any forest can burn hot under the right conditions, old forests tend to burn slow and cool while tree plantations burn fast and hot. That was the case during the 2018 Carr Fire that entered Redding and the 2019 Camp Fire that devastated Paradise. In both cases, nearby lands managed by Sierra Pacific Industries are a sea of clearcuts and young tree plantations. Some nearby national forest lands have been salvage logged and turned into tree plantations.  

During the Carr Fire 1900 acres of tree plantations incinerated totally. Yet media reports completely ignored the role of clearcut-plantation forestry in that fire’s destructiveness. After a Camp Fire helicopter tour with Sierra Pacific Industries executives, some reports even parroted the company’s claim that their forest management had “saved” certain residential areas. 

 

Northern California forests controlled by Green Diamond Industries are a sea of highly flammable clearcuts and plantations. 

 

The fires this time

The dominance of young tree plantations on private industrial and national forest land also played a role in the devastation resulting from this year’s wildfires. The Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, Oregon blew up in national forest tree plantations; the Creek and Bear Fires in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains raged through timber industry post-clearcut plantations. But most reporting on those fires ignored the role of nearby timber industry and national forest clearcuts and plantations. 

Fortunately, the environmental community, forest residents and at least some in the media have become more savvy about why some wildfires become so damaging and deadly. All confirm that weather and wind are key factors: under the right conditions wind driven flames can incinerate any forest, including old growth. But how forests are managed is often also a critical factor.


Pre-fire Google Earth Image of the Bear Fire, Plumas National Forest,  Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains

 

Prominent among those challenging the Fire Establishment’s misinformation and denial is author and scientist George Wuerthner. His article “Misinformation Raging Like Wildfire” in The Wildlife News is the best summary of the subject I’ve seen. Also doing yeoman’s work to educate the public, reporters and editors about wildfire is FUSEE’s Tim Inglesbee. Among numerous appearances, Tim was recently interviewed on Democracy Now!

In California, The Chaparral Institute has led the way in pointing out the connection between clearcut-plantation forestry and the risk that a wildfire will exhibit catastrophic effects that threaten or destroy nearby communities. Check out the Institute’s reports on the Creek Fire and the Bear Fire, and find their post “Five Reasons we are Taking Cal Fire to Court” on the Institute’s blog: https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/

 

The way forward

It is not surprising that Cal Fire, the Forest Service and others in the Fire Establishment refuse to inform the public about the connection between clearcut-plantation and salvage forestry and the devastation being experienced by nearby communities. If the word gets out, the public will demand reform and if that happens politicians will get on board. On the other hand, denial of fire-forest management connections means larger and larger budgets for the Fire Establishment. There is no incentive to bring forward information that might change to whom the money flows and for what purposes.

Denial of the forest management-fire risk connection is dangerous. If we as a society do not understand the factors that impact whether a wildfire will result in extreme fire behavior and catastrophic fire effects, we will be unlikely to effectively address those factors. 

There are many reasons western forests should be managed differently. As water chair for North Group, I document the water quality impacts that result from logging on landslide terrain, logging roads that are not adequately maintained and poorly managed grazing. Two other reasons to change forest management are climate change and the risk of catastrophic fire effects. It turns out that older forests are not only less prone to create catastrophic effects when they do burn, they also store more carbon for a longer period as compared to younger forests and tree plantations. A post-fire study from our own Klamath Mountains confirms that, under the same weather and wind conditions, tree plantations burn hotter and older forests burn cooler.

While the science is clear, the path to managing western industrial and public forests to restore old forest character and resilience is murky at best. But that topic must await another day and another North Group report.  

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