Rethinking wildfires at the start of a potentially devastating fire season

California experienced more wildfire last year than any previous year on record, but the severe drought currently strangling nearly three-quarters of the American West threatens to make the 2021 fire season even worse. And while many state and federal agencies are taking extraordinary measures to prevent the further loss of life and property — including prescribed burns, thinning and the deployment of the largest firefighting force in California’s history — some question the efficacy of these increasingly costly measures.

In Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate, published last month by the University Press of Kentucky, author Chad Hanson suggests that wildfire behavior is driven primarily by weather and climate. “Extreme weather — hot, dry, windy conditions — will drive wildland fires until the weather changes. Under such conditions, which are becoming more common due to climate change, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend to try to manage vegetation in remote areas, we cannot stop or curb fires,” he writes.

“Nor can fires be stopped by fire suppression tactics during extreme weather, regardless of how much money is spent or how many firefighters and water tankers are employed. In the era of climate change, we can no more stop weather-driven fires than we can stand on a ridge and fight the wind,” he adds.

Employing both personal anecdotes from his field work as director of the John Muir Project — a nonprofit “dedicated to the ecological management of our federal public forestlands” — and scores of peer-reviewed studies, Hanson champions forest protection “as a coequal part of solving the climate emergency, along with a shift away from fossil fuels.” And he does so, in part, by encouraging a deeper understanding of wildfire and its numerous ecosystem services. Too often preceded by hyperbolic and pejorative terms like “mega” and “catastrophic,” both intentionally and not, he writes, wildfire is in fact critical to forest health and biodiversity.

“These processes and cycles have been occurring for millennia, and entire groups of plant and animal species have evolved to depend on the habitat created by these processes,” he writes. “In contrast, there is no evolutionary history of logging in forest ecosystems.”

But the logging industry and those who stand to benefit from it – especially the United States Forest Service, which pockets most of the profit from its timber sales and “functions like a logging corporation,” Hanson argues – have long been preying on society’s pyrophobia, pedaling a host of now popular myths to garner support for additional logging on both public and private lands. For example, “thinning” is often promoted as a means of reducing the fuel load in supposedly “overgrown” forests, thereby decreasing both the likelihood and intensity of wildfire. And yet extensive research has proven otherwise.

“Thinned forests often burn more intensely in wildland fires,” he writes, “because thinning reduces the windbreak effect of denser forests, allowing winds to sweep through more rapidly, while also reducing the shade of the forest canopy and creating hotter and drier conditions.”

In fact, the deadliest wildfire in California history, the notorious Camp Fire of 2018, began on several thousand acres that had been heavily logged – thinned in some areas, clear cut in others — following a lightning fire in 2008. And yet, as then President Donald Trump stood in a smoldering neighborhood of Paradise, California, he blamed the fire not on the climate change or logging, but overgrown forests and poor forest management.

“You look at other countries, where they do it differently, and it’s a whole different story,” he said, apparently misremembering a previous conversation with the president of Finland. “They spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem, and when it is, it’s a very small problem.”

In short order, Trump was trending on Twitter yet again, especially in Finland, where users quickly lampooned his remarks, creating hashtags like #rakenews and #rakeamericagreatagain. But the president’s language was more than fodder for social media—it propagated a number of damaging wildfire myths that ultimately encourage more logging when the planet can least afford it.

“A kind of ecological hate speech has developed around the issue of wildland fire and forests,” Hanson writes, “and it is perpetuating the removal of massive amounts of carbon from forests worldwide under the banner of benign or benevolent-sounding terms, exacerbating climate change, and pushing at-risk wildlife species and ecosystems closer to the brink.”

And because wildfire consumes on average just one to four percent of tree biomass — a fact routinely neglected in wildfire discussions — thinning ultimately releases far more carbon, often 20 to 50 percent of any given stand. But perhaps the most spurious claim of all is the very cornerstone of these arguments.

“The reality is there is no such thing as an ‘overgrown’ forest,” Hanson writes. “If a particular stand is very dense, it is because that location is naturally capable of supporting such biomass.”

Hanson also champions the numerous benefits associated with so-called “snag forest habitat,” or the skeletal remains of a forest following high intensity fire, drought or beetle-kill. Thanks to laws drafted more than half a century ago, the Forest Service is legally permitted to keep 100-percent of the revenue generated from sales of dead or dying timber, Hanson explains. Thus snag forest habitat – one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, and increasingly rare due to fire suppression tactics – is often logged shortly after the fire has passed, before the timber is rendered unusable, rather than let it stand and provide its critical ecosystem services.

“We need to accept that ecologically healthy forests have an abundance of dead trees and downed logs. And we need to stop our futile battle against wildland fire and learn to live with it, reminding ourselves that fire-adapted forest ecosystems evolved with fire and depend on it,” Hanson writes. “Excluding fire from these ecosystems is like trying to keep rain out of a rainforest.”

Hanson builds the case for wildfire and snag forest habitat one case study at a time, while simultaneously exposing a logging industry that is now responsible for emitting roughly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, “or about the same as the overall effect of coal production.” In turn, he advocates for all federal agencies to divorce themselves from the logging business.

“If we fully protect federal public lands from logging, and expand protected public lands through acquisition, we will not only benefit biodiversity and make major strides toward climate change mitigation, we will also create and enhance jobs in communities that need the economic boost,” he wrote in an email. “The recreation economy is far bigger and more vibrant than logging.”

Despite a powerful lumber lobby and decades of wildfire “propaganda,” Hanson remains optimistic that the United States can change course and provide “proactive international leadership” on both climate change and forestry management. “Not because I think the Biden administration deserves optimism,” he wrote, noting that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is “a major ally of the logging and biomass industries,” but because “I sense that a growing and increasingly more diverse chorus of voices are willing to hold Democratic administrations politically accountable, just as we do when Republican Administrations undermine environmental values.”

But while Hanson ardently trumpets “proforestation,” or the protection of existing forests, and the “passive recovery” of those previously converted for agriculture and livestock grazing, he doesn’t claim they’re a silver bullet. He doesn’t believe trees alone will save the planet, not without an equal push to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But they can play a critical role, he writes, and in order to safeguard our forests and allow them to sequester the carbon we so desperately need them to, we must banish the wildfire myths that have so long fueled the logging industry.

“It’s simple: just stop. No more ‘the world is on fire’ or ‘the earth is burning’ tweets or sound bites, please. The fear-based language, the hyperbole, and the demonization of forest fires are contributing to horrible, destructive policies that are making things worse, and we can’t afford to make things worse,” he writes. “We simply don’t have the time.”