The (Complex) Truth About Fire, Forest Management, and Climate Change

Sure, forest management is part of the problem; but climate change is also to blame

Blake Hudson
Samuel T. Dell Professor of Law
University of Florida College of Law

Annual acreage of land burned by wildfire has increased dramatically in recent decades, as demonstrated in this graphic:

This year a record acreage of forest and other wildlands burned in California and Colorado, and the nation is on pace for another 10 million acres-plus burned in 2020. As with so much modern public discourse, an issue that should be viewed through the lens of sound scientific and observational understandings has become politicized. From the right are claims that the increase is due primarily to poor forest management, while mainstream media narratives and some policy-makers focus almost exclusively on climate change. The reality is, like most things, more complex (a useful infographic detailing that complexity can be found here). Both forest management and climate change are to blame, but it would be an oversimplification to give them equal weight in contributing to the problem: high fuel loads on the forest floor have been with us for decades, but only recently has the climate warmed at an accelerating rate.

The President himself, when asked about the increase in wildfires, stated, “I think this is more of a [forest] management situation.” Experts and environmentalists agree that better forest management can reduce fire risk. Scientific experts acknowledge that forest management approaches in California and elsewhere are to blame and are in need of change. Even environmentalists admit that “Smokey the Bear was wrong,” at least in part. Smokey did a lot of good: teaching how to engage responsibly with the wildland/fire interface by putting out campfires, not burning when it is too dry, keeping metal chains from dragging and sparking on roadways, and other important fire safety lessons. But the notion that society should “prevent” forest fires was taken too literally and too far. Fires are, of course, good for the environment and are important for forest health. Historically wildfires were a common occurrence and were not fought or put out immediately after, for example, a lightning strike. Decades of fire suppression policies have allowed a tremendous amount of fuel to build up on the forest floor.

I have seen it with my own eyes, having just purchased an 8 acre track backing up to the San Isabel National Forest in Colorado. Walking through the national forest for the first time I thought “this is the most unhealthy forest I have ever seen.” It was difficult to even hike through the forest, so much downed timber was on the forest floor—much of which had been there for decades (see images, below):

National Forest Behind Our Property in Colorado
National Forest Behind Our Property in Colorado

I grew up on 1,000 acres of forestland in Alabama, which had been harvested and controlled burned over the last 5 decades, mimicking the natural cycle of burning and fuel reduction followed by regrowth. In fact, even though intensively managed, the Alabama timberland more closely resembles the historic longleaf pine ecosystem that once covered the entire Southeastern U.S.—but which has been reduced by 96%—than do the many hardwood dominated southeastern landscapes that have arisen as fire suppression has allowed hardwoods to creep out of watersheds into the uplands. But it is not just fire suppression that explains why there is so much downed wood in the west, it is ecology too. The southeastern U.S.’s heat and humidity makes it basically a petri dish, and microbial and fungal growth hastens decay and consumes downed wood in a matter of years if not months. Out west, without these biological processes at play, a tree can fall and sit on the forest floor for more than a century. And because it is so much drier than the southeastern U.S., controlled burning is a much trickier management proposition in many western forests.

So it is definitely important to think about how to reduce fuel loads in western forests through better forest management. I have written about some ways to do that through better management approaches and even the facilitation of markets to provide economic incentives to clear forests of downed wood. But in a warming world, merely reducing fuel will not be enough. After all, referring to the chart above, there was a tremendous amount of fuel on the forest floor in the 1980’s and 1990’s when forest fires were less severe. Consider the average temperature increase in California over the last century, and note the acceleration since 2000:

In fact, five of California’s hottest years on record occurred in the last decade. As the planet warms, forests and the fuels within them dry out faster. More vegetation dies. Forests are more susceptible to catching fire in the first place, and when they do catch fire they burn hotter and longer. Winters are getting shorter, meaning precipitation patterns are altered. A 2016 study found that 70% of the acreage burned between 1970 and 2012 occurred in areas where winter snows disappeared earlier than normal. A warming climate also means insects, like beetles, have longer to feed during the year, killing more timber that is, in turn, more likely to burn. Scientists are concerned that the rate of temperature change will render tree species unable to adapt to a warming climate, and that many areas that were once forested will be unable to reforest after a burn. As a result, many parts of the Amazonian Rainforest—a historically significant carbon storage area (that is, a “carbon sink”)—could even turn into a savannah within decades. “Savannafication” also threatens the southeastern U.S. forest landscape. In short, as a recent NASA study found, fire seasons are becoming longer and severe fire seasons more frequent, due to a rise in the earth’s temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels and the entrapment of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

So we need to have an honest, non-politicized discussion about forest fires, one that recognizes that while we need to engage in better forest management, we must also curb harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere if we want to maintain, much less expand, the forest landscape to which we are accustomed. And yet, misinformation is making that difficult. Consider a recent headline; “Spread of fake news around US fires ‘strikingly similar’ to Australian summer, researchers say.” The article details how anonymous social media accounts make unfounded claims of arson perpetrated by environmentalists to prop up climate change “conspiracies.” And politicians, eager to find a talking point that matches their preexisting worldviews, spread such dangerous misinformation. Any time there is an acknowledgement by the scientific community about climate change’s role in affecting our world, there seems to be an immediate response of misinformation by those who refuse to accept scientific reality. We deserve better from our national and world leaders, who should listen to scientists rather than distill complex environmental problems down to oversimplified soundbites like “forest management is the primary problem.”

Aside from sunny day flooding in Miami and coastal land loss in Louisiana due to sea level rise—which even my most skeptical friends in those locations recognize are happening at alarming rates—western fires are the best tangible evidence we have that climate change is impacting humans in very real and direct ways today, and not just at some point in the future. And yet narratives are being promoted to cast doubt on the scientific conclusions regarding the primary drivers of forest fires.

I love forests very much—from Alabama to Colorado and beyond. But if people—and especially those who I know do love forests but remain skeptical—cannot stop treating science as political opinion and acknowledge the complex drivers of forest fire, including climate change, our landscapes will continue to look much bleaker, and much less forested for our children and grandchildren. Future generations will be unable to see the forest or the trees if we do not do better to protect these important resources.

– Blake Hudson

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