My Turn: Trump doesn’t understand the Western forest fires

  • The Bobcat Fire burns in the distance beyond a Joshua tree Saturday, Sept. 19, in Juniper Hills, California. AP

  • A San Bernardino County firefighter keeps an eye on a flareup from the Bobcat Fire on Sept. 19 in Valyermo, California. AP

  • Jesse Vasquez of the San Bernardino County Fire Department hoses down hot spots from the Bobcat Fire on Sept. 19 in Valyermo, California. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/27/2020 7:00:06 AM

I told myself not to respond. Plenty of others have made it clear how inane so many of Donald Trump’s statements are that there’s no need for me to add to the chorus.

But the latest comments about the forest fires in the West are so ridiculous that I can no longer stay away from the keyboard. They include a comment that said we need to rake the forest floor of leaves and another, quoted in the Monitor: “Calling in to Fox News on Tuesday, Trump said, ‘You look at countries, Austria, you look at so many countries. They live in the forest, they’re considered forest cities. So many of them. And they don’t have fires like this. And they have more explosive trees.’ ”

It’s hard to know where to begin. First, let me say that I know a bit more about forests than Donald Trump. Having studied forest ecology in graduate school, worked for a forest conservation organization for nearly three decades, owning a certified tree farm, having many colleagues who live and work in the Western forests, and having traveled there for work and pleasure many times, has given me more than a passing understanding of our nation’s forests.

Yes, there is a problem in the West with more than a century of past fire suppression. In parts of the West, notably California and part of the Rockies and east of the Cascades, the forests developed over thousands of years adapted to a wet and dry cycle in the climate that led to periodic, but less than catastrophic, fire. These forests were fire adapted, and the low vegetation that burned regrew quickly and the trees that survived were fire resistant. Thousand-year-old redwoods in coastal California show the evidence of numerous non-catastrophic fires. The seeds of the lodgepole pine in Yellowstone will not germinate unless exposed to the heat of fire.

And yes, part of the reason the fires in the West are now so severe and widespread is that the “fuel load” of dry, dead vegetation is now higher than it would have been in the pre-settlement landscape. This is due in part (but just in part) to a history of fire suppression by land managers, federal, state and private before we had the knowledge that small, low-level fires were essential to the health of those forests.

This increase in “fuel load,” comprised of dead vegetation and live but highly flammable shrubs and grasses has been accumulating for decades and decades. This is nothing new, and today’s forest managers know that to prevent catastrophic crown fires from developing we need to remove it in many dry climate forest types. But this situation hasn’t resulted in the kind of annual, massive, million-acre fires we are seeing until the past few years.

So what has changed that has now caused these fires to be so more frequent and large? Climate has.

In recent decades, warmer, drier summers and warmer, less-snowy winters have resulted in millions of acres of trees killed by bark beetles. The forest floor in other forests has seen less winter snow cover, earlier and drier springs leading to extreme fire danger in places where such conditions were once rare or much less common.

And, by the way, trees just don’t explode on their own. The fact that some trees, that have high concentrations of pitch and other flammable compounds that seem to “explode” under intense heat, is directly the result of fire. Without the extreme heat of a catastrophic scale fire, most of these trees never burn, in part because their bark protects them from all but the most intense fire conditions.

To be blunt, these fires have nothing to do with not removing the leaves from the forest floor. It might be good to remind one particular ill-informed Eastern politician that most of the forests burning in the West are conifer forests, with needles, not “leaves.” And regardless of the terminology, needles and leaves are the food source of forest soils, and without them the forest ecosystem will eventually collapse.

And what the heck is a “forest city” anyway? If there are cities in the world that are essentially tucked into a forested landscape, they are here in Northern New England and less so in highly urbanized Europe. More than 80% of New Hampshire is forested, but it’s a much different forest than in the Western United States. Our forests, as those in Northern Europe, evolved in a climate that has historically had regular, substantial rainfall, nearly year round. Our forests rarely burned and, yes, the leaves and dead vegetation accumulated over eons to produce a rich, productive soil that can grow very healthy trees.

The fact that our forests don’t burn often has a lot to do with our climate, which is unfortunately changing. This year’s extreme drought in New England is, in fact, an example of the predicted consequences of climate change that UNH scientists have been warning us about for many years, through their internationally respected work in climate modeling.

Finally, we cannot stop these fires with forest management alone. Yes, we need a major investment in better forest management in the West, especially on the Federal Lands that comprise most of the forested landscape, and it includes prescribed, managed fire to recreate as best we can the conditions that created the forests in the first place. It should include thinning the forest to remove dead trees and fire prone species that don’t belong in the forest but have invaded because of past fire suppression.

It’s impossible to do much of this with federal land management budgets that are cut or diverted to fighting catastrophic fires every year.

No matter how much we spend on forest management, we will not be able to slow the increasing drought- and lightning-induced fires that are the principal factors that start these fires, unless we tackle climate change. To ignore this fact is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of science and reality.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare.)

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