New York Times on Fire: “Science” Without Fire Science

There’s lots of fire science that isn’t vegetation ecology.https://www.firelab.org/photo_gallery

Thanks to readers who shared this NY Times article. The subheading is A “scientific debate is intensifying over whether too much money and too many lives are lost fighting forest fires”.

The article says that the black=backed woodpecker is “a symbol of a huge scientific and political debate over the future of fire in American forests.” Of course, the click-addicted media thrive on “huge controversies” so if they didn’t exist they would have to be made up.

Scientists at the cutting edge of ecological research, Dr. Hanson among them, argue that the century-old American practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a calamity. They are calling for a new approach that basically involves letting backcountry fires burn across millions of acres.

(my italics)

This is not a particularly new idea. Anyone remember Harold Biswell? And people do let fires burn in the backcountry, (to the extent that folks on this blog have questioned the wisdom of doing so), so how can that be a new idea? I can’t blame the writer for not knowing this, but all writers should be wary of scientist hype.

Yet that awareness has yet to penetrate the public consciousness.People still think forest fires are bad and expect the government to try to stamp them out, even in remote wilderness areas. Federal and state firefighting costs in some years approach $2 billion.

Of course, this is in the science section of the NYT, so the author didn’t have to interview those pesky people like residents of communities, nor their elected officals, nor suppression people (whom you think would be the legitimate source of information on the perils of fighting forest fires).

It’s also interesting how scientific disagreement itself is characterized (as two people within the veg ecology community in California):

Still, considerable disagreement remains among scientists about exactly how forests should be managed. Dr. Hanson studied under Malcolm North, a Forest Service scientist who also holds a position at the University of California, Davis — but the two men have come to disagree. Dr. North argues that Dr. Hanson goes too far in arguing that even the most severe fires, those that produce some large patches of snag forest, are a good thing.

“I would agree it’s actually a valuable habitat type,” Dr. North said. “It’s just that he’s arguing for way too much of it, and in really big patches.”

It’s interesting that this way of looking at it assumes that vegetation ecologists get to decide how much acreage “should” be in what conditions. Do a subset of vegetation ecologists speak for “science”?
Is how land is managed a “scientific” question? Not.

But of all this, I think the most important philosophical question is posed by reflecting on this quote:

“From an ecological standpoint, everything I’ve learned teaches me this is a good idea: Stop putting out fires,” said Jennifer R. Marlon, a geographer at Yale who was among the first to use the term “fire deficit” to describe the situation. “These forests are made to have fire.”

I think it’s fascinating that the author of the article quoted a non-ecologist about ecology in the name of “science”. They were “made to have fire”.. so other areas are “made to have hurricanes” or “made to have floods”, “volcanoes” or “tornadoes”. In what other context does the existence of a disturbance factor privilege vegetation ecologists to determine how communities should respond, including over communities themselves, and over other fire science disciplines? It’s bizarre.

19 Comments

  1. Hi Sharon,

    I’m pretty sure the NY Times science writer, writing about science, doesn’t consider ‘residents of communities” (Hey, aren’t we all?) to be “pesky people”….however, he did interview Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs an advocacy group, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE), so I’m pretty sure that Ingalsbee is a “legitimate source of information on the perils of fighting forest fire.”

    Also, the president of the Board of FUSEE is Dr. Joseph Fox. Dr. Fox is not only a Ph.D. forest entomologist and forest health expert but he has 23 years experience as a firefighter and a smokejumper. In fact, Dr. Fox helped secure the bodies of 12 firefighters on Storm King Mountain in 1994, so I’m pretty sure that Dr. Fox also is a “legitimate source of information on the perils of fighting forest fire.”

    Also, here’s some more info on Dr. Jennifer Marlon, including her CV right here. I did notice that she did two years of Postdoctoral Research in Botany at the University of Wyoming. While her Masters and Ph.D. were in the Geography Department I did also notice that she originally obtained a bachelors of science (a degree that seems to be all that’s required of various industry and U.S. Forest Service ‘scientific experts.’

    “Jennifer Marlon, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Scientist at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC). She obtained her Ph.D. and M.S. in Geography from the University of Oregon. Dr. Marlon uses surveys, experiments, modeling, and other methods to study people’s perceptions of and responses to environmental change, particularly relating to climate and extreme weather events….Dr. Marlon also conducts research in paleoecology and paleoclimate using sediment records. She developed a Global Charcoal Database that houses hundreds of sediment records from lakes, soils, and oceans around the world (http://paleofire.org). The dataset has been used to understand the response of fire regimes to abrupt climate changes, the role of fire in the expansion of agriculture during the Holocene, and human impacts on fire during the Industrial Era. Her research has been published in journals such as Nature Geoscience, Nature Climate Change, Quaternary Science Reviews, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Forest Ecology and Management, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

    P.S. I also fixed the link to the story, so it actually goes to the NY Times article now.

    P.P.S. We have 3 stories in a row featuring Dr. Chad Hanson. Can we make it four in a row?

  2. Matthew, you raise a couple of good points… (1) why is Dr. Chad Hanson so popular with the media.. of all the amazing people working in fire research- is it because of his apparently extravagant claims? Because he’s in California? Because he’s in the advocacy business as opposed to the university or agency research business? I don’t think we would have posted anything about him had he not been the object of articles in various media outlets. Let’s look at say, Finney or Agee instead….haven’t seen too many articles about what they think..

    IMHO if you are going to make claims that are privileged based on “science” you need to be able to articulate the connection between the research that supports your claim and your claim itself. Being a Ph.D. scientist as I am for example, I don’t expect folks to say “she’s a scientist therefore every claim she makes is a scientific claim.”

    Hanson seems to be saying “there isn’t enough habitat for these woodpeckers”. But some of us say there’s plenty of fires and plenty of snags, so how does he know that? And what is “enough” woodpeckers? My wish for science education would be one thing… in every science piece, simply ask the scientist “how do you know that?” People would learn so much about how science works.

    As to Ingalsbee here’s his background “Timothy earned a Ph.D. in environmental sociology from the University of Oregon” http://www.pacificbio.org/initiatives/fire/fire_links.html . And Fox has a Ph.D. in forest entomology. If his expertise is rather based on experience, then we would have to ask other folks with fire experience and have a discussion among them, without the mantle of “science.”

    Some of my best friends are sociologists and economists. They bring a lot to the table and are frequently unappreciated and overworked. What I’m questioning here is rounding up a random group of scientists by the NY Times writer and happily making pronouncements about fire science without talking to one person who actually studies fire behavior.

  3. I do have some biases here — as a member of the tribe, I’m a bit prickly about criticisms of journalism unless I’m doing it, and I’ve had a Rim Fire- and Chad Hanson-hooked article along these same lines in the idea hopper for a while — and with that said, I don’t think this critique is entirely fair.

    Re: letting backcountry fires burn isn’t a new idea, and that’s what people do anyways, that’s addressed in the article’s next paragraph — “In principle, the federal government accepted a version of this argument years ago, but in practice, fires are still routinely stamped out across much of the country.” Like the author says, the idea that fire has ecological value hasn’t penetrated public consciousness. When most people talk about fire, they talk about it being a one-dimensionally bad thing.

    Re: the author not interviewing residents, elected officials or fire suppression people, the article quotes Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter. So there’s one such person quoted, and I’d be surprised if more hadn’t been consulted. That’s hinted at here:

    “The families of wilderness firefighters who died on the job once tended to accept their lot resignedly, but some are starting to sue, asking why the government is defying the latest science in a risky attempt to extinguish remote fires.”

    But in a 2,000 word article, there’s not enough space to get everyone in there.

    As for the author assuming “that vegetation ecologists get to decide how much acreage ‘should’ be in what conditions” — I don’t think the author makes that assumption. He does assume that forest ecologists have a valuable perspective on how forests should be managed in light of the values society has for its forests. One of those values is public safety, which is addressed in these paragraphs:

    “Scientists who want to let more fires burn take pains to make clear that they do not mean to put people’s lives on the line. In fact, they believe the government could make people safer than they are today if it redirected funds into community fire-safety projects.

    They also point out that many people are putting themselves at risk by building homes in remote, fire-prone areas without taking essential steps to make the homes fire-resistant, like installing metal roofs. Extensive research shows that wildfires will usually leave properly built and maintained homes with little damage, but rural communities have hesitated to adopt strict building codes.”

    And lastly, “it’s fascinating that the author of the article quoted a non-ecologist about ecology in the name of ‘science’” — I’ve quoted that scientist, Jennifer Marlon, in articles I’ve written about fire ecology. From her academic profile:

    “Dr. Marlon also conducts research in paleoecology and paleoclimate using sediment records. She developed a Global Charcoal Database that houses hundreds of sediment records from lakes, soils, and oceans around the world (http://paleofire.org). The dataset has been used to understand the response of fire regimes to abrupt climate changes, the role of fire in the expansion of agriculture during the Holocene, and human impacts on fire during the Industrial Era.”

    Seems to me like someone who tries to understand fire dynamics across time has a valuable perspective. And when Marlon says that the Sierra’s forests were “made to have fire,” she’s saying that the vegetative communities have evolved such that fire is integral to their ongoing re-establishment.

    Other articles on this topic:

    http://www.hcn.org/issues/44.16/fire-scientists-fight-over-what-western-forests-should-look-like

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140714-rim-fire-salvage-logging-forest-ecology-wildfire-restoration/

    http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/living-wildfire

    • I see a huge fatal flaw in one of the articles Brandon linked to.

      “In May the U.S. Forest Service proposed a “salvage” logging plan to clear-cut nearly 30,000 acres of the burn, and it has begun a hazardous-tree removal project that would log an additional 16,000 acres.”

      Of course, there were no clearcuts designated in the salvage plans and this is just not an accurate statement, at all! (Doesn’t this sound like someone else’s wrong claims about the Rim Fire salvage projects? *smirk* )

        • Wrong

          Adjective

          1. not in accordance with what is morally right or good:
          a wrong deed.

          2. deviating from truth or fact; erroneous:
          a wrong answer.

          3. not correct in action, judgment, opinion, method, etc., as a person; in error:
          You are wrong to blame him.

          4. not proper or usual; not in accordance with requirements or recommended practice:
          the wrong way to hold a golf club.

          5. out of order; awry; amiss:
          Something is wrong with the machine.

          6. not suitable or appropriate:
          He always says the wrong thing.

      • “To date the logging has made it just a few miles down the road, but eventually crews will clear-cut a total of 100,000 trees along 194 miles of roadway through the forest.”

        Sorry but, they did not clearcut along roads. They merely cut the hazard trees, and not the surviving green trees.

        “A bonanza for the timber industry, the salvage plan would sell 661 million board feet of timber, nearly four times the volume sold last year in all of California’s national forests.”

        Yeah………………………………………………………… Of course, this just didn’t happen, did it? Slight exaggeration?

        • Hi Larry,

          Seems like you believe there are a huge of factual errors in Kenneth Browers opinion piece, which ran in National Geographic in 2014.

          Might I suggest that you contact NatGeo directly and ask them to dig into your claims and, if correct, print a correction?

          National Geographic Magazine: editor@natgeo.com
          Email: pressroom@ngs.org
          Call 202-857-7027

          • Naw, I’d like that misinformation to be “preserved”, forever. Some people seem like they will say anything to ‘preserve’ their precious political narratives. The article is so old but the concept still lives on in claims like “Don’t let Trump give loggers free reign to fell majestic trees.”

    • Brandon, I can understand why you are prickly. One of my best friends is a journalist and I notice that she frequently criticizes how other people do things (how many investigative journalism pieces are criticisms of the way people do things?). Yet she assumes that journalists are doing the best they can given the conditions, when I point our incorrect things they write. I would only ask journalists, in kind, to make the same kinds of assumptions about the people they write about and be sure to get both sides. If you go back through the blog, you’ll see that many times I have given journalists kudos for stories. This is not one. I know that these things are complicated, but to get fair points of view, you need someone who actually disagrees with the conclusions. The author could have found many Ph.D.s with experience in this business, plus practitioners who would disagree with Hanson. He chose not to interview any.

      You said “In principle, the federal government accepted a version of this argument years ago, but in practice, fires are still routinely stamped out across much of the country.”The people who are making those judgment calls do know something (quite a bit actually) about fire ecology and fire use, and they are making the best judgment calls they can. They have to balance that against negative impacts to watersheds, people, animals and community infrastructure. It sounds as if Hanson is questioning these judgments of ICs. But he doesn’t have the background to be able to do that. His discipline is only one piece of the puzzle.

      I have critiqued previous NY Times articles for their source choice being schools not in the west when talking about the west. As to the relevance of pollen work, you might even find disagreements interpreting what that means for policies today. I talked about that here in our old Virtual Book Club
      http://forestpolicypub.com/2013/11/22/assemblages-ecosystems-and-change-chapter-4-virtual-book-clubtu/

      I would only ask journalists two things.. find someone who actually disagrees and interview them. If you need names you can also come to this blog and we can help. And if a scientist says their research is relevant because they understand something, ask them specifically how their research relates to the issue they’re talking about.

      “Scientists” (these two scientists?) “In fact, they believe the government could make people safer than they are today if it redirected funds into community fire-safety projects.” “Eedirect funds” from what? Suppression? Fuels treatment? Health care? Is funding really the problem? They have a “valuable perspective”- but then so might people who live in those communities or researchers who study how well communities are doing with fire preparation/protection. I think there could be many articles written about the research on why people don’t do better at Firewise activities, but the idea of feds funding versus codes seems like a classic public policy choice. This would involve say economics and psychology as disciplines. How well are different communities doing with this? How are CWPP’s working? Does this vary by state? What is the best approach across the western US? All those would make interesting stories. But a writer would have to involve people whose research is relevant and clarify the relevance to the issue at hand. Everyone has an opinion.. why should theirs be worthy of extra attention?

      • Sharon, So much of your blog post and comments here seem excessively nit-picky. I mean, you seem to like to do this every once in a while when there are stories you disagree with, but you never seem to do it when there are stories you agree with.

        I would suspect that if the reporter who wrote this article, Justin Gillis, would see your blog post and comments he’d be able to enlighten you about his story and research methods.

        To assist with that process I just sent a tweet to Justin Gillis and encouraged him to look at this blog post.

        And for the record, Justin Gillis has had an aware-winning career at some pretty top-notch news organizations.

        Justin Gillis covers the science of global climate change and the policy implications of that science. He grew up in Georgia, graduated from the University of Georgia, and joined The Times after an award-winning career as a reporter and editor at The Miami Herald and The Washington Post.

    • Prior to European arrival, human use of fire mitigated the impacts of lightning fires, quite well. Expert Indian burning created much of the old growth pine forests, in the Sierra Nevada’s middle elevations. The highly flammable bearclover helped them to burn large acreages, very frequently. These opinions only apply to the Sierra Nevada, generally speaking.

      Now, if you’re talking about a pre-human forest, we can be pretty sure that conditions were changed but, there isn’t a way of knowing what they were. Besides, wanting to go back to a pre-human landscape is, well, impossible.

  4. How much timber did the Stanislaus NF sell after the 2013 Rim fire?

    FY 2014: 82 mmbf (136 mmcf)
    FY 2015: 103 mmbf (171 mmcf)
    FY 2016: 38 mmbf (66 mmcf)

    Assuming that all of the timber sold was associated with Rim fire salvage, the total is about 220 mmbf, which is remarkably close to the Record of Decision’s estimate of 210 mmbf (see page 12). The 3-year average is 73 mmbf.

    Some historical Stanislaus NF sales context: FY 89 = 118 mmbf; FY 88 = 290 mmbf, FY 87 = 101 mmbf, FY 86 = 93 mmbf, for an annual average of 150 mmbf, which is twice the annual levels logged during the Rim salvage.

    In 2017, the Stanislaus sales level appears to have returned to its low pre-Rim fire amounts, with 7.8 mmbf sold in the first three quarters.

    • I’ll bet there were some other contracts active during those years. I do think I remember a waiver offered for all other timber projects, delaying their eventual closing dates. The Stanislaus has always ‘under-performed’, timber volume-wise. The Rim Fire salvage efforts were so truncated that I’m sure it was back to work, through the last three years. I’m sure there are available stats, somewhere, that show just the salvage volumes. I also heard that two small-diameter salvage projects didn’t sell. Additionally, the stuff cut under the Raker Act was harvested, too.

      Remember, salvage projects back in the 80’s were a completely different story. 1988 was a spike due to the Complex Fires. The late 80’s were probably the peak for timber volumes in California, before CASPO rules arrived.

      • The timber sale volume figures are Stanislaus totals — Rim fire salvage plus anything else sold that fiscal year. I report only sale volume, not cut volume.

        “Truncated” salvage sale effort? Not according to the numbers, which suggest the Forest Service sold the amount anticipated in the Rim Salvage Record of Decision.

        PS: I remember all too well the 1980s :).

        • I tend to think that a significant portion of that volume came from bark beetle salvage, which showed up in areas under contract. Yes, that is in the contract, to have add-on volume. Contract extensions have been used to capture additional volume after the first round of salvage is complete. There are other places in the fire’s perimeter that could have been in a helicopter sale. It even might have been economic, if the bark beetle salvage were factored in. The two real timber producing Ranger Districts on the Stanislaus probably had some thinning projects.

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