Let’s Analyze the NPR Story “Fires Will Worsen”

I found this story interesting on all kinds of levels. Let’s analyze it. I have never been trained in media analysis so here goes, hopefully someone on the blog can add some insight.


First, I like to look at the “rolodex factor.” Who did they talk to:

Ray Rasker, Headwaters Economics economist. His bio says he has expertise in rural development, and we have talked about the recent report of his previously on this blog.

Elizabeth Reinhardt, Assistant Director, Fire Management. Of these, she is the only one I think is competent to talk about it.

Anthony Westerling, Professor at UC Merced. He is a member of what I would call the “climate modeling industry”. That is his expertise seems to be in models and not in fires as experienced in the physical world.

Given that Rasker’s group just wrote about “houses in the WUI growing is big problem for fire”, and Westerling is a climate modeler, we can predict “this story will talk about climate as the reason for fires, and people in the WUI.” This story will follow the same trail as the one I posted yesterday here. Uh.. oh.. looking at it it actually sounds like the SAME story. Except in that one Reinhardt is a “fire researcher” (a previous position).

The only mystery is “What will Reinhardt say?” She has been a fire researcher, worked in the climate advisor’s office and now is an AD for Fire Management, in which she will be expected to toe the F&AM line.


Rasker says: In Montana, when it’s just one degree warmer than average, 35 percent more land burns. That costs money.
“The really interesting thing is that when the average summertime temperature is just one degree Fahrenheit warmer, the cost of defending these homes doubles,” he says. Rasker says these numbers are similar in California and Oregon.

This does not sound like an assertion based on data because no one has done the experiment of raising a degree and then watching fires. All it would take is the statement “my colleagues and I have done some modeling and it shows”.. for this to be more honest/em>

He notes that about 84 percent of the private land around national forests is open to development, versus 14 percent of surrounding land that’s already built up with housing developments, resorts and vacation homes.

Given that this is true (it doesn’t match my observations), you would have to understand why, and how that is going to change as the economy comes back. I like that Ray is so confident about the economy, though. Maybe I’ll call my stockbroker. Those predictive economic models have done so well in the past..

Already, the firefighting portion of the Forest Service’s budget is higher than ever. “In 2012 [the share of budget] was over 47 percent,” says David Cleaves, the service’s climate and fire expert. That’s tripled over the past decade or so.

Cleaves says it’s not a crisis now, but “economically, and in a policy sense, you could call it a crisis in the future.” That’s because more money that goes to firefighting means there’s less money available for prevention.

Note that Cleaves didn’t say the last statement. If we use a health analogy, it would be something like “people keep shooting each other and require ER visits, so we need to stop that because it takes money from preventive health programs.” We all know that a budget pot (what is in the same pot) is a policy choice, just as how much money goes into each pot. And suppression and fuels are not the same pot. Anyway, I bet someone has explored the reasons for any tripling of budget for suppression over the past decade. Any reports on this?

Now this is interesting:

Nowadays, the U.S. Forest Service has less money to spend on trimming back or burning undergrowth and trees to prevent bigger fires in the future. Estimates put the area of forest that needs fire prevention work performed on it at over 200 million acres, but the service is only able to treat about 3 million acres a year.

One solution is to let some natural fires burn longer instead of putting them out right away. That gets rid of built-up fuel, and it’s cheaper than mechanically thinning forests or doing prescribed burns. But this tactic isn’t popular with homeowners nearby.

“So many of the places where we have fire are near where people live,” says Reinhardt. “Or, say it’s early in the fire season and you have months of fire season ahead of you, and you just don’t feel like you can take the risk of having a big fire out there in the backcountry.”

It could also be reported that “for mysterious reasons that have been critiqued by a bipartisan group of folks in Congress, the tactic preferred by real life voting homeowners is having its funding reduced by the Obama Administration. They think it’s more cost-effective to have large fires and let them reduce fuels, but those darn people are in the way.” Another thing is that prescribed fire is not so popular with nearby communities. Errr. communities. Remember towns like Idlyllwild are not a part of this story. It is, at this point, framed to be about “homes” and “homeowners.”

Westerling works at the University of California in Merced but he’s been watching the Rocky Mountains a lot. He says spring is coming earlier, and it’s hotter. Many forests there are near their heat and drought limit.

You can’t visit the University of Colorado (or even a Starbuck’s in Boulder) without stumbling over a climate modeler modeling.. the Rocky Mountains. Rolodex again..

And Rasker says there are ethical as well as economic reasons to limit development near forests — the lives of firefighters are at stake.

“It’s a tough thing to see people go in, to have to risk their lives” to defend structures in towns that have been evacuated, he says. “Empty structures.”

Ah.. so we finally get to “towns” and not “homes”. But if we take Ray at his quote, it would then be unethical for firefighters to fight home or office fires if people had been evacuated. But why stop there? It would also be unethical for police to risk their lives in confronting people robbing buildings without people in them…and so on.

Really, it’s kind of a silly quote. Didn’t anyone else notice?
I actually agree that new developments in the backcountry need increased scrutiny. But this story..does not do the issue any kind of justice and leaves out some important things. You could pretty much predict the story by who the author picked to interview. And it’s not clear why they picked whom they did, except for Reinhardt.

18 thoughts on “Let’s Analyze the NPR Story “Fires Will Worsen””

  1. Sharon, I give you high marks for your analysis. In my opinion the NPR storyis an example of how poorly people understand wildfire. Property in wildfire zones is a problem, but so are the fuels that carry the fires to structures, and for the last several decades agencies, federal and state, have had a devil of a time trying to reduce them.

    The idea of just letting fires burn is also one that fails close study. If the fire is allowed to burn, where do you stop it, or do you just wait for snow? Once again the fire discussion has also avoided the issue of resource damages such as soil, water, wildlife habitat, air pollution economic losses, carbon and other negatives from out of control fires. No, we do not want firefighters hurt or killed, and there is risk to fighting any fire. The fire agencies work hard to make sure their people are well trained, well equipped and well lead.

    Yes, there is a time to back away from property threatened by fire, andt that comes after the safety factor says it is too dangerous. But firefighter don’t leave, they regroup and find a new tadctic. There is more to fire than just structures, it is the land and what we humans need and want from it.

    NPR is good radio, but its staff can’t be expected to know everything about everything. I do wish when it comes to fire they would start with contacting organizations such as International Association of Wildland Fire, the National Fire Protection Assocation or similar professional sources, then go to the people doing modeling of climate, etc.

  2. Sharon, John, I suggest passing the comments you posted to the author or editor of the NPR story. I’ve done that kind of thing a few times. Sending a thoughtful note to a reporter explaining alternative views and giving additional contacts for the Rolodex and links to resources, in a straightforward, polite way, can have a positive effect.

    • That’s a great idea, Steve. As I said in the post here, I think some topics are too complex for short articles.

      What I said was “News stories are intended to help inform the public, but by their very nature and the current structure of the news industry, I don’t think they can ever be the right place. Even if the journalist takes the time to understand the complexity, and is committed to presenting both sides fairly, there is no guarantee that that can fit into a newspaper article format. It seems like a structural problem that falls somewhere between the Extension role and a journalism role. ”

      And really.. there are a number of different factors.. 1) Fire suppression led to fuel buildups. 2) Many of our stands were established 100 years or so ago and are ripe for beetles and burning or dying and burning. 3) Climate change. But a person would need more time to go into all those things and write a longer piece, but newspapers don’t really publish the longer ones, nor would anyone want to read them.

      My friends in the biz would say they don’t have the time any more to do that kind of in-depth reporting. So it seems to me that radio TV and newspapers want to tell a simple story and then move on to the next topic.. but some stories are inherently not simple. What to do? Even if we had an army of volunteers helping out with getting the stories right, the “structure of short pieces/short attention periods” problem still exists.

  3. I agree 100%, Sharon. One thing that John touches on is the way that Let-Burn fires are conducted. Since they don’t do formal NEPA analysis and formulate contingency plans, they don’t have a clue as to how and when to start fighting the fire they have allowed to get so large, burning into areas where the fire cannot be safely fought. Yes, all of those things are extremely difficult to do but, they are VERY necessary to address and plan for. Again, the West Fork Complex is THE perfect example of how NOT to manage a wildfire. How many more West Forks will we have to endure? How many deaths will be attributed to future Let-Burn fires? How many “bullets” did we already dodge, through plain old luck. Which day will that essential part on a helicopter’s transmission fail, while carrying a crew of firefighters? The claimed benefits of Let-Burn fires don’t hold up to scrutiny, yet they are repeatedly trotted out to the public’s view as fact (by people who have no “business” doing so).

    Some like to say there are no other options to “letting nature take its course”. I contend there are a multitude of options, which may, or may not, be very cost-effective or desirable. If we don’t analyze them all, how will we know?!?

  4. Shall we also blame everyone living in the San Fernando Valley WUI, and force them to “move, or else”, too? If the Station Fire had experienced strong Santa Ana winds, the fire would have cut a path of destruction right through the middle of that dense urban environment. We have already seen dense neighborhoods burn in San Bernardino, back in 2003. Idyllwild is a different situation but, that example could be mitigated, if allowed to. We’ll see how many millions will be spent on suppression, there. Why is it OK to spend tens of millions on suppression, and not OK to spend just one million on prevention?

    • Larry: Because suppression is rarely litigated seems to be the main answer. Wildfires are how the USFS make money these days, now that they aren’t allowed to actively (and profitably) manage their lands. Why they aren’t forced to do NEPA on this stuff is what I don’t understand.

  5. Sharon, I’m surprised by these comments: “Elizabeth Reinhardt, Assistant Director, Fire Management. Of these, she is the only one I think is competent to talk about it;”; “Anthony Westerling, Professor at UC Merced…is a member of what I would call the “climate modeling industry”. That is his expertise seems to be in models and not in fires as experienced in the physical world”; and “You can’t visit the University of Colorado (or even a Starbuck’s in Boulder) without stumbling over a climate modeler modeling.. the Rocky Mountains. Rolodex again..” Have you taken the time to look at Tony Westerling’s CV? It’s readily available here: http://ulmo.ucmerced.edu/ Do you think this guy is “incompetent” to talk about Western wildfires and climate? Maybe in some parallel universe, or maybe he needs to get a couple of prescribed burns under his belt to build up his credibility. I think the “Rolodex factor” fails badly here. Best, -Guy

    • Guy, thanks for your comment. Let me explain more of my thinking.

      Yes. I did look at his CV. He has a bachelors and Ph.D. in economics. I’m sure he is a good person to talk about fire and climate modeling and he has done a lot of work. But I only see California and Yellowstone. The Rocky Mountains include New Mexico, Colorado, etc.

      If I wanted to know “who has modeled California wildfires” I would ask him. If I wanted to know who has modeled the Rocky Mountains, I would probably ask someone else. If I wanted to know what will really happen, I would have to use my own brain, which says:
      Climate is partially a function of Co2
      We don’t know how much CO2 will be produced due to decarbonization efforts and the economy.
      We don’t really understand the details of how that influences climate.
      We don’t exactly understand how that influences weather.
      We don’t really understand how general weather and the microclimates as plants perceive them are related.
      We don’t really understand how plants react to their microclimate.

      Given that we have no clue what climate will do to plants. Plants = fuel for fires. If we don’t know what plants will do, and what kind of fuels we have, how can we know what fires will do? For example, one climate study suggested that forests won’t come back in the SW. At its extreme, no forests=no forest fires.

      For Westerling to say “forests are near their heat and drought limit”.. well we learned in applied forest ecology (silviculture) that trees experience drought stress when there are more trees on the site than it can support. So drought experienced by trees are a function of their stocking (number of trees per acre), and stocking varies all across the west. And whether it’s too hot for individual trees is something that tree physiologists might be the best at knowing.

      What is not mentioned at all in the article is that many trees and stands of trees are getting old because when the stands started (railroad logging, fires, for whatever reason).

      And we suppressed fires not to protect houses but to keep people from being killed (see The Big Burn) and to protect stands of trees and watersheds. This may have been overdone, but the intentions were legitimate.

      By choosing these folks, it focuses on fires are worse due to homes and climate change.

      Other folks might have said fire costs are going up because:
      we watch them instead of fight them right away when they are small
      trees are old and then die from bugs, and that changes the fuel conditions
      climate change/weather
      not as many stands have been thinned, so water stress is worse and there are more fuels.
      Everything costs more nowadays.

      The only folks who can honestly tease this out, in my opinion, are those who don’t have an axe to grind and who can look at the whole picture (and use real numbers and data, not models- we don’t need models to explain what is happening now).

      • Sharon: Thanks for excellent analysis and relevancy of Westerling’s work. I wrote a paper for EPA in 1993 that looked at the principal Global Warming computer models at that time (James Hanson’s heyday) in relation to carbon sequestration and forest plantations:


        Although one of my conclusions pointed to the “critical” value of new and improved modeling so far as gaining insights into “biospheric responses to climate change and to large-scale conifer forests,” the very first conclusion was: “Selection of a model is dependent upon the temporal and spatial scale of the question that is being asked.” The very same points you made about generalizing Westerling’s work.

        My second conclusion was: “None of the models in current use has demonstrated an ability to make accurate or reliable projections.” My approach was to provide documented forest history conditions and see if the models could predict “backward” with any accuracy. They couldn’t. They still can’t. A model that can’ predict the past is incapable of predicting the future, by definition.

        I won’t make any snarky comments as to how I think these things get funded and who pays the bills, but I will say that Westerling’s conclusions as a modeler with an economics background are significantly different than my own, based on my Phd and subsequent research in the study of forest fires. Westerling is probably a great guy and a proven scholar, but there are far more qualified and knowledgeable individuals than him when it comes to forest fire behavior. He was not an appropriate selection for this review, and for the reasons you give.

      • Thanks Sharon. I would never discount using one’s own brain! But I also tend to evaluate experts at least in part on what they’ve published (and where they’ve published it), I guess that’s partly a university professor thing. To discount Westerling’s opinion because he’s focused largely on Yellowstone (Rockies? last I looked) and not CO or NM seems to set the bar a little bit high. I would disagree that we “don’t really understand how plants react to their microclimate”, or that we have no clue what (macro)climate changes will do to plants… even 30 years ago when I was finishing up my PhD in plant pathology (forest pathology), that field of knowledge was very well developed. Certainly it’s evolved since then, but for the most part not radically altered. best, -Guy

        • “To discount Westerling’s opinion because he’s focused largely on Yellowstone (Rockies? last I looked) and not CO or NM seems to set the bar a little bit high.”

          I agree Guy. But please keep in mind that in the past, some people on this blog have discounted the opinions and research of scientists from the University of Wisconsin who have studied Yellowstone NP fire ecology. And discounted scientists from the University of Wyoming who have studied fire ecology along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Apparently in the modern world some people still think university scientists and researchers are only to study stuff around campus. Go figure.

        • Guy, that’s very interesting. I too was in a related field 30 years ago and folks had developed models for different physiological processes. People were putting (some species of )seedlings in greenhouses, exposing them to different conditions, and measuring things. But seedlings or trees in the wild? Measuring impacts of a variety of microclimatic factors? I don’t remember that.

          Here’s an example.. you have a forest of ponderosas. Spring temperatures become more variable. Will the new shoots or strobili freeze off?(cold). If it’s warmer, will they emerge earlier? but what if it’s warmer or colder with or without more wind events, will that cause any change to the tree’s overall well being? That’s the kind of microclimatic stuff I think we don’t know.

          I used to wander the forests of south central Oregon looking for seed orchard sites. The way we did it was to look for places with successful seed production, by looking at cones on the ground. In some places, many ponderosa female strobili (flowers) were frozen off before or right after pollination . But there were still enough cones that survived the two years through time, to regenerate if the soil was in the right condition and there was not too much competition by other plants. Trees are pretty complex beasts and I don’t see how you can get from climate to microclimate to the response of forests with the knowledge we have.

          • I observed a situation where the buds on true firs (red and white), in higher elevation Tahoe NF plantations, had burst in the springtime, only to have snow pellets severely damage the tender new shoots. I reported this to our Culturist and he didn’t think it was an issue to worry about. I’d expect that these trees, 16 years later, are bushy and malformed. Of course, these days, only “bad” weather is blamed on “global warming”.

    • Guy, thanks so much for your comment and contribution to this discussion. If you follow this blog long enough you’ll see that oftentimes some people will question people’s expertise, credibility and/or intentions….sometimes quite poorly. I hope you keep commenting and contributing. Thanks again.

  6. Again, it is enlightening to read the comments to see how polarized the public continues to be. Most of them appear to not want to learn anything new, spouting the same political rhetoric of “whatever happens”. Yes, people still talk about letting homes burn, “because homes should not be there”. Yes, there are a great many other places where homes are a liability, including super-large and dense urban areas.

    This is the rhetoric we are up against, and it should not be ignored, just because it is “ugly”. People need to see the big picture, possibly shown in photographs that document the “unintended consequences” of “free-range fires”.


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