NY Times: “Fierce and Unpredictable: How Wildfires Became Infernos”

Excerpts from the article: A counterpoint to folks who say the dead trees are entirely benign.

Researchers believe that the hundreds of millions of trees killed by bark beetles in the West — an estimated 129 million in California alone — will cause even more severe fires as they collapse. “A giant heap of dead forest is a new reality,” Dr. Finney said.

Another factor under examination is the “spotting” behavior produced by embers. Increasing amounts of deadwood are leading to more spotting — the shower of hot embers that high winds pick up from burning trees and scatter a mile or two in front of the flames. These showers set homes, forests and everything else in their path on fire.

15 thoughts on “NY Times: “Fierce and Unpredictable: How Wildfires Became Infernos””

  1. Howdy Steve,

    Can you please tell us which folks have supposedly claimed that “dead trees are entirely benign.”

    If not, that’s a total strawman argument.

    Also, for whatever it’s worth:

    • Wildfires have burned 5.8 million acres in U.S. to date. (SOURCE: NIFC)

    • From 1919-1949 an average of 30 million acres burned annually (SOURCE: NIFC)

    • From 1500-1800 an estimated 145 million acres burned annually. (SOURCE: 2001 National Fire Plan)

    • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just blamed wildfires on “environmental terrorists organizations.” (SOURCE: Breitbart News).

    P.S. Also different forests and ecosystems burn much differently. And infrequent, but severe, wildfire is a normal, natural and important part of many types of forests and ecosystems.

      • Man, where would you be without Dr. Chad Hanson, Steve?

        He completes you.

        I also must have missed the part where Dr. Hanson claimed “dead trees are entirely benign.”

        Oh, that’s right. Dr. Hanson never actually made that claim.

        Rather it was Steve Wilent who claimed that some folks made that claim…but they never did. So, Steve, Congrats on hoisting up another strawman argument here on this blog!

        Meanwhile, in the piece you provided, Dr. Hanson did say:

        “Last year, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high snag levels had no effect on the rate of fire spread in conifer forests of the Western U.S., including California. In 2016, another group of researchers found that forests with high snag levels actually tend to burn less intensely than other forests….When trees die naturally due to drought, native beetles or fire, the snags and downed logs contribute to forest rejuvenation and become microhabitats for wildlife. Birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish all use snags and logs for food, nesting or shelter.”

        And while that’s hardly the same as claiming “dead trees are entirely benign” what Hanson said above is also some pretty basic, and accepted, science on the matter.

        • Matthew, Hansen says “Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat,” but the article says “Increasing amounts of deadwood are leading to more spotting — the shower of hot embers that high winds pick up from burning trees and scatter a mile or two in front of the flames. These showers set homes, forests and everything else in their path on fire. ” Do you disagree?

          Let me clarify my “benign” statement:

          Snags and downed woody debris have ecological value, but these materials also contribute to fire intensity and spread. Therefore, these fuels are not entirely benign: they increase the risk of homes igniting, even miles from wildfires.

          • I do remember hearing people say something like ‘Dead trees don’t burn as intensely as (normally flammable) green trees’. After the “red needle stage”, many snags don’t stay upright for long. The actual long term differences between a flammable green tree and a bare snag is minimal. The snag soon falls over and increases fire intensity near the ground. In many parts of the west, dead trees don’t rot into soil components. They burn before they rot.

          • As a seasoned Oped writer yourself, you fully know that the LA Times wrote the headline “Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat.” So no, Dr. Hanson never did say that. But, once again, whatever Steve.

            • Indeed! Even though I’m not a Republican, it is my opinion that the LA Times is a purveyor of “fake news”, when it reports on Forest Service stories. Plus, Hanson is in ‘lock-step’ with the newspaper, printing Hanson’s lies.

              Sooo, the LA Times is NOT a good source of actual truth, and neither is Hanson. He has been proven to make up stuff, post inaccurate pictures, and say things that are easily refuted by us knowledgeable people. Let’s hope he doesn’t make another cent on his frivolous lawsuits and his continuing “greenwashing” of catastrophic wildfires. It has always been my contention that either Hanson is quite ignorant of many facts, or, he is deliberately not telling the truth. Chances, it is a little of both!

              • Dr. Hanson completes you Larry. Seriously, 50% of your posts on this blog would disappear.

                P.S. Dr. Hanson would also take you to the cleaners in an open public debate, so there’s that.

                • Him, and some of ‘his people’ are not to be trusted. I saw the pictures and showed them to be scams. Yes, it was ME who proved that multiple pictures were not on Forest Service lands. So, there’s that. If Hanson cannot even locate himself on a map, what good is he, as a ‘scientist’? *SMIRK* (Yes, I am quite amused that someone so supposedly educated cannot read a map… maybe his GPS batteries were dead?)

                  Similarly, other eco-groups have been caught putting out “fake news”, to profit on the political turmoil they apply to public lands. No, Trump did not clearcut the Sequoias. Of course, it was never proposed. Of course, it was fake news, which members truly believed. Yes, the Sierra Club did nothing to address the conspiracies cooked up on their Facebook pages.

          • Matthew

            Using the numbers that you provide above in your “Howdy Steve” post and federal harvest levels, consider the following to put a better perspective on what can be done to reduce acreage lost to wildfires.

            A) I find it interesting that from the start of 1957 through to the end of 2003 annual wildfires were down to an average of 3.7 million acres per year. After the 1950-1989 period harvest volumes ceased to have a significant impact on stand density around 2003 (IMHO, the lag was when many 1950 and later stands would have been ready for thinning). As a result since 2003 wildfire acreage nearly doubled to 7.3 million acres per year. Given your 30 million acres burned/year prior to 1950 and almost twice as many after 2003 compared to 1950-2003, IT SURE LOOKS LIKE THE MORE WE CUT THE FEWER ACRES BURN with or without global warming.

            B) So let’s see if harvest levels support my hypothesis in the last sentence above:
            Prior to 1941 harvests never got to 2 billion board feet/year.
            Prior to 1951 harvests never got to 4 billion board feet/year
            Since 1994 the feds haven’t cut 4 billion board feet/year
            Since 1998 the feds haven’t cut 3 billion board feet/year
            From 1951 to 1993 the federal cut average was somewhere around 8 billion board feet/year.

            C) So we can definitively say that THE MORE WE CUT, THE FEWER ACRES BURN with or without global warming.

            From that we can conclude that, provided that mankind manages forests sustainably, mankind does a better job than mother nature does over the long term in terms of storing carbon on the stump and sustainably providing healthy forest ecosystems for the largest number of species and doing so with less hazard from wildfires to the lives of humans and endangered species.

            What are you implying with your statement: ” Wildfires have burned 5.8 million acres in U.S. to date” (i.e. 2018) when the fire season isn’t near to being over? Are you implying that compared to 30 or 145 million, 5.8 million acres burned half way through the fire season (approx 10 million for the year) is acceptable when we could be at less than 4 million on average for the whole year? Remember there weren’t near as many people downwind prior to 1920 (100 million) or 1950 (150 million) versus today (326 million). That’s right, the population has more than tripled in the last 100 years.

            • Howdy Gil.

              Do you know about the PDO?

              Also, not all wildfires in the U.S. historically, or even now, burn forests…and much less even burn U.S. Forest Service lands. You know that, right?

              • Matthew

                I’d like to see a link for the PDO numbers so I can see how they arrive at those numbers. In the past, people in the USFS have not been able to provide me with wildfire acreage burned by ownership so naturally I’d like to get my hands on any such valid numbers.

                I’m more interested in the NIFC total wildfire acres since wildfires don’t start and stop within ownership types.

                In addition, when I overlay your cold and warm periods from the PDO chart onto the NIFC acres burned, it only corroborates what I said above: ‘The more acres harvested/thinned the fewer the number of wildfire acres that burn regardless of global warming’. This would be the result of more fire buffers as a result of harvest activities creating more height and density diversity between adjoining stands and as a result of having more people in the nearby woods to serve on the initial attack providing that their harvesting contracts still dictate that they perform that function.

  2. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes are a normal, natural and important part of our environment.
    They are not preventable but we mitigate their impacts by appropriate design and construction. Tree mortality from fire, insect and disease is a normal, natural, and important part of many forests and ecosystems but is preventable in many cases and can be reduced by appropriate management practices. Failure to manage has its consequences and we are now witnessing these consequences.

  3. Hey, we based land decisions near rivers on 100-year flood plains. Why not based “desired forest conditions” on 100-year ‘droughtsheds’? Base the stocking levels upon the predicted 100-yeaar drought, where applicable. Adjust species compositions to better survive such droughts.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Steve! If we turned 15% of what the federal government spends on studies of what might happen under different climate scenarios (and effects on ….) to helping scientists refine their physical fire models (and other problems that are biting us today) IMHO we’d be better off.


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