In the last post in this series, we talked about “to what extent do models show that Australia and US wildfires are impacted by climate change?” Although that scientific work did not show Australia’s fires as necessarily having a big climate imprint, most of the stories I have read have focused on the climate angle. What is interesting to me is that that lens has led to many stories about the negative impacts of fires on wildlife and watershed.
In this AP story, the narrative is that bad/intense/hot fires lead to drinking water problems and flooding. The author even mentions the efforts of Denver Water to “clear trees and control vegetation” albeit perhaps not only in “populated areas” as the story says. There were also the stories (e.g., here in Scientific American) on wildlife deaths and burns. It’s true that Australia has many more unique species, so the loss in terms of biodiversity is different, but if you are a deer or elk or bear or raccoon, it would be equally unpleasant to be burned or killed by fire.
It seems that in the US there was a certain school of thought that fires were “natural” and so unpleasant effects to wildlife and water were just part of the deal, and in fact were particularly good for some species (while obviously not good for others, at least in the short term).
However, if you thought that the fires were “unnatural” due to previous fire suppression policies, then perhaps it might be more OK to intervene in terms of fuel treatments? Another question that perhaps was never discussed was how do you weigh making more habitat for one species compared to the deaths and injury to individuals of other species?
Looking back on the coverage, it looks to me like the narrative goes “climate change is bad and watershed and wildlife impacts from hot fires will be really bad” is a popular way to frame the Australian case. (If we don’t solve the international problem of climate change, the future looks worse and there are many negative impacts).
But in the US case, when the challenge was to do fuel treatments to help with suppression, (if we do prescribed burning and mechanical fuel treatments, it will help suppression folks deal with fires and lessen the likelihood of these negative impacts to wildlife and water) the same kinds of negative impacts to wildlife and water did not get as much press.
I’ve noticed in the press and in many climate science papers, as we shall see, predictions are made about bad things happening without acknowledging the efforts of other communities to dampen these effects. Some of these communities include fire suppression, plant breeding, water managers, and so on- each of whom have their own scientists who understand the mechanisms of responses and relevant uncertainties and unknowns. At the same time, other factors, such as fire suppression policies, or changes in prescribed burning practices, in the Australia example, may be overlooked in stories designed to attract attention in relatively small space. My concern is that it could make people more despairing and fearful about the future than they might be given what is known by all these scientific communities. Fear leads to anger at “the other” and the idea that the ends justify the means, and the accompanying unpleasant impacts to our society of that worldview.
Does anyone doubt that the western US and Australia would still need to deal with wildfires if there were no climate change? Hint: existence of fire-adapted plant and animal species.