By Associated Press • 

Easing fires not as simple as climate change vs. forest work

By ANDREW SELSKY and ADAM BEAM Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Deadly West Coast wildfires are dividing President Donald Trump and the states’ Democratic leaders over how to prevent blazes from becoming more frequent and destructive, but scientists and others on the front lines say it's not as simple as blaming either climate change or the way land is managed.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington have all said global warming is priming forests for wildfires as they become hotter and drier. But during a visit Monday to California, Trump pointed to how states manage forests and said, “It will start getting cooler, just you watch.”

Scientists say wildfires are all but inevitable, and the main drivers are plants and trees drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn. And while forest thinning and controlled burns are solutions, they have proven challenging to implement on the scale needed to combat those threats.

As crews battled wildfires that have killed at least 35 people, destroyed neighborhoods and enveloped the West Coast in smoke, Trump contended that the states are to blame for failing to rake leaves and clear dead timber from forest floors. However, many of the California blazes have roared through coastal chaparral and grasslands, not forest, and some of the largest are burning on federal land.

In Oregon, it was the forests that burned at unprecedented levels this past week. Almost the same number of “megafires” — defined as having scorched 100,000 acres or more — were burning last week as have occurred during the entire last century, said Jim Gersbach, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Experts, environmentalists and loggers largely agree that thinning trees and brush through prescribed burns and careful logging will help prevent forests that cover vast tracts of the American West from threatening cities with fire.

But whether that would have spared towns is less clear. Strong winds sent flames racing down the western slopes of the Cascade Range into small towns like Detroit, Oregon, wiping them out.

“In a wind-driven event at 30 miles an hour, where you’ve got embers flying far ahead of the actual flame fronts and flame lengths being much greater than normal, is thinning going to really be enough to stop a home from burning in an inferno like that?” Gersbach said.

Millions of dollars are spent on tree thinning and brush clearing every year in Western states, though many argue more needs to be done. But scaling up the costly, labor-intensive work as more people move into mountains and forests has many challenges.

Forest thinning helped save the town of Sisters, Oregon, from a wildfire in 2017. But out of 30 million forested acres statewide, prescribed burns have been used on only roughly a half-percent a year, Gersbach said.

In Washington state, a prescribed burning program hasn’t yet begun on state lands, said Department of Natural Resources spokesman Thomas Kyle-Milward. The state helps manage deliberate fires on thousands of acres of federal lands each year.

Many places don’t have the capacity or the money to do the work, said John Bailey, an Oregon State University professor of tree growth and fire management. There are no longer enough mills to handle salvageable timber, whose proceeds can help offset the costs of forest thinning.

“Sometimes I feel like we are making progress at increasing the pace and scale of resilience treatments, but largely, the same issues are at play, and progress has been slow,” Bailey said. “More folks are probably ‘on board’ to the ideas, but implementation is hard.”

And as more people move into rural areas or build vacation cabins in the woods, prescribed burning is less of an option.

“Where you have lots of people living on small acreages close together, and you’ve got houses and barns and sheds and corrals and fences, it’s very difficult to do a prescribed burn,” Gersbach said. “You’ve got a lot of things that, if that fire for some reason escapes, you’re almost immediately into someone else’s property.”

West Coast governors have bluntly blamed climate change and accused the Trump administration of downplaying the threat.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom was tempered Monday in his meeting with Trump, saying: “We come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in — and observed evidence is self-evident — that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this.”

He also pointed out that 57% of forest land in California is controlled by the federal government. Just Friday, Newsom called out the “ideological BS” of those who deny the danger of climate change.

In southern Oregon to Northern California, warnings of low moisture and strong winds — conditions that can drive the flames — are in effect through Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes as the fast-moving flames turned neighborhoods to nothing but charred rubble and burned-out cars.

At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon. Officials more than 20 people are still missing, and the number of fatalities is likely to rise as authorities search. In California, 24 people have died, and one person was killed in Washington state.


Beam reported from Sacramento, California.



Don Dix

The dilemma (for some) -- change the climate or clean-up the forests. Which one is the realistic, attainable approach?


Don: Obviously one is fairly easy, the other not as much so. However, BOTH are necessary. Consider paragraphs 7 & 8 above (too long to copy here). The strong winds that are causing entire towns to burn are a result of climate change; cleaning up the forests would have no effect on those winds.

I grew up in SoCal, where there are Santa Ana winds. When I was a kid, they lasted 3-4 weeks in the fall. Now they are nearly year-round. And I don't believe they even existed then up here, now they do. This is not a result of non-maintenance of forests.


Don, A multi-faceted problem calls for a multi-faceted solution. As stated in the article and almost every expert out there, There isn't a silver bullet driving these fires. We can do difficult things if we have the will. We also have the ability to do two things simultaneously.
By the way, with the first term of the Trump administration coming to an end, what has the administration done to change USFS management policy? Instead he falls back on his "go to" blame game, pointing the finger at democrat governers.


And as I assumed In another post ( and Steve Bagwell confirmed) the majority of forest land on the west coast is under federal management....


Tagup: 53% of ALL land in Oregon is under federal managment.


My point was to build on your “ blame- game” statement and to point out the mis-leading attempt to blame the states for forest practices when the majority landowner/ manager of forest land is the federal government....


Environmental lawsuits effect federal forest management just as much as state forestry management. If you don't regularly thin, leave countless millions dead and dying trees, and utilize controlled burns when safe (e.g. low winds), this is what you get.

So how much CO2 did these fires throw up into the atmosphere? America's CO2 has been trending down and our CO2 reduction led the world last year (see link) but if you don't deal with China, India, Russia, and developing countries CO2 output it amounts to little. That is why Trump pulled out of the one-sided Paris Accord. Like him or not, we have a tough deal-maker as president, we should use him to negotiate a better deal.


If he’s such a great deal maker he would work with congress for additional Covid support for the working people of the country.......Pulling out of a deal is easy...but it’s not negotiation.....



Its understandable if you hadn't heard - the networks are doing their best to downplay it - he was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last week but mums the word (see link). Remember though, there isn't any media bias.


Yes...The UAE & Bahrain....let me know when Egypt & The Saudi ‘s sign up....


So interest in Covid help for Americans? ....seems like that might be a priority...but I know he’s very busy campaigning ...


Quitting everything and calling everything stupid, name calling is not being a "tough negotiator"....most people would just call that childish.
Also, what does any of the Paris Accord have to do with forestry management in our own country? We don't need Trump to negotiate 'good deals' with other countries to address forest management policy within the USFS.

Don Dix

carolsm -- the Santa Ana winds are not any sort of new. And Oregon's east wind experience last week is nothing new either. Forest maintenance takes away the fuel necessary to create the intensity of fire (that's why fire expands so quickly)

Shasta -- Read the story of the residents of the Eagle Creek area fighting the fire last week. The value of clean-up is on display. There are those who believe everything in the forest should be left alone, and will throw hurdles and walls (lawsuits) into any forest management plan. Just because changing the climate is the desire, why not try what has already proven to work?

Anyone with the actual desire to know what is being discussed here, really needs to travel into the remote areas of Oregon. In 30 minutes, one can cut and load a pickup without straying 15ft. from the road (and it only get thicker as one goes deeper into the forest) . That wood starts and burns so quickly, it's not any surprise when fires explode in a matter of hours.

Then the human element -- when this event passes and all the investigations are complete (as to what started these fires), most will turn out to be human stupidity, carelessness, or arson. The fire in the Chehalems was started by an improper camp fire -- the Ashland area fire was arson -- the Santiam Canyon fire was power lines. Next in line will be Mother Nature (lightening).

What I notice is some discuss cc as if it is a whole new revelation. It's been happening since the Earth was created, and has regularly continued throughout history. Ignoring that fact doesn't nullify reality or common sense.


I'm a business news junky. Prior to being president, if you'd asked me about Donald Trump one of the first things to come to mind is 1987s 'The Art of the Deal', one of the best selling business books of all time. Pulling out of a bad deal for your constituency is a valid tactic.

Focusing on addressing our forest management is exactly the point of my first post. However, American forest management was severely hampered by four decades of a steady stream of environmental lawsuits. I think the environmental community is waking up to the CO2 implications of their historical stance regarding thinning, removal of dead/dying trees, and controlled burns though.

Scientific studies has shown, "Wildfires Release as Much CO2 as Cars. Overall, the study estimated that fires in the contiguous United States and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year." Given this year's unprecedented wildfires, we've probably thrown up several years worth of car CO2 in the atmosphere the past couple of weeks.

Don - you are so right. Historically, 9 out of 10 wildfires are human caused.


I thought this was a good article regarding the subject.


Could all of this been avoided if Oregon had not allowed environmental wackos to insist that we protect the Spotted Owl, which left much of our timber to just grow without a proper management? Not to mention, put a lot of the timber industry out of work. I think the correlations would be interesting...

BTW: The infamous spotted owl was not as endangered as we were led to believe while they crippled an entire NW industry and caused many families to go without.


tagup: even if Trump wanted to work together in a non-partisan way with Congress it would fail, as it takes two to tango and Nancy and the boys are more interested in spending time in the restroom drinking than dancing at the prom...


tagup: I have to correct you there, as there are times when "pulling out of a deal" is a negotiating tactic. With purely conjecture to back me up, I think that when it came to the climate deal there were terms not favorable to the US and Trump decided to pull out in order to get better terms and if they were not forthcoming, then it would be best if we not be a part of that treaty after all.


Rob- it definitely will fail if you don’t even try...where’s the effort?


Sorry..should be “Hibb”....


Tagup: please note that the per capita carbon emissions for the United States has been going down for a while now. We are certainly now below 1960 (first link) on a per capita basis. The U.S. had the largest CO2 reduction in the world last year (second link).


Ok....did I have a post regarding that issue?.....or are we changing the subject?


Sorry Tagup - I responded to your comment before realizing it was for Hibb.


No worries...:)

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