92 Comments
Jun 15Liked by Ben Krauss

Good article Ben, and I'd like to see you write more articles in this vein. Forest management is something that confounds a lot of people due to intuition, but humans have already extensively engineered this planet to their desires, thus a little counterengineering can do some good.

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Please stop exaggerating the extent to which we know we can blame increases in fires on climate change. This is the kind of sloppiness that causes people to get frustrated and dismiss all the global warming concerns as just so much bullshit and social pressure. At the very least click through to the underlying studies cited to be sure they support your level of confidence.

If you follow through your link and trace through the footnote 2 you'll see it actually says (despite highlighting forest fires in a suggestive way) that we don't have the the evidence yet to say much about assigning causation. And the link itself is kinda sneaky in that it talks about how global warming extends the summer season in which fires happen -- but that doesn't actually show even a directional relationship much less that any effect is of non-trivial magnitude (time spent sleeping correlates with academic performance but doesn't mean sedatives help academic performance).

Footnote 3 is certainly an interesting study, but it doesn't really establish the claim you are citing it for. It had 2 major results -- that forest fires have been increasing over recent decades in the US (predicted by null hypothesis as well) and that years with earlier snowmelt and higher temperatures tended to have more fires. The problem is that we don't know if this means higher average temperatures result in more fires in long term or if it's mostly controlled by fuel availability and it's just that the fuel tends to get burnt in the warmer years. Hell, it's perfectly consistent with the idea that warmer temperatures will light forests sooner and thereby reduce overall acres burned.

Yes, of course, if I had to bet I'd obviously bet on forest fires net increasing as a result of global warming but with only low to moderate confidence and I have no idea about the effect size and my confidence that we've seen such a non-trivial effect will be even smaller but that's not what remarks like yours suggest to the reader and I don't think it's harmless.

No one is going "when it was only sea level rise I figured no big deal but now I know forest fires are affected I'm taking it seriously" but most people I know who resist climate change do so exactly because they don't know enough to read the papers but can sense that their being bullshited when it's name checked in every discussion about bad weather in a universally bad way and resent that.

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Jun 15·edited Jun 15Author

I really don’t think I was exaggerating that point in this piece. The scientists I’ve read and experts I’ve talked do generally agree that hotter summer temperatures and more instances of extreme heat will and have lead to more forest fires, especially in the west. I’m not a climate scientist, so I’m going off the consensus that I got from their views. Of course, the relationships between the two is complicated. I tried to make that as clear as possible in my piece.

The main point of the article isn’t about whether climate change was the driving cause. It’s how we can fix the situation we’re currently in. That’s why I think Patrick Brown’s point about the difference between business as usual and following the Paris agreement is so interesting. The best thing we can do to fight forest fires is remove barriers to responsible forest management.

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I'm not an expert on forest fires. The most I've ever done is fight them in college and now I live remotely in Colorado. But mentally the assumptions are that gw accounts for maybe 5% of forest fire issues and bad public policy, which is driven by mistaken public opinion, is about 90% of it. In the forests both accumulate fuel and grow much denser over time with fire suppression over time, making big fires inevitable and burning the soil down to bedrock. The news, and the legal system, property owners and and their financial and insurance system are geared towards finding some individual to blame when a fire starts and becomes large. I don't know how but a lot of this bureaucratic cruft and dithering would become redundant if we just considered any cause other than proven arson to be 'an act of God' or 'an act of the ecosystem' depending on personal taste.

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I'm impressed that you've gone out and fought them. I once talked with some old guys at Taos Pueblo and learned that it's common for Native Americans to serve on the fire lines. They also know about fire management traditions (including controlled burns) which, I believe, some smaller fire management agencies are starting to pay attention to.

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Ok that's plausible but I think then it would be helpful to say that rather than citing to a work that doesn't really strongly support the claim. I assumed that was therefore the strongest evidence you had for the claim -- and I still think the link cited very insufficient evidence.

Though it's worth being careful here because what makes this issue tricky is that the apparent correlation between temperature and number of fires per year won't tell you what happens in the long term average and still may point the other way. If you've talked to scientists who have a sense from other studies of unmanaged/optimally managed forests of how that long term dependence works out that's far stronger evidence in my book than the cites from the EPA (it's data from places other than the USA with unmanaged fires they should have been cutting).

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Are you really sure the metric you've picked - fires per year - is the one that should be adopted? Based on what I know of western forests we want many more fires per year. Smaller and more controlled, but more.

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I think I wasn't clear. I was saying fire per year doesn't tell you the long term average of acres burned per year. So I was suggesting that wasn't the right metric.

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Perhaps something like 'years since there was fire on median acre' or something should be the metric. The more years, the more unhealthy the forest.

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Median in what sense?

Something like number of acres burned per decade seems like a good rough metric. Especially if you define burned to require not just a brushfire but combustion of hardwood. Though I expect a detailed examination would reveal an even better metric.

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Jun 15·edited Jun 15

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether or not it’s true (I would guess it is) but I do suspect that the habit of referencing climate change in the headline or first paragraph of every weather-related or plausibly-related natural disaster news story in the mainstream media is probably doing more harm than good?

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So...a warmer climate = more water in the air. In the US west that means longer & more extreme drought (punctuated by extreme precipitation events/ARs).

Drought = dry vegetation, which is what fuels mega-wildfires. These fires (last 7-10 yrs) are not normal in scope or intensity. Wildfire science is very clear on this point.

If you don't believe climate change is driving wildfire in the west (coupled with misguided forest mgt & development pushing into WUIs) just because the math of attribution is complex, then you might be missing the forest for the trees here.

Also, Ben made all the appropriate hedging noises.

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Yes about drought, but I'm also seeing fears about the fire season here in the PNW because we had lots of spring rain, and thus a lot of lush undergrowth that'll be naturally drying out in the next few months.

(On my hikes it looked like there was more bright greenery from Pacific Waterweed etc. marching up the slopes when spring was just beginning.)

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Especially that big fire a few years ago in Australia. I worry about them now that this year is back to El Niño

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I feel like you came in really hot here when Ben was pretty clear that the article isn’t about causation and that the existing evidence isn’t dispositive.

Separately, I agree with another post that maybe doing the obligatory 3 paragraph climate change thing at every opportunity should be ditched.

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That's fair. Looking at what I said I agree it was too aggressive. Sorry Ben, I shouldn't take my annoyance at climate change causation checking out on you.

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The fact that the main comment here was the second-most liked comment on this article is baffling.

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Jun 15·edited Jun 15

Well said.

I'd only add to this point: "Yes, of course, if I had to bet I'd obviously bet on forest fires net increasing as a result of global warming" ...

... Forest fires where?

Because depending on how El Nino / La Nina conditions play out (e.g., the Pacific Ocean Cold Tongue) -- there's going to be massive rain fall and drought implications to different parts of the US (world?) which could "solve" the forest fire problem for California (i.e., "record" snow and rainfalls last two years) but who knows who the big loser is. Said differently, modeling the climate is probably second in complexity to modeling human behavior. It's really hard.

https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/04/a-mystery-in-the-pacific-is-complicating-climate-projections

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2024-05-09/california-reservoirs-are-filling-up-see-the-before-after-photos

EDIT: Second image here show how the polar jet stream moves during La Nina and how that changes the weather patterns across the US.

https://research.noaa.gov/2023/11/07/recent-triple-dip-la-nina-upends-current-understanding-of-enso/

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Because I don't know those details I'd just take the mildly positive expectation everywhere but ofc it will increase in some areas and decrease in others. I'm just saying the prior is likely a positive net effect.

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As Ben said, even though you can never pin down a specific fire on climate change in isolation, climate change does make big fires more likely on average. I don't see what the problem is with that.

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TBF much of this is the fault of the EPA and the way those studies are presented as if they offered greater confidence than they really do.

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Jun 15Liked by Ben Krauss

Excellent post, Ben! Like Matt S, I think there's a lot more to say about the efficacy (or not) of environmental groups, and it would be great to see you say some of it.

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The 9th Circuit is low-key just as harmful (#bothsides [TM]) as the current SCOTUS.

♫ Burninating the countryside, burninating the lynx-es ♫

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🔥🔥Trogdooooor!!!!!!🔥🔥

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🐉💪

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One Billion Thatch-Roofed Cottages

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And this is how we know this commentariat is a bunch of Xennials

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I want to support and donate to environmental advocacy groups that pick their battles wisely (and don't cause habitats to burn down in the process of trying to protect them). Which groups would that be?

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author

It’s a great question. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been one of the leading voices on this issue. But I’ll search for some more and let you know.

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Hunter / Environmentalist is an interesting cross-pressured group I didn't think about before. Thanks!

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+1 to this question, I’d love to read a whole article on this topic

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This is a huge question, actually. I’m noticing my intuition is that I can’t trust any environmental group to do cost-benefit analysis, considering the whole movement is inspired by sacred values about Mother Nature etc, nor to avoid slipping down the slope into everything bagel progressivism where you can’t *really* save the forests until you’ve protected [some group] rights.

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My anecdotal observation is never donate to a group with "Friends" in the name, they are always NIMBYs.

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It's a sad but darkly amusing example of the "control of nature" hubris of the mid-20th century that we thought we could just *not have* forest fires.

I generally side with the econ-brained techno-optimists but I hope there's a lesson here for everyone.

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I don’t think it’s hubris, it just didn’t work. We've flown through the air, eradicated diseases, and built cities in the desert, we do lots of controlling of nature that previous generations would have thought impossible. Calling it hubris implies it was obviously not going to work, and I think that’s far from the truth.

No, the big problem — and the lesson we should take away — is we kept doing it even when it became evident it wasn’t working. We should try lots of stuff, but we should be quick to change course when it doesn’t work rather than continuing to pursue failed policies.

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I’d say it’s a bit too early to tell on the cities in the desert. Let’s check back on whether Phoenix and Vegas make it to 2050 successfully supplying water to their current population of users.

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Jun 17Liked by Ben Krauss

I live on the border of Tahoe National Forest (literally). In my “backyard” the forest has been beautifully thinned. Go over the hill and it’s a mess: trees are crowded together, there are dead trees everywhere, and on the live trees there are dead branches down to the ground. A fire would *rip* through.

All last fall there were controlled burns around Lake Tahoe and I’ve seen one in South Lake so far this year. It does seem like fire operations are picking up.

Homeowners insurance is expensive and hard to get!

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I’m so sorry. I let you all down. And now everyone is paying the price.

One summer on vacation when I was six years old, a talking bear in a hat told me I was the ONLY ONE who could prevent forest fires. I thought I was too old to believe in talking bears. And anyway, I was a kid, just a regular kid, not the magical fire-retardant messiah this bear thought I was.

I brushed him off. I turned away from my fate, scorned the righteous mission that God, through this ursine John the Baptist, was clearly calling me to. My powers were wasted. I led a normal life free from divine intervention in forestry.

And now look. The world is on fire. The apocalypse is here. And it’s my fault.

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This doesn’t strike me as particularly half-baked. This is a well-written piece with a clear and actionable policy recommendation.

How off-brand…

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author

Mixing it up! And I at least like to think the more out there ideas are at least well written…

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Jun 15Liked by Ben Krauss

Yes, always well-written. I should have said “well-argued” which isn’t to say that the take bakery pieces aren’t well-argued, but they purposefully aren’t fully baked.

This one was fully baked!

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This one didn't have the Take Bakery intro to it.

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To me, when I hear there’s a strong consensus among forest management professionals that we need to spend more money on forest management, it’s like hearing the association of snack food manufacturers declare that Americans need to eat more snack food. Why should I believe these people?

It reminds me of claiming the Olympics will bring billions of dollars of benefits so we better build more stadiums.

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Fair point. But I’m not sure whether this is a question of asking for more funding, or more freedom to do their job. There’s a lot of good evidence for the benefits of prescriptive fires and mechanical trimming.

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This is a good point, and why I love the recommendations on this post. Allowing the Forestry service to skip these unnecessary reviews will make them both more effective and save taxpayer money.

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This! It is a historical fact that the US Forestry service is institutionally coupled with the timber industry & takes a particular approach to forestry -- one modeled on extractive resource "management." Original institutionalization has a strongly dispositive effect. Any student of long-fetch political history knows this.

In this case, it matters because there are many kinds of forestry & ways of approaching the work. I don't trust an unreformed agency that's flush with cash (and over burdened with an urgent workload) to exercise unchecked judgement. Trust is at issue, and so is a balancing of concerns/perspectives.

I live in Northern Sonoma County. This issue is not theoretical for me or my community.

Hippy/green punching bros: keep it in your pants. The comments on this have been gag-enducing.

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The timber industry is good; we need cheap, high-quality wood to build more housing.

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Excellent and thorough article, Ben. Need more people calling out the net harms of many "Greens."

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I'm down to punch hippies.

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As a resident of the west coast, thank you for writing this!

When I talk to friends/family/acquaintances who live east of the Mississippi, most do not understand that wildfires are part of the ecology and that the forests need occasional fires to stay healthy.

This is especially true for Western Washington, Oregon and Northern California. I have to explain that even the wet west's ecology has evolved for regular fires, though they are less frequent than in Southern California. Back in the early 1900's smoky summers were a thing in Portland and Seattle. There are also old photos of the west side of the Cascade mountains with visible burn scars. The other thing I occasionally point out is that relatively small fires can lead to very bad air quality. A couple of years ago Seattle had the worst air quality in the world for a couple of days. The smoke came from a pretty small fire and the atmospheric conditions led to the smoke being concentrated in the Seattle area.

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Jun 18·edited Jun 18

Caveat re: east of the Mississippi - my understanding is that the Southeast actually does a good job of prescribed burns and is held up as a model for forest management compared to the West. Southerners understand it, apparently.

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A couple years ago in Portland that was AWFUL

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Great article! I’m not a de-growther anymore thanks to people like MattY and his book One Billion Americans but I care more about the loss of biodiversity than humans if I had to choose. So, I would love to read more about the net policy impacts on habitat destruction/protected species status. What kind of policies have worked, what haven’t.

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"I care more about the loss of biodiversity than humans if I had to choose"

This is a reminder that there are lots of different viewpoints, and its very difficult if impossible to find a compromise that accommodates them.

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Accommodating my viewpoint and lowering per capita carbon emissions are entirely compatible goals that are achievable with densely populated urban areas.

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Yeah, but it doesn’t accommodate my viewpoint, which is that I’ve earned a bunch of money and I want to use it to create a large space for my family. Also, as I said in 1990 when these ridiculous energy transition plans were being proposed, we have at least a hundred years to come up with a solution, and that’s a ton of time considering how technology advances. The global warming clique has shifted to a timetable that is even farther out than I suggested in 1990.

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No one has any obligation to accommodate everyone’s wishes. We make a case for what we believe in and try to convince a majority. In your case, it seems like a fool’s errand to assume that nothing will change over hundreds of years and your descendants will keep whatever property you own now. Even powerful kings could not guarantee that for their descendants.

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Well, you sure jump to erroneous conclusions, lol. I am in favor of confiscatory inheritance taxes. My wife and I have willed, about what an upper middle class kid would likely inherit, to each of our kids. The rest goes to teach-them-to-fish type charities, as well as to some conservative think tanks. I hate the idea of ruining kids lives by giving them money. Plus, we raised our kids well and they won’t go hungry.

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They could easily go hungry or your grandchildren could. Bad luck can strike anyone.

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This is NOT “a truth”:

“ Hotter summers, driven by anthropogenic climate change, have led to an increase in the frequency and scope of wildfires.”

Scientists do not know how much of the warming trend, which started before any material human contribution, is due to anthropogenic factors. This is fake news, just like when all the former security experts swore Hunter’s laptop was Russian misinformation, and just like Fauci and his paid lackeys claiming that it was “molecularly” almost impossible that covid was a lab leak or genetically engineered.

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Ah, one of my pet issues. I had never heard of the Canadian Lynx aspect of this. Thanks for the info!

You know what's weird? For all the ways that humans impact the environment that environmentalists give us grief for, preventing naturally occuring forest fires never comes up, but it's one of the most environmentally devastating things we do!

Also, if I show my father-in-law the part about the spotted owl, he will blow a gasket.

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This is not true about the actual behavior and beliefs of environmental groups.

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Really? I've never heard of them trying to permit controlled burns.

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Here, for example, is a Wilderness Society article basically agreeing with most of this post: https://www.wilderness.org/news/blog/public-lands-climate-crisis-wildfires

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Huh! Ok, I haven't seen anybody make that point before. Glad to see it. Usually during wildfire season I just see a bunch of articles about how bad climate change is, which it is, just rarely more about actual fire policy.

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It's important to consider the role that trust plays here. Many people who are focused on protecting forests and wildlife see the FS as overly focused on logging and thinning (as opposed to controlled burns, for example) as a way to do more logging that sees "green". The right approach is to have trustworthy government agencies and allow them to exercise discretion but you can't skip step 1.

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the challenge is that many of the folks who feel the FS is overly focused on logging start from a premise that logging is per se bad.

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The “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” crowd in the environmental community has probably stymied more rational progress than Exxon. Ideology superseding science, good intentions blocking sense, and checkbooks funding lawfare have yielded decades of delays in needed efforts.

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Right people disagree about the merits of natural resource extraction vs habitat preservation vs recreation. But also there's a big difference between "logging is necessary" and "the NF system should subsidize private resource extraction".

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Much of the PNW "forest" is second-growth (maybe third-growth) Douglas Fir monoculture. Thinking of these as "plantations" puts them into the agricultural sector. I don't know the extent to which the FS can force timber companies to take responsibility for fire management.

I suspect timber companies are willing to take losses for burnt trees rather than spend the money to prevent the fires. After all, I don't think they have to pay for getting those fires under control, and they certainly don't care about the air quality issues that hit our cities (even though our urban FDs are also out there trying to protect other people's personal property in those fires.)

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Fukuyama had a piece in foreign policy about the rotting of the bureaucratic system and used the forest service as a prime example. It should be required reading for the environmentalist types and everyone else interested in domestic policy. If you're depending on competence and benevolence from your governing bodies that actively select for the contrary of those qualities you're only making the situation worse.

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