Colorado wildfires this season burned over a thousand square miles, and the Cameron Peak Fire destroyed over 200 homes in addition to other structures. Thousands of people evacuated. For days dense smoke settled around Boulder and the Denver Metro area, exacerbating asthma and other health problems. With this on top of the pandemic, it’s been a rough year.
Obviously we should try to figure out reasonable steps to mitigate the severity of wildfires. Predictably, that discussion has spilled over into partisan politics. How do we make sense of things?
Radio host Jimmy Sengenberger argued that it’s “simply wrong for Joe Biden, John Hickenlooper, Jared Polis and others to persist in blaming ‘climate change’ for our immense fires, when it’s clear that bad forest management has powered the blaze.” He proposed giving people greater access to forests to remove deadfall.
Chase Woodruff, environmental reporter for the progressive Colorado Newsline, and always the calm professional, called Sengenberger’s article “wildly irresponsible denialist bullshit.” He pointed to articles suggesting that logging actually makes fires worse, that climate change dramatically increased acreage burned, and that “our current wildfire season is the worst in 1,000 years.” To Woodruff, the East Troublesome Fire is “a sign of Colorado’s grim climate future.” Similarly, to Sam Brasch and Colorado Public Radio, “Colorado’s Fiery October Is A Climate Change Alarm Bell.”
Let’s try out a little common sense here to cut through the rhetorical smoke. We all know that broader conditions involving precipitation and temperatures dramatically affect fires. And we all know that people can mitigate the danger of fires locally. A wood structure in the middle of a dense forest is inherently at risk of burning in a forest fire. Clearing brush and thinning trees around a structure makes it less likely to burn.
Here’s the thing about blaming climate change for Colorado’s fires: That doesn’t actually point to a solution moving forward. Even if somehow we could magically turn all of our gasoline cars into electric cars, all of our natural gas furnaces into heat pumps, and all of our fossil-fuel electric power generators into fields of solar panels, windmills, and batteries, today, that would still leave atmospheric carbon dioxide at current levels.
And of course we can’t magically switch to low-carbon energy. Any transition will take decades, meaning that carbon dioxide will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Thankfully, because of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), we’ve been able to switch a lot of electricity generation from coal to cleaner natural gas. And, because of better computerized technology, we’ve been able to create more wealth with fewer natural resources, as Andrew McAfee writes in More from Less. But we simply will continue to burn lots of fossil fuels for the time being, so our strategy for handling wild fires moving forward cannot be based on the fantasy of rolling back the clock.
I am encouraged by developments in nuclear technology for the generation of electricity and by the public’s increasing acceptance of it. Some day, with the abundant, cheap electricity that nuclear energy can provide, we could meet our energy needs with that carbon-free source and even divert some of that electricity to pulling carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. But, thanks largely to “green” campaigns against this carbon-free energy source, that day is not today or in the near future. So what can we do now?
If we actually read the sources that Woodruff recommends, we find they support the strategy of fire mitigation. Eric Holthuas writes, “Decades of drought and beetle infestations worsened by rapidly warming temperatures have led to massive stands of dead forests across western North America.” What Sengenberger recommends precisely is the removal of that dangerous beetle-kill wood.
The New Republic article that Woodruff recommends makes the plausible case that “logging removes the mature, fire-resistant trees; reduces the shade of the forest canopy that otherwise keeps the floor cool and wet; opens the forest to more wind that drives fire; spreads flammable invasive grasses like cheatgrass; and leaves a combustible mosh of what’s called slash debris, piles of branches and treetops that act as kindling.” But is Sengenberger talking about removing “mature, fire-resistant trees” and leaving behind “slash debris?” No. He’s talking about removing deadfall. The New Republic article supports the broader point that forest management matters a lot.
Right now, moving forward, what’s most important in terms of the fires is to figure out how to mitigate the dangers of wildfires through sensible forest management. Any claim to the contrary is—and I hate to say it—wildly irresponsible denialist bullshit.