Misinformation, as we know, is not a recent phenomenon. It’s been used as a tool to sway public opinion for probably as long as human society has existed. In Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate ecologist Chad Hanson seeks to set the record straight on many of the false narratives around forest fires that have become accepted fact.
For instance, Hanson, who is the director of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, explains that the widely accepted narrative of the catastrophic forest fire is a falsehood. Vested interests, notably the Forest Service and the logging industry, have for years claimed that our forests are too dense and therefore flammable and thus must be “thinned,” or in other words, logged, to keep forest fires from getting out of control, he claims. They have demonized wildfires in order to fill their pockets with the profits from logged trees. And, Hanson writes, they have rebranded logging practices with “benevolent-sounding terms, such as ‘forest health,’ ‘fuel reduction,’ and ‘restoration’” to sway public opinion, particularly under the Trump administration. The media have helped fan public fear of forest fires, he adds, as have certain scientists and organizations.
Hanson makes a compelling case that these industry claims don’t hold up. For one, he points out that forest fires have been a natural part of the landscape for 300 million years and are integral to forest systems and ecosystems. He cites studies that show that “instead of destroying forests, the biggest and most intense fires … are creating some of the best and most biodiverse wildlife habitat.” Many animals and plants, like the buff-breasted flycatcher, are actually fire dependent, he explains, “relying on patches of high-intensity fire in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests to survive and reproduce.”
What’s more, Smokescreen posits that not only does logging destroy valuable and rich ecosystems, it also makes these areas drier and more open to the wind, and encourages the growth of flammable grasses. Because of this, “logging typically results in more intense wildfires when they do occur,” resulting in greater destruction when fire encounters our human world, Hanson writes. This appears to have been a factor with the devastating 2019 Camp Fire in California, which killed 86 people and destroyed 19,000 buildings.
Instead of putting massive resources into logging remote areas to “prevent fires,” Hanson is one of many scientists making the case that money should be invested in new solutions, especially fostering more fire-resilient communities. Encouraging people to make homes that are more resistant to fires by using fire-proof building materials and trimming combustible landscaping, for example, would reduce the destructive impact of wildfires. Given that buildings in many parts of the world have to be engineered for earthquakes, this idea makes a lot of sense.
Smokescreen also addresses the misinformation around megafires and climate change, specifically, the idea that forests are carbon bombs waiting to happen and fires will release obscene amounts of carbon into the air. The climate-friendly response to this threat, as proffered by vested interests, is cutting trees and storing the carbon in their harvested wood. Intuitively, the logic here seems faulty, just as preemptive strikes in war have always seemed hollow excuses for aggression. Hanson makes the important case that instead of destroying forests to “save” the planet, saving forests is the best way forward in the fight against climate change — mature forests, after all, can pull vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. Why not have the trees do what they do best?
People directly impacted by wildfires — those who have been evacuated, or have lost homes or loved ones — may have a knee-jerk reaction to Hanson’s central premise that fire is good. And his citation of study after study can be overwhelming at times. But there’s little doubt that Smokescreen’s reexamination of common narratives around wildfire will move the discussion on forest management forward, and away from a place of fear. Speaking to climate change enablers, including politicians and scientists who want to do the right thing but have so far struggled to, he offers an important message: “Fear is the currency of political weakness. All positive social change has ultimately been driven by hope and inspiration.”