Site icon Conservation news

Backfire: How misinformation about wildfire harms climate activism (commentary)

  • In this commentary, Douglas Bevington argues that climate activists may be inadvertently hurting their cause when they repeat erroneous claims about forest fires in the American West.
  • Bevington says that fire suppression has caused an ecologically harmful shortage of fire in western forests.
  • He adds that forest fire policy is being used as a pretext for logging and biomass energy production.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

When large wildfires in the forests of the western United States generate dramatic headlines, it can be particularly tempting for climate activists to adopt negative messages about wildfire and link them with global warming as a means of building public concern about dangers from anthropogenic climate change. While such efforts are well-intentioned, in this essay I examine how negative messages about wildfire will ultimately backfire for climate activists by inadvertently giving cover to logging schemes that are harmful to forests and the climate.

There are two key aspects of the forest fire issue that makes it a particularly tricky territory for climate activists. The first is that human-caused mechanized wildfire suppression by the US Forest Service and similar agencies has caused a significant shortage of fire in forests of the western US over the past century and continuing to this day. Fire is a natural and beneficial component of western forests, just like rain is. Mixed-severity fires create great wildlife habitat and stimulate nutrient cycling that enables the long-term vitality of the forest. Thus, the anthropogenic shortage of fire is harmful to forests. In this human-altered context, an increase in fire amount from the current depressed levels actually functions as an ecological recovery for forest ecosystems.

The second tricky aspect of the forest fire issue is the role of the Forest Service, the timber industry, and other logging proponents. Faced with widespread public concern over the damage from logging on national forests, in the 1990s and 2000s the Forest Service and timber industry began repackaging logging under the Orwellian claim that it was now being done to “protect” forests from fires, even though fire is a necessary part of forest ecosystems. Today most logging on national forests is done using fire-related pretexts, including massive projects involving extensive clearcutting. In this context, logging proponents have promoted deceptively negative portrayals of fire in order to keep extracting more trees from national forests. When climate activists adopt these negative messages about the wildfires in the western forests, they risk repeating false and misleading claims from logging proponents.

This situation leads to three key dangers for climate activism. First, it is important for climate activists to maintain their credibility as reliable sources of accurate scientific information, so we should be careful to avoid repeating the timber industry’s erroneous and misleading claims about fire. Second, erroneous fire-related claims are used to promote logging projects that emit large amounts of carbon and thus contribute to global warming. Third, when logging under the guise of fire reduction is portrayed as a form of climate adaptation and/or mitigation, those logging projects seek to pull limited climate-related funding away from legitimate projects to confront the climate crisis.

I examine each of these three dangers in greater detail below. I address ways that climate activists can identify deceptive claims about wildfire. And I conclude by exploring how protecting forests from logging and restoring more fire as a natural ecosystem process are an important part of an overall solution to climate crisis.

Danger #1: Repeating Logging Proponents’ False and Misleading Claims about Fire

In this section, I examine two prominent examples of false or misleading claims about forest fires in the West promoted by the Forest Service and timber industry that are sometimes adopted by climate activists regarding fire amount and fire severity

While I critique some ways that logging proponents try to link climate change into their representations of wildfire, I want to make clear that I am not questioning that anthropogenic climate change is a global crisis or that it affects fire. Instead, the problem I am highlighting is that logging proponents have mischaracterized those effects in ways that lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the fire situation in western forests—the mistaken belief that there is now a harmful excess of fire in those forests. This mischaracterization in turn is used to promote forest-harming, carbon-emitting actions done under the guise of reducing fire.

The Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, like most fires in western forests, burned mainly with a mixture of low- and moderate-severity effects, as well as some high-severity patches. Photo by Doug Bevington.

Is There Too Much Forest Fire?

The amount of fire has risen in western forests in recent decades for a variety of reasons including the effects of climate change. However, this point is often presented in a way that states or implies that there is now an unnatural excess of fire in western forests, and that presentation is misleading. The important distinction here is between “more fire” and “too much fire.” As we will see, an increase in fire amount does not mean that there is now an excess of fire.

There is widespread agreement among scientists that there was significantly more fire in western forests a century or more ago compared to the present. The effects of large-scale mechanized wildfire suppression by the Forest Service and similar agencies starting in the early 20thcentury contributed to a massive decline to the amount of fire, with national totals bottoming out in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, fire amount has begun to go back up due to a variety of factors, one of which is anthropogenic climate change. Other factors include natural multi-decadal climate variation connected with the El Nino weather patterns and a greater willingness by land managers such as the National Park Service to allow wildfire activity as they came to better understand the natural importance of fire. Yet even with the increases over recent decades, current fire amounts are still well below what they should be. One recent estimate indicated that western forests need approximately five times as much fire as they are now experiencing.[i] In this context, an increase in fire amount from the suppressed levels is a desirable recovery, not an ecological problem.

People who try to portray recent fire increases as evidence of an unnatural excess of fire often do so by using a misleading baseline. They compare current fire amounts to a relatively recent time period in the midst of intensive fire suppression– such as the 1980s, ‘70s or ‘60s– rather than using the natural amounts of fire prior to intensive suppression. For example, the Forest Service portrayed the 10 million acres of fire that occurred in 2016 as a “record,” but they made this claim by using statistics that only go back to 1960. However, the Forest Service’s own materials acknowledge that there was much more fire in the early 20th century; for example, in the 1930s, between 30 and 50 million acres would burn each year.[ii] In that context, the 2016 “record” is in fact just another year in which forests experienced a deep shortage of fire compared to what would naturally occur. Similarly, individual recent fires also get described as “record,” but those claims are inevitably based on a narrow baseline of statistics that only cover fires during the period of intensive anthropogenic suppression, while overlooking the historical evidence that very large fires are a natural component of western forests.[iii]

Beyond shifting baselines, another misleading way to try to make current fires appear excessive is to substitute some other metric in lieu of the actual fire amount—such as emphasizing that the fire season has been made longer by climate change. Forests do indeed exist in world affected by anthropogenic climate change due to greenhouse gas pollution, which has various effects including making the fire season longer. However, the fire season is simply the timeframe when fires might occur, whereas what ultimately matters for forest ecosystems is how much fire actually occurs. And the inconvenient truth often avoided by logging proponents is that much less fire is occurring in western forests now compared to what naturally happened a century or more ago, so those forests need significantly more fire than current levels.

Another pivot is to focus on projected fire amount in the future. For example, some models suggest that anthropogenic climate change could double the current amount of wildfire in California by the end of this century. Yet it is important to put these projections in the context of the current fire shortage. If those forests need five times more fire than they have now, even if fire doubles by the end of the century, at that point the forests would still only be experiencing less than half as much fire as they naturally should. All the while, those forests would continue to be harmed by the on-going shortfall of fire depriving them of essential ecosystem processes.

The anthropogenic fire shortage thus results in a messaging conundrum for climate activists who seek to use forest fire to illustrate problems created by global warming. For climate activists to remain being reliable sources for the best available science, we need to be careful to acknowledge the overall shortage of forest fire compared to natural levels or else we risk giving the false impression that recent increases in fire amount mean that there is now too much fire. Yet after fire is put in proper context, it becomes a puzzling messaging choice for climate activists to seek to highlight the effects of climate change on wildfire amount at a time when more fire is actually needed for the ecological recovery of western forests. There are many clear and scientifically accurate examples of problems created by global warming that climate activists can draw upon, but the erroneous notion that climate change has caused an unnatural excess of fire in western forests is not one of them.

High-severity patches within wildfires create “snag forests” with lots of snags (dead trees) and wildflowers that provide excellent habitat for wildlife. Photo by Doug Bevington.

Are Fires Getting More Severe?

Climate activists sometimes state that anthropogenic climate change has led to “more and hotter fires.” It is important here to disaggregate “more” from “hotter.” As discussed above, statements about there being more fire are misleading unless placed in the context of the long-term shortage of wildfire due to anthropogenic suppression. In contrast, the claim that forest fires are getting hotter is simply incorrect. The technical term generally used to describe the effects of hotter fires is “severity,” and there is an abundance of published scientific research showing that western forest fires are not getting more severe.

A frequent reference used to try to support this claim is a 2006 study of fire season length by Anthony Westerling and his colleagues.[iv] However, that study did not actually examine fire severity. In California, the other main citations used to claim that forest fire severity is increasing have been two studies published by Forest Service employee Jay Miller and his colleagues[v]. However, when independent scientists reviewed these studies, they found that the Miller and his colleagues had not used much of the available data. When all the available data was analyzed, it showed that there was not a trend of increasing fire severity.[vi] In all, there have been at least 10 published studies of California and elsewhere in the West that have found no trend of increasing forest fire severity, including a recent study co-authored by Westerling.[vii]

The myth of increasing fire severity has depended on omitting this scientific research. For example, Forest Service documents have frequently cited the Miller publications while avoiding discussion of the numerous other studies that refute Miller. Climate activists who care about scientific integrity should be careful not to repeat this deceptive practice of omission.

Climate activists should also be cognizant of erroneous claims that forest fires would only burn at low-severity in the past. There is a substantial body of historical evidence showing that fires in western forests naturally burn with a mixture of severities, including high-severity.[viii] In fact, the patches of high-severity within large mixed-severity fires create post-fire forest habitat that has some of the highest wildlife diversity and abundance of any forest type.[ix] In other words, high-severity fire is a natural and beneficial component of western forest ecosystems. Likewise, efforts to suppress the high-severity components of mixed-severity fire are harmful to forests and wildlife by depriving them of this important ecosystem process.

Five years after the Rim Fire, abundant natural tree regeneration in the high-severity patches is contributing to carbon sequestration. Photo by Doug Bevington.

Danger #2: Misinformation about Fire is Used to Promote Logging Projects that Release Forest Carbon

The Forest Service and timber industry have come to rely on misinformation about forest fire to promote logging and fire suppression on America’s national forests. When climate activists adopt their messaging, they inadvertently provide cover for efforts to increase logging and reduce forest protections for some of our most diverse and vibrant forest areas. Even now we can see attempts by the Trump administration and Congress to use wildfire as a bogeyman in their effects roll back environmental protections for public lands. Climate activists may not mean to aid these efforts, but that is the net effect from using negative messaging on western forest fires.

Not only does this approach harm forests, it is also detrimental to the climate by promoting logging policies that release forest carbon. Forest ecosystems are an incredible source of natural carbon sequestration and storage. Unfortunately, more than a century of industrial logging has caused the loss of much forest carbon. Thanks to increased protection in recent decades, forests are starting to grow back and recover. When logging proponents try to foment fear of fire, they often misrepresent the situation by describing forests as “overstocked.” This is a bait-and-switch. They cite the number of trees in the forest, but that number includes many small trees in the recovering forest. It gives the false impression that there is too much forest in terms of actual amount, i.e., volume, when in fact there is a shortage. Small trees hold little carbon, so the overall volume of life and stored carbon is actually less than it naturally should be.[x] While logging proponents use the number of trees to imply that there is too much forest as a pretext for more cutting, the truth is that logging has caused an overall reduction of the carbon stored in forests.[xi] More logging will only increase the loss of forest carbon.

The current efforts to increase logging portray it as being done to reduce fire amount and severity, even though those goals do not comport with the best available science. As discussed above, our forests need more fire, not less. Forest fires are burning with a mixture of low-, moderate-, and high-severity effects, as they have always done, and fire severity is not increasing. While mixed-severity fire is often called by the pejorative, unscientific name “catastrophic fire,” mixed-severity fire is in fact an essential process that allows western forests to function and store carbon. However, logging proponents try to portray their attempts to prevent mixed-severity fire through more cutting as being beneficial for forest carbon storage by downplaying the ways that logging releases forest carbon and ignoring the ways that mixed-severity fire facilitates carbon storage.

Mixed-severity fires are beneficial for forest carbon because, in addition to creating great habitat for wildlife, these fires stimulate forest nutrient cycling. The result is that while mixed-severity fire creates some tree mortality, the many remaining living trees experience a pulse of growth and carbon uptake soon thereafter, and the nutrient enhancement from fire also stimulates growth of new plants and tree seedlings. Moreover, the standing dead trees created by intense fires provide continuing carbon storage for decades or centuries, while they are also providing important wildlife habitat. And when they ultimately decay, they become soil and contribute to the vitality of the next generation of trees sequestering carbon.

In contrast, these carbon benefits are lost when logging is done ostensibly to reduce fire severity.

Logging cuts trees down into smaller pieces that readily release greenhouse gases, and it removes the material from the forest ecosystem so that material no longer contributes to the nutrient cycling and fertility of the next generation of trees that would absorb more carbon. Approximately 45-60 percent of wood cut during logging very soon ends up as carbon dioxide emissions as the logging and milling process breaks the trees down into smaller pieces, and carbon is also released from soils disturbed by the logging machinery.[xii] In short, logging contributes to global warming.

The greenhouse gas emissions from logging done under fire-related pretexts are even worse when the cut material is used to fuel biomass-burning power facilities. Although biomass power often gets lumped together with solar and wind under the rubric of “renewable” energy, it is very different. Unlike solar and wind, biomass power is carbon-burning form of electricity production. It is also remarkably inefficient, producing more CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated than natural gas or even coal.[xiii] Biomass power is also different from wildfire in that it rapidly vaporizes the logged material, turning all the stored forest carbon into greenhouse gases instantaneously. In contrast, most of a forest’s carbon is still stored in the forest after a wildfire, if it is not logged.[xiv] In sum, biomass power facilities release the most carbon in the shortest amount of time.

Thus, the logging and biomass power “solutions” that are consistently linked with negative messaging on forest fire result in outcomes that harm forests and are also detrimental to the climate in terms of increased carbon emissions.

The carbon storage and ecological benefits of the snag forest habitat created by mixed-severity fire are destroyed when there is post-fire logging, as illustrated by this logging within the Rim Fire area. Photo by Doug Bevington.

Danger #3. Misinformation about Fire is Used to Take Resources away from Legitimate Climate Actions

In addition to emitting CO2, biomass facilities are also economically inefficient, relying on extensive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies to remain in business. That means that biomass facilities try to take the limited government funding for alternatives to fossil fuels, instead of those funds going to genuine climate solutions such as roof-top solar. In California, misinformation about forest fires was recent deployed to enact legislation mandating higher levels of biomass power usage. Utilities are now being forced to buy more electricity from biomass facilities even when it would be less costly for them to increase their use of solar energy (and doing so would also avoid the carbon emissions from the biomass facilities).[xv]

There are also other ways that misinformation about wildfire is being used to steer climate-related resources into subsidizing logging. For example, in California, state funding intended for climate adaptation is being channeled into the subsidies to cut trees under the guise of addressing fire. And the timber industry is seeking to claim eligibility for climate-related funding and other incentives by portraying logging as a form of fire reduction— even though fire severity is actually higher in areas where logging occurs than in protected areas.[xvi] In these ways, erroneous statements about fire can wind up undermining climate activists, not only by leading to more carbon-emitting logging projects and biomass power facilities, but also resulting in fewer resources being available for genuinely climate-beneficial actions.

Forests logged under fire-related pretexts are used to feed biomass power facilities that incinerate the cut trees, quickly emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. Photo by Chris Matera.

The Role of Forests and Fire in Climate Solutions

Forests are a natural source of large-scale carbon sequestration, so forest protection is an important component of an overall strategy to stop the climate crisis.[xvii] It is important to remember that forest ecosystems include not only living trees and other vegetation, but also numerous dead trees providing wildlife habitat and on-going carbon storage, as well as natural disturbance processes such as fire. Fire keeps material circulating within the forest ecosystems, and thus provides the basis for the long-term vitality and carbon storage capacity of the forest. In that regard, restoring a more natural forest fire regime—i.e., allowing mixed-severity fires to occur in greater amounts than currently—is a part of an overall climate solution.

Misinformation about fire is counterproductive to those climate goals. Deceptively negative claims about fire are used to try to fund ongoing intensive fire suppression that deprives forests of a needed ecosystem process. Moreover, these efforts are inevitably linked to logging and biomass power proposals that release forest carbon into the atmosphere rapidly and take nutrients out of the forest ecosystem. One key challenge is that these logging schemes are increasing being repackaged to appear climate-friendly in misleading ways that are often built upon negative messaging about forest fires. How can climate activists help the public avoid being misled by these duplicitous claims?

First and foremost, we should be wary of any proposal that uses fire as a pretext for logging. Rather than endorsing new excuses to take trees out of forests, we should focus on finding ways to keep carbon circulating within the forest ecosystem as part of the solution to the climate crisis. Just as climate activists challenging fossil fuel mining and drilling call to “Keep it [carbon] in the ground,” we should also seek to “Keep it [carbon] in the forest.”

Second, we should help the public learn to be cautious of statements that only portray fire in negative terms and do not mention the ecological benefits of mixed-severity fire in terms of wildlife habitat creation and nutrient cycling. In particular, look out for statements that refer to mixed-severity fire as “catastrophic” fire; this is an unscientific term that disguises the fact that mixed-severity fires are a natural and necessary component of western forests. We should also be alert to statements that do not acknowledge the overall shortage of mixed-severity fire in western forests compared to natural levels, and instead use misleading shifting baselines to compare current fire amounts only to recent decades during the period of intensive fire suppression.

Finally, another key challenge we face is that the timber industry, Forest Service, and their allies have stoked misunderstanding of fire among homeowners who live near forests in order to promote more logging. Climate activists can play a vital role in helping to address this problem. In particular, it is important that we remind communities near fire-dependent forests that, even though we now live in a climate-altered world, large wildfires have been a natural part of those ecosystems since long before anthropogenic climate change, so those communities need to take proper steps to safely coexist with fire.

The good news is that there are effective and cost-efficient ways to keep homes safe by focusing on the zone within 100-200 feet of houses and the houses themselves (such as using fire-safe roofing material).[xviii] Work at this manageable scale does more to keep houses safe and is less costly compared to subsidizing large-scale, expensive, carbon-releasing logging projects in remote areas away from communities.

Therefore, when climate activists oppose efforts to use fire as a pretext for more logging and instead support fire-safety measures directly around houses, we are advancing a solution that is better for the climate, better for forests, better for taxpayers, and more effective at helping communities safely coexist with wildfire.

Douglas Bevington is the Forest Director for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s California Program and he is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009).


[i] Mark Finney of the Missoula Fire Science Laboratory quoted in Abe Streep, Could Logging Reduce Wildfires?, Outside Online, September 28, 2017. See also Keane, R. et al., 2002. Cascading Effects of Fire Exclusion in Rocky Mountain Ecosystems: A Literature Review, RMS-GTR-91.

[ii] Powell, D.S. et al., 1992. Forest Resources of the United States, 1992, RMS-GTR-234.

[iii] DellaSala, D.A and C.T. Hanson, 2015. Ecological and Biodiversity Benefits of Megafires, in DellaSala, D.A. and C.T. Hanson (eds.) 2015. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. Elsevier.

[iv] Westerling, A. L. et al., 2006. Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western US Wildfire Activity. Science 313, 940.

[v] Miller, J.D., et al. 2009. Quantitative evidence for increasing forest fire severity in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems 12: 16–32; Miller, J.D. and H.D. Safford 2012. Trends in wildfire severity: 1984 to 2010 in the Sierra Nevada, Modoc Plateau, and Southern Cascades, California, USA. Fire Ecology 8: 41–57.

[vi] Hanson, C. T. and D.C. Odion, 2014. Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA? International Journal of Wildland Fire 23: 1–8, and Hanson, C.T. and D.C. Odion, 2015. Sierra Nevada fire severity conclusions are robust to further analysis: a reply to Safford et al. International Journal of Wildland Fire 24: 294-295.

[vii] Baker, W. L. 2015. Are high-severity fires burning at much higher rates recently than historically in dry-forest landscapes of the Western USA? PLoS ONE 10(9): e0136147; Collins, B.M. et al. 2009. Interactions among wildland fires in a long-established Sierra Nevada natural fire area. Ecosystems 12:114–128; Dillon, J.K. et al. 2011, Both topography and climate affected forest and woodland burn severity in two regions of the western US, 1984 to 2006. Ecosphere 2: Article 130; Hanson, C. T. and D.C. Odion, 2014. “Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA? International Journal of Wildland Fire 23: 1–8; Hanson, C.T. and D.C. Odion, 2015. Sierra Nevada fire severity conclusions are robust to further analysis: a reply to Safford et al. International Journal of Wildland Fire 24: 294-295; Keyser, A. and A.L. Westerling 2017. Climate drives inter-annual variability in probability of high severity fire occurrence in the western United States. Environmental Research Letters 12 065003; Miller, J.D. et al. 2012. Trends and causes of severity, size, and number of fires in northwestern California, USA. Ecological Applications 22: 184-203; Odion, D.C. et al. 2014. Examining historical and current mixed-severity fire regimes in Ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America. PLoS ONE 9(2): e87852; Picotte et al. 2016. 1984-2010 Trends in fire burn severity and area for the coterminous US. International Journal of Wildland Fire 25: 413-420; Schwind, B. 2008. Monitoring trends in burn severity: report on the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest fires (1984 to 2005). US Geological Survey.

[viii] Odion, D.C. et al. 2014. Examining historical and current mixed-severity fire regimes in Ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America. PLoS ONE 9(2): e87852

[ix] DellaSala, D.A, et al. 2014. Early Seral Forests of the Sierra Nevada: What are They and How Can They Be Managed for Ecological Integrity? Natural Areas Journal 34(3): 320-324; DellaSala, D.A. and C.T. Hanson (eds.) 2015. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. Elsevier.

[x] McIntyre, P.J. 2015. Twentieth-century shifts in forest structure in California. PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1410186112

[xi] Law, B. et al. 2018. Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests. PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1720064115.

[xii] Harmon, M.E., et al. 1996. Modeling carbon stores in Oregon and Washington forest products: 1900–1992. Climatic Change 33:521–550.

[xiii] Partnership for Public Integrity, Carbon Emissions from Burning Biomass for Energy.; Booth, M. 2018. Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy. Environmental Research Letters 13(3).

[xiv] Mitchell, S. 2015. Carbon Dynamics of Mixed- and High-Severity Wildfire: Pyrogenic C02 Emissions, Postfire Carbon Balance, and Succession. In DellaSala, D.A. and C.T. Hanson (eds.) 2015. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. Elsevier.

[xv] Pacific Gas and Electric Company, December 1, 2017. “Motion of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (U 39-E) to Suspend Biomat Program Procurement” [submitted to California Public Utilities Commission].

[xvi] Bradley, C.M. et al. 2016. Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States? Ecosphere 7(10): e01492

[xvii] Moomaw, B. and D. Smith, The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency. ; Law, B. et al. 2018. “Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests.” PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1720064115.

[xviii] Cohen, J.D. 2000. Preventing disaster: home ignitability in the wildland-urban interface. Journal of Forestry 98(3): 15-21; Cohen, J.D. and R.D. Stratton 2008. Home Destruction Examination: Grass Valley Fire. R5-TP-026b.

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is a Mongabay funder.