Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Why do serious journalists keep talking about good fires?

Because they work.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Last year and the year before, in an unprecedented environmental disaster, wildfires in California’s Sequoia National Park and nearby national forests roared through treasured sequoia groves in the Southern Sierra Nevada, generating flames hundreds of feet high and killing nearly 20% of all the giant sequoia trees left in the world.

But the Washburn fire burning now in Yosemite National Park, licking around the edges of the roughly 500 giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove — some over 200 feet tall and more than 2,000 years old  — so far hasn’t killed a single one of the massive old-growth trees there.

A big part of the reason, experts say, is that park officials completed 23 projects at the grove since 1971 to thin brush and set controlled burns to remove dead wood and vegetation that had built up over more than century of fire suppression.

That left less dead material on the forest floor, and fewer shrubs and small trees like firs that can make fires burn hotter. As a result, the forest was restored to a more natural condition, experts say, similar to the way it would have looked centuries ago when lightning strikes and burning from native tribes sent low-impact fires through the Sierra every 10 years or so.

With a few notable exceptions (ProPublica, Reveal, Marketplace, NPR), the national coverage of the California wildfires has been, terrible. Sadly ecstatic disaster porn, with superficial coverage of causes and no interest whatsoever in solutions, which is especially sad because this is one of the few crises where we know what we need to do.

Liz Weil from her definitive ProPublica piece on the subject:

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

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