Fuel to the Fire

Fuel to the Fire

By: Andrea Sparrow, Executive Producer, Arctic Arts Project

Humans fear wildfire. Fast, crucible hot, often beyond our control, we’ve attributed devils and demons with the characteristics of fire, for millennia. And it is terrifying. Wildfires in the Western United States this year have broken record after record. The hottest. The biggest. The most expensive and destructive. California, Colorado and Oregon have all been left in stunned awe and grief, in the aftermath of multiple, roaring infernos.

The questions of why the fires are growing bigger and hotter and more frequent have different answers, depending on where you are, but two things contribute to the majority of these massive blazes: climate change and poor forest management policies.

Copyright @Gerry Morrell 2020

Changes in weather are an intrinsic part of the CO2 emissions we’ve added to the atmosphere. Increased temperatures and drought contribute to the scale and intensity of fires. Climate change brings the conditions for fire to ever more forested land in the west. But it is the way we have managed our forests that has fed these fires to become the devastating, all consuming conflagrations we’ve seen in recent years.

Our fear of fire, an unwillingness to embrace its symbiotic place in the forest’s natural plan for itself, has led to a build-up of fuel in our wild places. For many forests, the drier, inland forests in particular, fire is meant to play a role in controlling the amount of flammable material in the forest. Historically, fires would skim through the forest, taking dead, dry materials, clearing some of the understory, but leaving the larger trees, snags and riparian areas relatively unscathed. After 100 years of fire suppression, we have reached a point where our forests are full of flammable materials. The fires that burn here get so hot that sometimes not a single living thing is left behind. When you add air temperatures that increase every year, and less rainfall, you have a tinderbox that can be lit by the smallest spark.

Copyright @Gerry Morrell 2020

Interestingly, we actually know what needs to be done to fix both the way we manage our forested lands and climate change. After years of managing many forests as plantations for growing timber, we’ve learned that these single species, single aged, densely planted lands contribute to the conflagrations. Without the diversity of species, a range of ages, natural spacing and fungal and bacterial soil communities, the trees on industrial timber lands are like match sticks standing in gunpowder. A thriving forest, designed by nature rather than man, is resistant to fire. The soil holds more moisture, various species and ages of plants and trees help protect one another. A truly functional forest creates its own weather, with taller trees dampening winds, holding in moisture and offering protection from the sun’s heat for smaller species of all kinds. There are layers of complex relationships among the trees, plants, animals, birds, and soil communities that bolster their ability to resist and rebound when they have contact with fire. Industrial timber lands are bereft of the benefits these naturally grown forests have, making them burn easily, faster and more completely while they pass the engorged blaze on to the next forested area.

Copyright @Andrea Sparrow 2020

Returning our forested lands to their natural, functional state needs to be at the top of our list of priorities in the US. We can allow forests to flourish, not for the economic returns on timber, but for their sheer power to absorb carbon, create clean water, foster biodiversity and regulate their own fuel loads. They can also help us wrestle some control over the climate chaos we’ve created by absorbing massive amounts of the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. These forests, grown as nature intended, would become more resistant to the kinds of super fires we’ve seen this year, preventing the loss of high levels of carbon, human and animal health, homes and the forest cover that physically cools surface temperatures and absorbs CO2.

Copyright @Ben Elkins 2020

The money to do this could come from many places. First and foremost, to redirect the subsidies, currently given to the fossil fuel industry, to fund projects on climate resilience, makes an enormous amount of sense. The IMF estimates that the US spent over $650 billion on subsidies to fossil fuel companies in 2017 alone. This money comes from taxes, so US citizens are paying, through taxes, to fund lower costs for fossil fuels and support continued destruction of the environment. Rather than funding more CO2 going into the atmosphere, we can use some of that money to fund forest projects that help absorb CO2, and get all the other benefits a healthy forest provides to humans and animals alike.

We can also be proactive rather than reactive by using funds to avoid massive fires through better forest management, rather than waiting for them to happen and spending billions in immediate and long-term recovery. The cost of just fighting the 2020 fires in Colorado, Oregon and California is well over $20 billion already. The cost of recovery is a multiple of that.

Copyright @ Ben Elkins 2020

Creating a federal carbon market in the US would also allow the cost of carbon to be accounted for. Companies whose products create CO2 would have to pay for the costs associated with it. Currently, these external costs are borne by citizens, either directly or indirectly. They are not paid for by the companies whose activities produce the emissions and environmental degradation. The cost in 2015 of these external costs was $5.3 trillion worldwide according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Redirecting subsidies and building a carbon market would allow companies absorbing CO2 to be compensated for doing so, including the owners of forested land who decide to grow their trees, rather than cutting them for wood or paper products.

We have raised the CO2 level in our atmosphere to 415ppm ( parts per million). It’s difficult to get consensus from scientists on how much CO2 is safe, but there is overwhelming agreement that anything over 350ppm will result in unmanageable changes in climate and weather. Forests and grasslands are the only way we currently have to pull substantial amounts of carbon back out of the atmosphere and store it for a long period of time. Growing forests as they evolved to grow, in their natural communities, increases their carbon absorption and has the added benefit of making them resistant to pests, fire, and changes in weather, while providing habitat to help rebuild some of our lost biodiversity.

Copyright @ Andrea Sparrow 2020

This may sound simplistic, and certainly there are complexities to implementing change in our society, but we have the opportunity to recognize where we are and change course now, before the consequences of our current trajectory become even more evident. It is much cheaper and more beneficial to our societies and economies to remake our energy and resource markets to fit with what the earth and our atmosphere can actually provide. Growing trees, in rehabilitated forests that reflect the natural communities of species, is one of our solutions to both climate change and the extraordinary fires we are experiencing.