Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 40: FIRE MYTHS

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. Here's talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel. 

 

JIMMY KIMMEL: It was a pretty hellish weekend here in the state of California this weekend. You know we've got three major wildfires going, two of which are not too far from us here in Hollywood. Hundreds of homes have been burned to the ground. I don't know how many thousands of families were evacuated. In the middle of all this, the president weighed in with this touching message of support. He wrote, there is no reason for these massive deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year. With so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forest. Remedy now, or no more fed payments. 

 

NEWS: The head of the firefighter's union called the president's mismanagement charges irresponsible, reckless, and insulting. And their Pasadena local told the president directly, you are wrong. Only three percent of California woodlands are run by the State of California.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, who oversees the National Forest Service and Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinky, doubled down on the President's tweets during the California wildfires that killed more than 80 people and burnt hundreds of thousands of acres when they pushed for new rules that allow them to ignore environmental requirements when conducting dead tree removal and forest thinning. Given the enormity of the tragedy that's unfolded here in California, the idea of doing more to thin the forest has gained additional traction. This week, we'll examine if there's any scientific basis to support the numerous calls to clear the forest as a way of helping reduce fire risk. Today we're joined by Dr. Chad Hanson, who is the director and principal ecologist at the John Muir Project. Dr. Hanson cofounded of the John Muir Project in 1996, earned his Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA, his law degree from the University of Oregon, and his PHD in ecology from the University of California at Davis. He's published a long and distinguished list of scientific research papers on fire ecology, wildlife usage of burnt forest and fire trends. I start by asking Chad what he's learned from a lifetime of studying fires in the West.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: One of the things that I focus on a lot is researching assumptions that drive a lot of forest and fire management activities, but which have never been tested scientifically. Or where there are papers out there, but they're all modeling papers and there's no empirical data, actual data that informs these things. So, I spent a lot of my career really looking into these questions and finding out what the truth is.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  I hear over and over again that forests used to be a place that absorbed carbon from the atmosphere, and they were good for the planet. But now in California, because of all these fires that that's reversed and now they're an emitter of carbon into the atmosphere and this is a really bad thing and it's going to stop us from reaching our greenhouse gas emission targets.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: No, it's absolutely not true. You know, those reports are based upon models that assume essentially that when fire burns through a forest, when trees are killed, they're essentially vaporized. And all the carbon goes into the atmosphere and then nothing regrows. Neither one of those things is true. They're not even remotely true. In fact, even in the most intensely burned patches where a fire kills all the trees, which in reality, even in the biggest fires, it's only a small portion, a minor portion of the overall fire. But even in those areas, only about two or three percent of the above ground biomass is actually consumed. In other words, ends up as carbon. The trees are still standing there.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  On the PCT, when I walked it, a lot of it was burnt, but you didn't see piles of ash. You saw trees and the bark was burnt, and often most of the branches were still there and I mean they proved to be kind of a hazard just in terms of walking, but they weren't, I mean the tree is still there. The model assumes that the tree basically explodes. All of that carbon goes up into the atmosphere. Nothing of the tree is left. But when you walk through these forests as both you and I have done, what you notice is a lot of standing trees where just the bark - I mean, what percentage of the tree do you think actually burns?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: It's a tiny percentage, you know? So even the biggest fires, mostly they burn at low and moderate intensity where there's virtually no consumption of the trees themselves. But, even in that portion at 20 or 30 percent that burns at high intensity where most or all the trees were killed, that what we call crown fire. The studies out there that have actually looked at this and measured this in the field, found that only about three percent of the biomass of the trees is actually consumed. So, basically the outer layer of the bark and the pine needles and in many cases small twigs. That's about it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Okay. So, the model is 97 percent wrong then?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: That's right. And in fact, it's even worse than that because the model only talks about or basically factors in the carbon that's consumed and therefore emitted into the atmosphere. But not all the CO2 that's pulled out of the atmosphere and sequestered and stored in the forest and all the rapidly growing vegetation that comes in after a fire.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, let's talk about rapidly re-growing vegetation. Myth number two is these fires are now burning a lot hotter than they ever been before. We'll get to the second part of that assumption. But are fires burning a lot hotter than they used to?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Well, it's really interesting, you know, in our forests, few people realize we actually have less fire now than we had historically

before fire suppression. So, this is just a function, mostly a fire suppression. Most fires were stopped before they ever get to any significant size. And so, we actually have less fire now, and we have less fire overall intensities. One of the common assumptions out there is that, especially when you get big fires, that they burn mostly at high intensity. And that's pure myth. Even the biggest fires are mostly low and moderate intensity. And in fact, they're very much like small fires, just on a larger scale. And so, for many, many different studies, dozens of studies, some I’ve published, some that my colleagues have published, we know now that historically our forest fires were always mixed intensity. There were mostly low and moderate, but they had a significant portion, 20 percent, 25, 30 percent in many cases that was high intensity and it's actually not that different from what it is now. The main thing that's different is we just have less fire of all intensities currently in our forest because of fire suppression.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Okay. So, you got low, medium and high intensity. Where you do have high intensity fire, I hear over and over again that it's like a moonscape. It's been nuked. Nothing can ever grow back there. And that leads to - well we'll talk in the second half of that kind of wall where all these myths are leading in terms of people pushing their own little agenda. Is that true though? Can does stuff ever grow back or is it so hot that all the seeds die?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah. This is one of the most persistent myths out there. You know, I've been doing field research on these fire areas, including the biggest fires and the biggest high intensity fire patches for over 15 years now in the forest of the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in the west. I have yet to find a single acre where that's true, where that notion is accurate. This idea that the fire burned so hot that it sterilizes the soil, and nothing will grow. That's pure myth. What actually happens is, what the fires do is they turn the pine needles and the twigs and the little branches on the forest floor into a nutrient rich bed of mineral ash. And that spurs rapid growth of vegetation, conifer seedlings of pine trees and fir, oak trees, shrubs, wild flowers and all of that vegetation that starts to grow in immediately after fire, that accelerates that growth every single year after the fire. And that's pulling huge amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering and storing it in the regenerating forest. And so, there's just no truth to this whatsoever.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, both these things, we'll get to that, to some other myths in a minute, but both these things are pointing people to say we need to log more. That seems like the response, like if we want to meet our climate targets Chad, we really, really need to log more, or you know, if we want to stop this crazy high intensity fire, we need to log more. Is that kind of what's happening?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: The number of studies have looked at that, and that's certainly a political message that the logging industry has promoted and some other allies in Congress and elsewhere. And what the science is telling us is very much the opposite. In fact, if logging happens ostensibly to try to curb fire, to try to pull trees out of the forest, under the guise of reducing fuels, what actually happens is a couple of things. First of all, in most cases increased logging is associated with increased fire intensity. So, in other words, the more trees that are pulled out of the forest, the fires don't tend to burn less intensely. The most heavily logged areas usually burn more intensely. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So that’s completely counter intuitive. So, explain that. So, if you have less trees in a forest, why is it burning more intensely?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, it's just a matter of physics. You know, if you build a campfire, you don't put a big log on the fire and put a match to it and expected to burn, it's not going to happen. You use kindling and it really what drives fires is mostly weather, but the things that things that are consumed, the fuel is mostly very, very small diamond material, twigs and pine needles and things like that. Tree trunks are not combustible. They really just don't burn. Again, outer bark can burn, but the trees themselves don't burn. What logging does is it removes noncombustible material essentially from the forest and leaves behind very combustible kindling, like slash debris - the branches and small twigs and things like that that are not possible to get up off the forest floor after the tree trunks are removed and that's very combustible. The other thing that logging does is that it reduces the cooling shade of the forest canopy. By removing a lot of trees, you have more sunlight reaching the forest floor, and what that does is it creates hotter and drier conditions and that means everything on the forest floor gets more dried out, more potentially combustible, and logging also spreads invasive weeds like cheat grass, which is very, very flammable. Cheatgrass loves a lot of sunlight and so you get a lot of that after intensive logging. And the last one is a little bit more technical, but basically when you have a lot more trees, it cuts down on the wind speeds that drive fires. It has a buffering effect in a sense. And when a lot of the trees are removed, that buffering effect is reduced or eliminated and fire spread through those forest faster.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we get all these messages as well that the forest is just way overgrown. There's too much stuff in the forest, too much understory. And that's what's making these fires happen more frequently and burn hotter?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah. This is another key one that we hear a lot, this idea historically that our forests were open and park-like. I'm sure you've heard that before, that fire burned so frequently, like every 10 or 12 years like clockwork and there was no understory. That's now something we know now is a gross oversimplification. There was always a portion of the forest that was open and had little understory, but it was a minor portion. There were many dense forests, incredibly dense forests, lots of small trees- open forest, dense forest, old forests, young forests. It was highly variable, and we know that now, based on a lot of different studies. And so, this kind of a simplified idea of open park-like forests has been replaced with more complex idea of how these things work. Interestingly, we have lots of data now that shows us that our forests currently actually have less biomass in them than they did a century ago. And that's mostly due to the impact of decades of logging. So even though we do have slightly more small trees in many forests, we have fewer mature trees. Overall, our forests are less dense now than they were a century ago.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you hear on the news, I mean it is absolute tragedy what happened in the camp at Woolsey and numerous other fires before it. I mean this time last year where we were in Santa Rosa doing a story and I mean, it's just incredible the number. You hear this correlation between thinning of the forests and somehow helping reduce the number of urban fires. Like how are those things connected, if at all?

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: And this is a really important issue because we just had Donald Trump threaten California and say you need to increase your logging levels in your forests to supposedly save towns from wildland fire or, you know, he's going to withhold federal support for fire responses. And you know, the reality is this. We have study after study telling us now that the only effective way to protect homes from wildfire is to focus on the homes themselves. To make them more fire-safe, more fire-resistant roofing and rain gutter guards that keep those pine needles from accumulating next to the roof, ember-proof vents so that flaming embers born on the winds ahead of the fires can't get sucked into the attic and burn the house down. Things like that. Simple things that can keep the house safe in combination with what we call defensible space. That's basically pruning vegetation within 100 feet of the house. 100 feet of individual houses. Removing small trees and shrubs and grasses, removing the lower limbs on mature trees, but leaving those mature trees standing. When these things are done for a given house or in a given community, it's incredibly effective, and in many cases, over 95 percent of the homes will survive. Even in the most intense wildland fires, and in some cases, even over 99 percent of the homes will survive. Now it's not 100 percent, it's not a panacea. You know, we're probably not going to get to perfect home survival. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean anything north of 90 percent seems like a miracle. 

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Absolutely. Look, you know, when we have so many homes being lost, when you have so many lives being lost, when we know, based on the science, that if we focus on homes, we can protect over 95 percent of the homes, then that's pretty damn good. And it really indicates that's where we should put in our effort. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So why are we being distracted by this craziness of going into forests nowhere near the urban interface and dealing with them? 

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: You know, there's a lot of economic and political opportunism involved in this question and there's a lot of just good faith, misunderstanding about these issues. You know, most of what we've learned about forest and fire ecology we've learned in the last 15 years. So, our learning curve has been tremendously steep, and there's always a lag time between the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the assimilation of that knowledge into the public dialogue and into policies. And you know, a lot of scientists are not comfortable talking to the public. They like talking to other scientists. We need more scientists to be communicating about these things so we can bridge that gap between past beliefs about these issues and current understanding scientifically. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Unfortunately, it just seems like even big state institutions like The California Air Resources Board for instance, keep telling us that the carbon myth, that these trees are putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere based on models that you just pointed out, are ridiculously faulty.

DR. CHAD HANSON: I think we just need to be candid about this. The state agencies are getting a lot of their information in many cases, most of their information, from the United States Forest Service. The problem is the United States Forest Service is in the commercial logging business. The forest service, under current laws and longstanding laws, sells public timber to private logging companies and keeps most of the revenue for its budget. So, it's what we call a perverse financial incentive. The way the forest service keeps this program going as a political matter is by telling the public that they have to log the forest in order to save them from fire. You know, it's what I call the catastrophic wildfire political narrative and you know, so that's really what drives the commercial logging program on federal lands. 

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JARED BLUMENFELD: I ask Dr. Chad Hansen, the director of the John Muir project to help break down how much of California's forest is managed by the federal government versus State and private lands.

DR. CHAD HANSON: In California, in terms of our forests, we have about 33 million acres of forest. The majority of that, the biggest chunk, is federal lands. It's national forests. National Parks are a significant chunk too, but mostly national forests. And then we have private lands and state lands, but there are definitely well down the list compared to national forest lands.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, the feds are kind of dictating, based on their mandate, which is to open roads and then areas up to logging, they're basically putting forward policy that perpetuates that mission.

DR. CHAD HANSON: That's right. And it's kind of like relying upon scientists who work for Exxon Mobil to tell you about climate change. You need to think about what they're saying in the context of who they work for and those financial and political incentives. It doesn't mean that everything that a forest service scientist or staffer is telling you is wrong, but it does mean that there's a lot that you're not hearing, at a minimum.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, one of the things, another myth on the list is all these dead trees, for instance, there's hundreds of millions of dead trees in California alone. And we have to cut, at least you must agree, Chad, that we have to cut those down because those surely create more fire danger.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: And this is one of the most interesting ones.  So many of the things that we're discovering are exactly the opposite of what we kind of expect or think would be true intuitively. This is one of those examples. So, we heard this for years and years from the logging industry, from the forest service and from a lot of prolonging politicians that we have to get in there and kind of roll back environmental laws and do more logging of these dead trees so we can prevent the spread of fire in the forest and reduce fire intensity. Because these dead trees must be driving more intense fires. I was a coauthor of the very first scientific study to look at that issue anywhere in the country and possibly globally. And we looked at this and it's really interesting because so many of these assumptions that drive fire and forest management policies, they seem so obvious that no one bothered to test them scientifically for decades. And this is one. We looked at this and we found, and we actually had, you know, data on how many dead trees were in the forest. And then fires came through and we looked at how would they burned, and we found no relationship whatsoever. You know, other scientists came in and they said, there's no way that's true. Dead trees are fuel, they're very combustible. They must burn more intensely, must drive more intense fires. They looked at the same question, they found the same thing. Other researchers came in and found the same thing. And then people started doing more comprehensive analysis, looking even deeper, looking at more and more years after the trees die. Well, what about, you know, 10 years later when the trees fall on the ground, maybe then it burns more intensely. It turns out that those areas actually burn less intensely and most less intensely. Most of the data now, and this is not, this is not theoretical modeling, this is actual empirical data from real forest real fires. And what they're finding, is that with every year after the trees die, including after the dead trees fall, that went wild land fires come through, they tend to burn less intensely than in forests would have fewer dead trees or logs on the ground. So, what's going on there? There’s a couple of things. I mean, really what it comes down to is physics. Most of these things are more complicated than we think. You think of a dead tree, and it's fuel, right? It's combustible. But in reality, it's kind of like that large log and the campfire that I mentioned earlier, once those dead needles fall on the ground, which they do pretty quickly, they decay into soil rapidly. The small twigs fall and decay into soil. After a couple of years after the trees die, it's basically like a large log standing in the forest. There's not much to drive flames or carry flames. And interestingly, when they fall, more than acting like fuel, they act in many ways like giant sponges because what they do is they soak up and they retain massive amounts of soil moisture and they keep the forest floor more moist.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Amazing. So, there's another myth. Busted. 

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, one of the things that maybe we're not even, maybe the environmental movement is not being helpful in this regard, Chad, I'd love to get your take on, is you hear this narrative over and over again that climate change is leading to a hotter and more fires. Is that too simplified? 

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Well climate change is a significant factor. There's no question about it. You know, rising temperatures can influence and do influence wildland fires, but it is more complicated than that. First off, we are still in a significant deficit of fire in our forests relative to natural levels more than a century ago. So that's the first thing that needs to be understood. You know, we don't have an unnatural excess of fire. Interestingly, the amount of fire, the acres burned on average in a given year, is going up and it's been going up since the 1970’s, and so we have more fire now than we had 40 years ago, but we have a lot less fire now than we had 100 years ago or 140 years ago. And so, it's that pre-fire suppression baseline that matters so much. But here's one of the most interesting things, and I've published a few studies on this and others have done the same thing, kind of like the dead tree and fire thing they looked at and said well, fires must be getting more intense. What's interesting is that as the annual acres of burning in our forests is gradually inching upwards every year and getting a little bit closer to what we had historically, naturally, fires are not burning more intensely. We're getting more fire than we had a few decades ago, but it's still mostly low and moderate intensity fire and the proportion that burns at high intensity is not going up overall. And a bunch of different researchers have looked at this and that's what the vast majority of the data indicate.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So fascinating. So basically, we need to decouple forest fires in wild areas with urban fires that kill people and burn houses. It sounds like those are two different things that have been conflated.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah, I mean that's a really good way to put it actually, because we have to have totally separate conversations about what it means to have fire happen, wildland fire happen in a community where you have oftentimes massive loss, tragic loss of homes and lives. That is always a catastrophe. Versus what it means to have a fire, including a large fire in a wild mountain forest, some significant distance from a community. What does that mean? And it turns out that it means something completely different. In fact, we have now hundreds of scientific studies on this issue ecologically in terms of bio-diversity. What it means when those patches of high intensity fire occur where a fire kills most or all the trees, sometimes across hundreds, even thousands of acres. Is the forest destroyed, as we assumed for so many decades? And it turns out that when fire does that, when it burns more intensely, there are dozens and dozens of plant and animal species that have evolved over millennia to depend on intensely burned forest. Basically, areas where you have mostly dead trees. We call this snag forest habitat. Snag is a standing dead tree. Those areas have levels of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance that is comparable to old growth forest. In fact, in many of the studies, it actually exceeds old growth forest. So it turns out the two most ecologically important forest types are old growth forest and dense old forest that burns hot where most of the trees were killed.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: This is big news because really what you see in President Trump's tweets is trying to justify logging on forest land by pointing to what's happening in a place like Ventura or Thousand Oaks and saying, look at this horrible stuff that, I mean he even says it. This mismanagement of forest land is leading to this, whereas if there's no relationship between those two at all.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: No, I mean, where's the forest in Malibu? There's no forest. These are chaparral ecosystems, most of the fires that are burned homes and lives have been lost are not in forest. In fact, they're mostly nowhere near forests. They’re in grasslands, chaparral shrub habitat, oak woodlands. But the areas that are in forest, where we've had tragic loss of homes and lives, these are mostly areas where we've had intensive logging, and it's like I mentioned earlier, you know, more logging is typically associated with more intense fire at a faster rate of spread. And we saw that tragically in the campfire that burned most of the houses in the town of Paradise in northern California and where dozens of lives were lost. The area that it spread through before it burned down most of Paradise had been heavily logged on national forest lands and on private lands in the years prior to the campfire. And so, this is a perfect example of what Donald Trump is trying to promote, is that kind of logging all across our forests.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us a little bit about burning trees for energy.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah, and this is one of the most dangerous myths out there right now. This has been a big imperative for the Trump administration. Donald Trump's agricultural secretary, Sonny Perdue, who basically oversees the United States forest service, has specifically said that they wanted to ramp up increase what they call biomass logging on national forest lands. And basically, what they mean by that, is treating our forests on public lands like coalfields, cutting down trees and incinerating them for kilowatts. That's what we call clear cuts for kilowatts. And in many cases. it is a clear cut, and in some cases, that's what they call mechanical thinning which is actually a very intensive industrial logging operation that usually kills most of the trees in the stand and remove them, including old growth trees. But here's the thing,

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But we'll wait just one quick thing. So, if we turn this interview around and started with that and then worked out what myths you needed to create in order to justify clear cutting for kilowatts, you'd have to say that overgrown forests are really a problem. They burn faster and more intense and they lead to these moonscapes and they are causing urban interface fires. All those things would help you justify a policy of cutting down trees and burning them.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: That's absolutely right. I mean, this is all being driven by, again, what I call a catastrophic wildfire political narrative. The forests are overgrown. There are overstocked. We have to get in there and clear out these dead trees and all this dense understory of small trees and vegetation. And if we do that, and we make the forest more open that somehow fires will burn low intensity, what Donald Trump calls tree clearing. And the reality is that it's much more complicated than that. Some of the densest forests burn at the lowest intensity, forests that haven't burned in a century still burn at mostly low and moderate intensity contrary to this myth that everything burns at high intensity if it hasn't burned in a long time. Dead trees don't increase fire spreader intensity. This idea that it's a moonscape, and you have to stop these fires and do all these logging operations because otherwise you're going to have these big, high intensity fire patches and nothing will regenerate because the soil's been damaged, and nothing will grow. You know, we know from study after study that that's not true, even in the biggest high intensity fire patches and way in the interior. I published a study earlier this year on this. On patches like in the rim fire, we're still getting enormous amounts of post-fire regeneration, beautiful pine trees, some over the top of my head already just in five years, oak trees that are already 20 feet tall, beautiful regeneration of shrubs and wildflowers.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We were told nothing would grow there. 

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Exactly and that's what we're told. There's a mythical world that's been created in the public narrative opportunistically, and in many cases, cynically, by a lot of people that want to keep this logging program going.  And it's being used to justify these destructive policies including biomass logging. And so, here's something that you know, is really important to understand. When trees are burned for energy, they produce 45 percent more co2, more greenhouse gas emissions, than burning coal for an equivalent amount of energy produced.  It is the dumbest and most climate unfriendly energy source you can possibly imagine. You know, not only does it pump all that CO2 into the atmosphere but removing those trees from the forest robs the forest of essential nutrients and compacts and damages soil. Because most of the logging is ground based. It's heavy tractors on the soil. And what that does is it undermines the ability of the forest to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester and store it in the forest. And so, we're shooting ourselves in the foot, both feet actually, with biomass logging.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And yet, even in California, one of the most progressive states in the union, these emergency permits have been granted to build biomass facilities because they have to do it because we have to clear the forest, which is based on the myth that we've gone through today. So, it's kind of amazing.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Exactly. It's a house of cards and these policies have to change. I think that we know a lot more now than we did before. And we need to use that knowledge to go in a different direction. We need to focus on home protection.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay, so based on all this, let's look forward with this. Chad, in 2019, you know, I don't think anyone would disagree no matter where they come on the political spectrum, from what science, however it's funded that we really need to focus on protecting human life and property. I mean that's got to be our number thing. And the further we get from that it seems like we're just dissipating or diluting our efforts to help protect human life and property. Tell us a little bit more about defensible space. It seems like that's a great opportunity.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of jobs in defensible space work. It's great work in terms of creating jobs for every thousand or million dollars its spent. It's good paying jobs, there's a lot of jobs per dollar spent, much more so than other industries like logging for example, which is heavily automated and doesn't actually create that many jobs.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It seems like there's been this bizarre shifting of responsibility away from what would actually help towards something that's not going to do anything.

 

DR. CHAD HANSON: Yeah, I mean that's a good way to put it. And it's one of the more insidious aspects of this because when people in rural communities or in suburban communities that are near wildlands, when they think that the fire issue and a potential threat or risk to their homes is out there somewhere, out in wild lands out there over the ridge and that it's going to be addressed or solved by some logging project or some chaparral removal project by some federal or state agency that's going to suppress and stop the fire, when they think that it gives people a dangerous false sense of security. And it also, as you said, it shifts responsibility. They think, well, why do I need to put a fire-resistant roof on my house? Why do I need to spend a few hundred bucks to put ember proof vents on my attic spaces or other events? Why do I need to do my defensible space work? Because, you know, the Forest Service told me they've got it covered with this logging project half a mile away or two miles away. And that misunderstanding, that myth is one of the most dangerous. Because when people don't take those steps, homes burn and lives are lost and so, you know, that's one of the most critical ones that we need to address. You know, we have a law in the state of California that says we're supposed to do defensible space around homes near wildlands. Problem is that law is not enforced. There's no infrastructure, there's no funding, to actually go to people's homes and make sure that is done every single year and for people who can't do it physically or can't afford it, we need to give people assistance. We need to help and make sure it happens. But that's not where the money's going right now. Right now, the vast majority of the state money and the federal money and the focus is on logging and back country fire suppression and we just need to completely turn that entire emphasis on its head.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A big thank you to Dr. Chad Hanson for speaking with us today. He really helped demystify the current rush to log our forests in the name of fire safety. I think of myself as fairly well informed, but having talked with Chad, I realized how many fire myths I bought into. It's always good to slow down and make sure that our conclusions are informed by peer reviewed science and that we examine who is behind the research. By creating defensible space around our homes and by making sure our building codes have the most stringent requirements possible when it comes to fire safety, we can help make sure that the impacts of all types of fires are greatly reduced in the future. Next week we talk with Melanie Challenger, a British environmental philosopher and author, about what it means to be human. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer, Rob Speight, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and from me Jared Blumenfeld, I hope you have a great Thanksgiving week.