Lots of Burning Grass, and the Redwoods are OK – countering the false narrative about California wildfires

Dryness and heat, facilitated by human-caused climate change, are responsible for the large wildfires we are currently experiencing in California. It’s not about mature, native habitat.

Unfortunately, in news stories about the fires, you’ve probably heard someone repeating the same misguided claim made during nearly every fire, as if it explains everything: “The area hasn’t burned in years!” Other than being usually incorrect, the claim supports the false narrative that if we could just get rid of all this “fuel,” via prescribed burns or other habitat removal methods, these fires wouldn’t happen.

In fact, NPR had a story yesterday that said exactly that. They unfortunately also engaged in cultural appropriation of Native Americans to do so. We doubt the reporter even looked at what was actually burning.

A more accurate perspective on the use of fire by Native Americans can be found here.

What’s Really Happening – A lot had burned in the past 10 years

Our colleague, Bryant Baker, did an excellent job investigating the issue of blaming-habitat-for-fire and has assembled the following facts.

The Hennessey Fire
Here’s the % of the acreage burned as measured by the “time since the last fire” for the 296,000 acre plus Hennessey Fire (part of the LNU Lightning Complex), north of Fairfield, CA. The % is cumulative, e.g. 39% of the fire area had burned within the last 5 years, and 69% of the area burned had burned within the last 25 years.

< 5 years – 39%
< 10 years – 42%
< 15 years – 43%
< 20 years – 57%
< 25 years – 69%

In fact, 21% of the fire area just burned in 2018.

Not exactly the “it-hasn’t-had-enough-fire” landscape that we keep hearing about.

The Hennessey Fire (and most of the others this past week) have burned right through what one could call “fuels-reduced” areas. Yet, fire officials ignore discussing these areas (often filled with non-native grass) and their role in carrying the fire (or failure to stop it). Instead, the focus remains on blaming mature native habitat that plays a much smaller role. Please see map below.

2020 Hennessey Fire_Vegetation Age


Big Basin Redwoods Hyperbole

The fire in Big Basin Redwood State Park has also made national headlines because of unsubstantiated claims of damage to the coast redwoods there. Most all of these articles are incredibly hyperbolic and have few if any quotes from fire scientists or ecologists. Redwoods are perhaps the most fire-resistant tree on Earth. Most of these articles have been written based on reports from random people going into the state park and taking photos while things are still smoldering. Most redwoods, despite what they look like right this second, are actually OK.

When was the last time Big Basin burned? There isn’t much recorded fire history, especially since Cal Fire records are sketchy prior to 1930. However, old newspaper articles indicate that there were large fires in Big Basin in 1904 and 1919. The headlines from then look nearly identical to those of today. Panic sells.

You can find those articles at this link. It’s quite an interesting journey into the past.

“We’re our own warning.”
― Becky Chambers

Thanks again to Bryant for this excellent information.

One Comment on “Lots of Burning Grass, and the Redwoods are OK – countering the false narrative about California wildfires

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