In June, wildfires were raging across Colorado, threatening thousands of people. These included the High Park Fire outside of Fort Collins, which for a time held the distinction of being the most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of damage to property — until it was supplanted by the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, which went on to destroy 346 homes. So as reporters were scrambling to cover breaking news, perhaps it was understandable that climate change did not figure prominently in their stories.
“Coverage of climate change as part of the wildfire story comes in three phases: before, during and after,” said Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. “I haven’t seen much coverage during the fires. But the most important phases are before and after.”
Ward is hoping to see an increasing number of stories that not only look at the connection between climate and wildfire but also how wildfire may contribute to a warming climate by adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
As the fires were burning in Colorado, the producers of the iNews “Red Zone” package—all former newspaper reporters—chose to mention climate change, but focus more on the development and management issues.
“One reason why I didn’t focus predominantly on climate change in the iNews piece is that it is the one thing we as citizens have the most difficulty dealing with,” Kodas said. The same is not true of forest management, regulation of development, and fire-smart building codes.
“Development and forest health issues are ones where average citizens in Colorado could actually have a significant impact,” Kodas said.
Other Colorado journalists chose to zero in on different parts of the equation. In a piece for the Boulder Daily Camera, for example, Laura Snider tackled an issue that has proved confusing for many other reporters: the role that huge swaths of trees killed by beetles may have played in the fires.
This is an important issue for residents of the West, because it has become politicized, with calls for increased logging on federal lands affected by the insect epidemic. But as Snider pointed out in her story, blanket statements about increased fire risk from beetle-killed trees are just not supported by the science.
Pine beetles have infested and killed trees on 3.3 million acres of Colorado forests. Throughout the entire Western United States, the epidemic has caused significant mortality of trees across more than 40 million acres, according to the US Forest Service.
Some journalists, often quoting sources, have written that beetle-killed trees are like standing tinder that raise the risks of hotter, more widespread, and longer-lasting fires. One such story ran in The Christian Science Monitor on June 25.
But Snider’s reporting turned up a more nuanced, less clear-cut picture. Her story noted that previous large outbreaks of pine beetles in the forests along Colorado’s Front Range where destructive wildfires have raged, were not actually followed by catastrophic fires. In other words, at least in the past, beetle infestations did not enhance fire activity. Moreover, Snider found that there is actually very little research documenting how beetle-killed forests affect fire behavior.
A headline for a story in ClimateWire, which was picked up in Scientific American, did not reflect that nuance: “High Park fire follows in pine beetle’s tracks.” And the story itself attributed the fire’s rapid spread in part to the dead trees. Quoting a “fire behavior analyst trainee,” the author wrote that the “trees burn hotter — and the fire spreads faster — than they would in a forest untouched by beetle blight.”
But according to Reghan Cloudman, a public affairs specialist with the Arapho and Roosevelt National Forests, the High Park Fire near Fort Collins began and grew large in forests not significantly affected by beetle kill. Even when it did burn into stands of dead trees, “this was a very aggressive fire, and weather, topography and terrain really impacted its spread,” she said.
With the beetle story, common sense said one thing. But it turned out that science said something else. So reporters should be wary of what they think they know. And when a source makes a scientific claim, ask for specific examples of research that supports it.
Sometimes, important stories hide in plain sight — such as the carpet of wood chips often left behind on the forest floor after loggers have come through to thin trees in an attempt to reduce fire risks. Thomas Veblen, an expert in forest ecology and wildfire at the University of Colorado, points out that Colorado’s Lower North Fork Fire, which erupted in late March, may have gotten started in just such a layer of litter.