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.

And what about those fuels mitigation efforts? How long do they actually reduce the fire risk? “People tend to forget that fuels re-grow, so it’s not a matter of a single-year fix,” Veblen says.

Stories like these are ripe for investigation, especially once the fires die down and reporters have time to catch their breath.

As for how to handle the climatic context, Veblen offers this advice:

“There needs to be an equal balance between the land-use problem — that is very, very clear — and the human-induced warming problem. They go hand in hand. We can’t ignore either one.”


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Tom Yulsman is a science and environmental journalist, and co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder.