Flames, causes and context

As Western wildfires rage, reporters grapple with stories beyond acreage burned and homes destroyed

When faced with the explosive fury of multiple wildfires torching hundreds of homes like so many Roman candles, journalists can perhaps be forgiven for hyperbole — including stories that begin with statements like “the State of Colorado is on fire.”

But in truth, the facts speak loudly for themselves: As of July 12, 76 active wildfires were burning across more than 2.1 million acres of the American West — an area nearly as large as sprawling Los Angeles County.

And the heart of the fire season is still ahead of us.

The fires have predictably followed six months of paltry precipitation and near record warmth in large parts of the region. In Colorado, what little snowpack there was had fallen into a death spiral of rapid melting by March, more than a month earlier than average.

So as one fire after another seemed to pop up in the parched and sun-baked region in June and early July, reporters, bloggers and opinion writers began trying to move the story beyond the details of breaking news to causes and context. There was much to discuss.

Freelance journalist Michael Kodas distilled the context of this furious burning season to its essence in an article in OnEarth. “Even among skeptical firefighters and usually cautious scientists, there’s little doubt anymore: forest management and development issues have been priming the West for epic fires, but it was this year’s climate-driven drought and heat that lit the fuse,” Kodas wrote.

In their stories on causes and context, journalists and commentators chose to emphasize different parts of that equation. Some examined decades of forest management policies that have left many forest ecosystems overgrown and fully fueled for intense fires. Others examined the climatic factors that lit the fuse, as Kodas put it. Some missed the mark in their coverage, with over-simplification and lack of appropriate skepticism. Many others added important information to public discourse on this increasingly critical issue.

Scientists and journalists alike have pointed to a multimedia package co-produced by Kodas for the independent, non-profit iNews Network as an exemplar of good reporting. In “Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger,” Kodas, along with investigative reporter Burt Hubbard and videographer Carolyn Moreau, documented the impact of one factor that can be drowned out in discussions of the role of climate change in wildfire activity: explosive population growth in forest zones at very high risk of fire.

Combining an analysis of census data with mapping, interactive features, video and good, old-fashioned narrative journalism, the iNews team alerted citizens to a concerning trend: “In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones - the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires,” they wrote. “Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone.”

According to Laura Frank, the founder and director of iNews, the story ran in just about every major news outlet in Colorado, potentially bringing an under-reported aspect of wildfires in the West to the attention of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.

“I think they’ve nailed this,” commented Andrew Revkin, the New York Times Dot Earth blogger and Pace University professor. While climate change is clearly an important context for the wildfires, “there wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t people living in these fire zones,” he said.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, since increasing wildfire activity in the West and elsewhere is highly newsworthy all on its own — as a phenomenon wholly consistent with what scientists have been expecting from climate change.

Much of the region has been warming faster than the globe as a whole. And research has shown that with the warming temperatures and an increasingly early onset of spring, large wildfire activity in the West began to increase dramatically in the mid-1980s, bringing more frequent and longer lasting large fires, and a more drawn out wildfire season as well. Moreover, for large portions of the West over the past two decades, “the minimum burned area has been increasing quite a bit from year to year,” said Anthony Westerling, a scientist with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced.

So the climatic context is certainly one important part of the story. How prominent has it been in national coverage? At least during June, not very, according to an analysis by Media Matters for America of wildfire stories in major print and broadcast outlets. The study found that only 3 percent of wildfire coverage mentioned long-term climate change or global warming.

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.

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. Tags: , , , , ,