Easing fires not as simple as climate change vs. forest work

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President Donald Trump listens as California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a briefing at Sacramento McClellan Airport, in McClellan Park, Calif., Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, on the western wildfires. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

BEAVERCREEK, Ore. – Deadly West Coast wildfires are dividing President Donald Trump and the states' Democratic leaders over how to prevent blazes from becoming more frequent and destructive, but scientists and others on the front lines say it's not as simple as blaming either climate change or the way land is managed.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington have all said global warming is priming forests for wildfires as they become hotter and drier. But during a visit Monday to California, Trump pointed to how states manage forests and said, “It will start getting cooler, just you watch.”

Scientists say wildfires are all but inevitable, and the main drivers are plants and trees drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn. And while forest thinning and controlled burns are solutions, they have proven challenging to implement on the scale needed to combat those threats.

As crews battled wildfires that have killed at least 36 people, destroyed neighborhoods and enveloped the West Coast in smoke, Trump contended that the states are to blame for failing to rake leaves and clear dead timber from forest floors. However, many of the California blazes have roared through coastal chaparral and grasslands, not forest, and some of the largest are burning on federal land.

In Oregon, it was the forests that burned at unprecedented levels this past week. Almost the same number of “megafires” — defined as having scorched 100,000 acres or more — were burning last week as have occurred during the entire last century, said Jim Gersbach, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Monday requested a Presidential Disaster Declaration, saying it would bring much needed resources to Oregon’s response and recovery efforts.

Experts, environmentalists and loggers largely agree that thinning trees and brush through prescribed burns and careful logging will help prevent forests that cover vast tracts of the American West from threatening cities with fire.

But whether that would have spared towns is less clear. Strong winds sent flames racing down the western slopes of the Cascade Range into small towns like Detroit, Oregon, wiping them out.

“In a wind-driven event at 30 miles an hour, where you’ve got embers flying far ahead of the actual flame fronts and flame lengths being much greater than normal, is thinning going to really be enough to stop a home from burning in an inferno like that?” Gersbach said.