Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths in the Age of Climate Change

Do you think more tree cutting in our forests is needed to reduce wildfires in the West? If so, you are mistaken. You might want hear more about the real dynamics behind our recent wildfires as explained by forestry scientist Chad Hanson in his recent book, Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths (May 2021). Hansen, who presented the findings in his book recently to a North County Climate Change Alliance (NCCCA) audience via Zoom, said that contrary to what many think, some of the worst wildfires of the last few years—including the devastating Camp and Caldor fires—have occurred in heavily logged areas.

“The reality is that fires can burn hotter and faster in areas where trees have been removed,” said Hanson. “Contrary to public opinion, which has been manipulated by the logging industry, denser forests are needed for healthy ecosystems and habitat. And, they tend to burn at lower intensities.”

For homeowners living on the periphery of forest lands, Hanson recommends house hardening over multiple tree removal. 

“Most houses catch fire from embers not wildfire itself,” he said. “Therefore, maintaining 100 feet of defensible space, removing low branches, and other house hardening actions is more protective than the elimination of trees in an adjacent forest.”

In spite of the rash of wildfires that have occurred over the last decade, said Hanson, most of our North American forests are experiencing a fire deficit. Forest fires—including the largest ones—can generate significant and rich wildlife habitats as long as they are not subject to post-fire logging.

“Many people assume that wildfires will be less intense when dead and decaying trees have been removed,” said Hanson. “In reality, denser forests tend to burn at a lower intensity due to the cooling effect of tree canopies and the wind break they provide. Logging and clear-cutting do not benefit homeowners who live near the wild land interface. What prevents houses from burning is establishing a 100-foot defensible space between your house and forested areas and removing the lower branches in trees within the vicinity.”

According to Hanson, logging and clear-cutting of forests also undermine the snag forest habitat that is needed for native shrubs, birds and mammals to thrive. A snag forest is characterized by trees in different stages of growth and death, in which regeneration is allowed to occur naturally. Dead wood typically contains a great deal of moisture, and is needed for dead wood homes. Black-back woodpeckers, for example, create homes for a lot of creatures by eating wood-boring beetles and creating dead wood homes.

“Logging also results in the burning of trees, producing a high level of carbon emissions,” said Hanson. “Logging in U.S. forests emits 10 times more carbon than fire and native beetles combined.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service—which engages in and profits from logging—is part of the problem, says Hanson. More than 200 climate scientists have informed Congress that the U.S. needs to move away logging and the manufacturing of wood products in order to reduce carbon emissions.

Sadly, the U.S. Forest Service perpetuates myths about wildfires, claiming that logging and clear-cutting of forests is needed to reduce wildfires. Instead of focusing on controlled burns and home hardening, Cal Fire management plans are focused on logging and creating fire breaks, in spite of the fact that these measures are counterproductive at best.

“The reality is that just as we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” said Hansen, “we need to keep carbon in our forests.”

For more information on Chad Hanson’s book and his work, visit:  To watch the video of Chad Hanson’s talk, visit the NCCCA’s YouTube Channel.