Book Review: Smokescreen by Chad Hanson

Review by John McFerrin

This is a book about forest fires—how we talk about them, how we think about them, and, most importantly, public policy toward fire control and suppression. Any discussion about fire inevitably leads to a discussion of logging, including how we manage logging on public lands.

The bedrock of the argument is its attitude toward wildfires. As a society, we think of fire as devastating, something to be avoided. We learned at our mother’s (or, more precisely, Smoky the Bear’s) knee that fire is something to be prevented. News reports of wildfires routinely describe the landscape as “devastated.”

From the perspective of a forest ecologist, such as the author, a wildfire is not a disaster. A post-fire landscape is not devastated, just different. Wildfires have been a feature of forests for millions of years. In that time the entire ecosystem has adapted. An intense fire leaves behind a landscape of standing dead trees. It also leaves behind nutrients that have been released from trees or underbrush that burned as well as a landscape that is inviting to the plants and animals that have adapted to that kind of landscape. 

The book is full of examples. There are wildflowers that colonize burned areas. The wildflowers attract flying insects which, in turn, attract birds who make their living plucking insects out of the air. The standing snags attract woodpeckers, including one whose black coloring makes it nearly invisible against a charred tree trunk. They come for the grubs; they stay and create tree cavities that many birds and animals depend upon. Many of the creatures that live in the cavities attract the attention of owls, including species that live in adjacent areas where the trees are still green but hunt in the burned over areas.

The villains of the book are logging companies who, in the author’s view, propagate misconceptions about forest ecology and the role of fire in it. Their interests lie in converting trees into marketable timber. To advance these interests, they promote ideas that are contrary to the health of forests. The co-stars in the villain role are land managers (including the United States Forest Service) that acquiesce in these misconceptions or help propagate them.

There are two practice which draw his ire: salvage logging and “thinning.”

A wildfire often leaves behind a forest of standing snags. In salvage logging, logging companies come and clear cut the snags. The justification is that the area has been “devastated” by fire. We should make the best of a bad situation and take what little bit still has value.

The author would disagree. Standing dead trees are still sequestering carbon, as are downed logs. They are providing the benefits to the plants and animals who have adapted to living in burned over areas. Cutting the snags (particularly if their destination is to be burned to produce electricity; the euphemism for this is “biofuels”) results in the immediate release of that carbon. Salvage logging has the incidental effect of interfering with the transition of the burned area back into a conventional, living forest. Loggers and their equipment compact soil, tromp on new vegetation, and generally delay the natural processes that would occur were there no salvage logging.

The second practice is “thinning.” This is promoted as a fire prevention tool. The argument is that removing some of the brush and trees will deprive fires of “fuel”, making them less intense.  

The author would say that thinning is a scam (my word, not his) used to justify more logging. While the term “thinning” might conjure up images of a homeowner with loppers, snipping off branches there and there, many “thinning” operations take out valuable timber.

The book also challenges the idea that thinning makes a contribution to forest health and makes wildfires less intense. The idea is that taking out smaller trees deprives a fire of the fuel is needs to become intense. Not so, says the author. The drivers of wildfire are wind and weather. A forest that has been thinned provides less of a windbreak than one that has not. It also allows more sunlight to penetrate, making conditions dryer. The author cites research showing that fires in forests that have been “thinned” are no less intense than those in unthinned forests.

This anti-logging argument eventually comes around to climate change. The author notes that if we are going to avoid the worst effects of climate change, it will not be sufficient to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We will have to remove some of the carbon that is already in the air. A major way of doing that is trees. There may be theoretical ways of mechanically capturing carbon from the air and sequestering it. Trees are not theoretical; they are out there doing it. To deal with climate change, we need to let them continue doing it, not cut them down.

The book does not ignore the needs of people whose homes are endangered by wildfire. They cannot fly away and come back later, making their living pecking for grubs in what used to their home. They need protection.

The first step in effective protection comes in how one sees the problem. If the true drivers of wildfire are wind and weather, fighting a fire will usually be a losing proposition. Firefighters can make a valiant effort but if wind and weather are against them, the fire wins. The book suggests it is no more effective than “fighting” a hurricane.

The effective protection comes from controlling what we can control by making homes fireproof. Many house fires are started by embers, flying well ahead of the fire itself and igniting homes. The defense against this is such things as fireproof roofs and screens to keep embers from entering attics. In places where wildfires have been least destructive of homes, there are requirements that homeowners maintain a distance between their homes and the forest.

A note about the author, the research, and the writing. The ideas in the book are contrary to conventional wisdom. Those who think the conventional wisdom is sound take exception to this work, some of which is expressed on the internet. There is nothing so intense as talking trash about Taylor Swift or Beyoncé would produce but it is there. At the same time, he is a trained ecologist. Smokescreen is extensively documented. The studies upon which he relies are noted in the book. He often relies upon his own fieldwork.

For the most part, the book is readable. There are occasional lapses when he lets his inner tree nerd emerge, but these are short, usually just a couple of paragraphs. For the most part it is both readable and useful in thinking about forest policy.