On Raking Leaves in the Forest

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 20, 2018

In his visit to the ashes of the Camp Fire in Northern California, President Trump doubled down on the need for forest management to forestall such wildfires, oblivious to the fact that fires in Southern California rages just as fiercely in non-forest areas.

There is no forest next to Malibu, for example. Instead, southern California open areas are filled with chaparral rather than huge trees.

Normally, I might just pass by such fact-finding. But in this case, the president is making much of his position, So, let’s take another look at what’s going on here.

As he was touring the wildfire areas that destroyed Paradise (not Pleasure, as the president called the town), he said that authorities in Finland “spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.” He added, “You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forests, it’s very important,” Trump said

Setting aside the woes of thousands left homeless, Trump already had identified forest management and “raking” of shrubs as the most important factors in these fires rather than years of drought and the dryness spreading as a result of Climate Change. He skipped over built-up development areas reaching further into wildlife areas. He forgot to mention that the federal government controls the biggest portions of natural forest areas in California and that his administration had significantly cut money for forest management.

No one is quite sure where the raking idea came from or whether the president had seen some mention of it on television before repeating it. But what came across what blame for the California victims rather than useful criticism to forestall another such wildfire. Indeed, over the last few years, a seasonal approach to wildfires has grown to year-round problems because of dryness in the soil, trees and atmosphere, all noted data points in the citations to climate change.

The Washington Post’s Rick Noack went further and asked officials in Finland what the president was talking about. The answer: They don’t know, and their president says he never talked with Trump about raking the forest floor one way or the other

“Finnish researchers soon let everyone know. Instead, Finland has one of the world’s most successful strategies to counter wildfires, and it is now being more closely examined in other nations recently struck by large-scale fires,” reported the Post. “Over the weekend, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was forced to clarify that this strategy does not consist of raking, however.”

Interior Secretary Ryan W. Zinke backed Trumpin a Breitbart radio interview. “Forests need active management. The amount of fuel in the forest is at historic highs,” he said, adding, “The president is absolutely right. This is as much about mismanagement over time,” said Zinke who pointed to not only the previous administration but that the problem had been “going on for years.” According to Zinke, “radical environmentalists” have filed lawsuits to let “nature take its course” and that these fires are the consequence of allowing nature to do so.

The forest service in Finland does carry out controlled burns of the forestfloor mostly to clear away underbrush and also promote new saplings.

Researchers aren’t sure whether the country’s approach can really hold any lessons for California, however, given that parts of Finland are located close to the Arctic Circle and have prolonged periods of rain and snow, unlike the drought conditions in California. Fire officials in California do similar controlled burns, but some of the areas in the newly destructive fires also burned within the last 10 years, blocking a major build-up of undergrowth. “The key factor in California’s vulnerability to fires (and Finland’s resistance) appears to have to do with weather. The two countries are on very different trajectories, as Finnish scientists predict the annual number of days with a wildfire risk to increase by perhaps as little as 10 percent by 2100. According to some estimates, wildfires may burn almost 80 percent more area in California by 2050 than at the moment.

The Post also noted that researchers say that Finland has a far denser road network than other nations in the region, which creates barriers to the expansion of the blazes. Lakes and rivers are abundant, too. With many of the California fires happening near population centers now, a lack of roads is probably not the issue.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands have been evacuated, and are being routed into tent cities with no plan about what comes next. Already there are early signs that FEMA emergency money is both limited and time-capped. Where we need the president’s focus is on what comes next rather than on whether the forests are being properly raked.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer