Everything Donald Trump got wrong linking California wildfires to Canadian lumber imports - Macleans.ca

Everything Donald Trump got wrong linking California wildfires to Canadian lumber imports

Actually, it is a ‘global warming thing.’ And that’s just for starters.

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A firefighter watches the 'Holy' wildfire in Corona, Calif. EPA/EUGENE GARCIA

The current California wildfires are not the result of global warming, Donald Trump declared at a cabinet meeting this week, but rather the problem is a “management situation.”

And one of the management challenges, the president went on to explain in a mind-bending attempt at economic analysis, is the onslaught of Canadian lumber imports—expensive imports, in his characterization—even as California has trees that have already fallen are but are never removed and become combustible for the next wildfire season.

The effort to link Canada shipping softwood lumber south in any way to raging wildfires in California befuddled many forestry and wildfire experts who spoke with Maclean’s, so we took a closer look at what the U.S. administration said, with a view to … reality.

First, without commentary: what the President and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the press about the forest fires:

Donald Trump: “Ryan [Zinke] was saying it’s not a global warming thing, it’s a management situation. And one of the elements that he talked about was the fact that we have fallen trees, and instead of removing those fallen trees, which get to be extremely combustible, instead of removing them, gently removing them, beautifully removing them, we leave them to burn and, actually in many cases catch fire much easier than a healthy, growing tree. Could you discuss that for second?”

Ryan Zinke: “Well, Mr. President, we import lumber in this country, and yet there are billions of board feet that are on the forest floor rotting. Rotting. Whether you are a global warming advocate or denier, it doesn’t make a difference. When you have rotting timber, when housing prices are going up, when a lot of Americans are right at that border of affording a house, and yet we are wasting billions of board feet for not being able to bring them to a local lumber mill. It unconscionable that we would do that to our citizens. […] On the salvage operation, 5.7 million acres, a lot of that can be salvaged if we get to that in the first year.”

Trump: “Just to conclude, especially when Canada is charging us a lot of money to bring their timber down into our country. So ridiculous, here we have it. We’re not even talking about cutting down trees, which in certain areas we can do. We’re talking about lying on the floor, creating a tremendous hazard and a tremendous death trap.”

And now—with added commentary from David Andison, adjunct professor UBC department of Forestry Resources Management; Derek Nighbor, CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada; and University of Calgary wildfire expert Ed Johnson—here’s what experts think about where the U.S. administration got right—and wrong.

Trump: “Ryan [Zinke] was saying it’s not a global warming thing, it’s a management situation.”

“He dismissed global warming out of hand. I would agree there is a management part, but there is absolutely a global warming part to this. There’s really no doubt of that. California will see more seasons like this, and they know it. There’s no doubt climate change is playing a role.” – David Andison

Trump: “And one of the elements that he talked about was the fact that we have fallen trees, and instead of removing those fallen trees, which get to be extremely combustible, instead of removing them, gently removing them, beautifully removing them, we leave them to burn and, actually in many cases catch fire much easier than a healthy, growing tree.”

“If they removed the dead trees at a cost to the state government to slow down these fires in the future—absolutely do it. I would call that a type of fire-smarting. The California fires, it’s not all trees burning. It’s shrub and brush. The tree density isn’t that high.” — David Andison

“It’s important to realize that fires are not spread by burning big logs, but by burning small stuff—smaller than your little finger, usually. The fires are spread by the volatiles coming out. With them sitting on the ground decomposing for a while, it doesn’t burn easily because all the volatiles are gone. It may burn afterwards, but not by flaming combustion. If you look at the pictures in California, most of these fires are in chaparral, which is a shrub about head-high. There’s no big logs on the ground in that situation. It’s the small fine fuels that are propagating the fire.” — Edward Johnson

Zinke: “We import lumber in this country, and yet there are billions of board feet that are on the forest floor rotting. Rotting.”

“The implication is there’s this wasted wood on the ground. You could argue decomposing wood is part of creating good soil and plays an important role in forests.” — Edward Johnson

“From an ecosystem perspective, the reason you have a nutrient rich soil base in which these trees are growing is because you had thousands of years of dead, dying and rotting trees. That’s where the soil starts out. It’s the cycle of life. If you take the out, over the long term, it will affect the ability of the ecosystem to produce trees in the future.” — David Andison

Zinke: “Whether you are a global warming advocate or denier, it doesn’t make a difference. When you have rotting timber, when housing prices are going up, when a lot of Americans are right at that border of affording a house, and yet we are wasting billions of board feet for not being able to bring them to a local lumber mill. It unconscionable that we would do that to our citizens.”

“Somebody has given him some information that is accurate—dead trees are part of the problem. Dead trees are going to be the driest possible fuel. They’re not good for forest fires, but they’re also useless for lumber. Taking dead trees off the floor for lumber is not economically viable. There’s no way. They used the word ‘rotting’. As soon as a tree falls down, it starts to rot. Why would a company come in and want that wood for timber?  Nobody is going to get rich doing that. ” — David Andison

Zinke: On the salvage operation, 5.7 million acres, a lot of that can be salvaged if we get to that in the first year.”

“How does this work? Are they going to census five million hectares every year and every time a tree falls down, go get it ‘gently’? Will they have people out there monitoring every time a tree falls down they go get it? Logistically, I’m baffled how that would work.” — David Andison

Trump: “Just to add, just to conclude, especially when Canada is charging us a lot of money to bring their timber down into our country. So ridiculous, here we have it. We’re not even talking about cutting down trees… we’re talking about lying on the floor, creating a tremendous hazard and a tremendous death trap.”

“This idea that you could take some of this deadwood and replace Canadian imports of softwood lumber is just ridiculous. You can’t compare the quality of burnt California wood to Canadian spruce, pine and fir.” — Derek Nighbor

“The only thing that made sense was the interior secretary saying they need to figure out, once the fire is through, what do you do with the deadwood? It’s a conversation we had in Fort Mac and B.C. last year. There needs to be a plan to get that wood out or it proves to be fuel for the next fire season.” — Nighbor

“One of the reasons the U.S. really likes Canadian timber is that it grows slowly, which creates smaller growth rings. If you’ve worked with wood, making furniture, trim or building a house, the ones most likely to warp on you are the ones growing faster and with wide rings—which you’ll find in the southern US. It’s not like you can replace this wood with that wood. I applaud them if they want to start to look at huge amounts of fire-smarting, but I have a hard time imagining how they could turn this around and make money and produce enough timber to make any dent in Canadian imports. — David Andison