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COLUMN: The truth about wildfires and climate change

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As wildfires have raged in the western half of the country this summer, politicians such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom have told us that climate change is to blame. They do so while ignoring their own mismanagement and persistent policy failures that have contributed to the problem.

Like no other state, California has come to symbolize progressive policies that have led to declining quality of life in its cities and rampant fires in its forestlands.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, California has had 22 of the 75 large fires this year that have ravaged nearly 4 million acres in parts of 11 states in the Midwest and West.

The problem, as more and more experts have advocated, is about more than increased temperatures, high winds and periods of drought — all effects of lasting changes in the climate, we’ve been told.

For over 30 years, Daron Brown has been involved in forestry, including the last 20 as owner of a forestry consulting business, Evergreen Forest Management, located in the foothills of northwestern North Carolina, in Wilkes County. He holds a degree in forest management technology.

During a recent 30-minute phone interview, Brown spoke about the complexities of wildfires and their causes.

“I don’t think anybody can deny climate change is a factor,” he said of the current situation with wildfires in the West. “But with that being said, there is plenty of blame to go around with the fires. It’s too easy to just say, well, it’s climate change. Politics and politicians get involved to say it’s all about climate change when, in reality, that’s only one piece of the blame puzzle.”

Brown has spent a lot of time in the western half of the country, as a vacationer and as a part-time firefighter with the North Carolina Forestry Service. He’s fought wildfires in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona. Once, he and other firefighters were camped near a fire tower in Idaho when a storm blew through in the middle of the night. From the tower, they could see 22 fires sparked by lightning — just the type of fires that often combine to become one large inferno, although these did not.

Later, a family trip provided an up-close look at the fuel that helps turn small fires into out-of-control wildfires.

“I was in Colorado on vacation a few years ago and saw miles and miles — hundreds of miles — of dead, standing timber,” he said. “The pine beetle had destroyed them. Now, you know what’s going to happen there. All it takes is a lightning strike.”

The solution, Brown pointed out, is to practice better management of forested areas. Thinning of overcrowded forests through sound timber management is necessary, but often prevented by environmental groups and politicians seeking their favor. That’s why commercial logging has been banned in vast tracts of federal land. Also needed are more prescribed burns that would reduce overcrowding and eliminate much of the fuels in forest land.

“Radical environmental groups think you let nature do its thing,” he said. “What people don’t realize is nature can be very destructive, and that’s what we’re seeing today. Environmentalists are driving policy change through the politicians.”

When drought strikes an area with overcrowded forests, it sets in place a series of events that are devastating.

“During periods of drought in recent years, the trees that were not properly managed became stressed,” Brown said. “Then came the pine beetles killing the timber. Now we have millions of acres of standing dead timber. All it takes is one lightning strike in the wrong place. It’s a tinder box.”

Budget cuts that began in the Clinton administration have left the U.S. Forest Service short of funds needed for better management, he said.

“Here’s the dilemma; it’s hard to increase your budget when you’re spending every dime you get fighting fires. We’re in a vicious cycle right now. The Forest Service, like every other agency, looks at its funds and decides how best to allocate them.”

Brown said a three-pronged approach is needed: changes in management policy; increased budgets; and controlled burns.

The situation with overcrowded forestlands in North Carolina is nearly as bad as that in other areas of the country, according to Brown, but we’ve avoided major droughts that would increase the risk.

Urban interface, the creation of subdivisions and other population centers in areas with dense forest, is also a problem. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of FEMA, Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is defined as an area where man-made “structures and infrastructure (cell towers, schools, water supply facilities, etc.) are in or adjacent to areas prone to wildfire.”

North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation in number of houses in the WUI, behind only California, Texas and Florida, in that order. Housing developments in the mountains of western North Carolina have no doubt contributed significantly to that distinction in recent decades.

“At some point,” Brown said, “planning boards in these areas have to make some tough decisions on housing.”

The N.C. Forest Service has a program called Firewise that can offer education and guidance to residents of areas with a high potential for wildfires.

Brown referenced the wildfires that occurred in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, during late November and early December of 2016. Fourteen people died in fires that burned over 17,000 acres, assisted by high winds and a recent drought.

“We’re very vulnerable in North Carolina,” he said. “We could see a Gatlinburg-style fire come through an area like Boone and Blowing Rock. It’s going to be unbelievable if it does. Up until the Gatlinburg fire, people thought we couldn’t have a western-style fire because of the fuels, but Gatlinburg proved everybody wrong.”


Larry Cothren is a marketing teacher and can be reached at


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