I was a traveling consultant for a couple of decades, which gave me the chance to see most of North America. A couple of my business trips took me to the beautiful city of Kenora, which is nestled against the shoreline of Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. As we waited on the tarmac for our flights, a crew of fire rangers wandered out to join us. They wore their fluorescent red fire suits, and they each carried a heavy, oversized, olive green canoe pack. They looked like the tired but determined soldiers we see in newsreels from around the world.
Fire rangers go through this every year during what forest managers call the fire season. For example, 21 wildfires are burning in that part of Ontario right now. Fire season runs from April through October in Ontario.
In chatting with them, they told us that it’s hard and hazardous work but that it’s rewarding both financially and in job satisfaction. They also reminded us that forest fires are part of nature, something to respect but not to fear. Then, their chopper arrived, and they sauntered off to rejoin the battle.
They were right, of course. Scientists can tell from the fossil record that there have been wildfires ever since there have been plants, which is at least 420 million years. The two most common natural causes of fires are lightning and volcanoes. Fire is part of the natural ecosystem and has shaped the evolution of all life on earth.
All fires have three ingredients, heat, fuel and oxygen. Lightning and volcanoes, among other sources, give fires the spark of heat they need. The biosphere is full of carbon based vegetation, which is highly flammable in hot, dry weather. Our atmosphere holds 20% oxygen, which fires need to sustain combustion. Having plenty of all three ingredients, our planet has been susceptible to wildfires for millions of years.
When we were children, adults taught us that forest fires were always disasters. These days, forestry experts take a different view. We now know that fires return nutrients to the soil and help seeds to germinate. The habitat that a fire leaves behind is actually conducive to wildlife. The charred stumps and fallen logs that we consider ugly make perfect nests and shelters for animal species. Forests have greater biodiversity after a fire than before one.
Readers will also have heard the phrase “fight fire with fire”. It’s not a trite saying. Fire managers do use prescribed burning to prevent fires from spreading and causing loss of life and property. Prescribed burning is also good ecologically. Fire rangers have procedures and tactics to contain and control the fires they prescribe to protect public safety and get the environmental results they are looking for.
We raise these points as context for what readers will have seen in the news this week. There has been an enormous outcry about the wildfires in Brazil. Brazil’s new President Bolsinaro, a right wing populist, publicly denies that the fires are an issue, while discreetly deploying his army to fight them. Absurdly, he accuses environmental groups of having started them, so they could take pictures. He is also refusing aid money offered by the G-7 leaders in good faith to try to help his country because he feels insulted.
Environmental groups have also shown a lack of regard for the truth. We have seen cases of groups and their celebrity influencers releasing twenty year old photographs as if they depict current events. Another misconception is that the fires are caused by climate change. They are not. Tropical rain forests are too humid and damp for natural wildfires, even at today’s raised temperatures. These fires were started by farmers looking to increase the quantity of land for crops and pasture.
Celebrities give the impression that these fires are unprecedented. While it’s true that the number of wildfires in Brazil is up 79% over last year, this year is comparable to levels seen in 2016. The level of deforestation in Brazil has risen to over 2,000 square miles under Bolsanaro, but Brazil lost more than 10,000 square miles of tropical rain forest back in 1995. On the whole, the devastation has been slowing down, not getting worse.
On another front, some have drawn attention to the fact that wildland fires are also burning in Angola, Zambia and Congo. They claim that the attention has been focused on the Amazon while Africa’s issues are disregarded. This isn’t true either. The majority of the fires scientists see on satellite images of Africa are prescribed burns by local farmers. They are measures to improve the soil and clear out new areas for crops to grow. Sub-saharan Africa is not losing tropical rain forest to any of these wildland fires.
As readers can see, people are shedding more heat than light on this issue. Deforestation of the Amazon rain forest is a critical threat. The Amazon is among the most diverse habitats in the world. A full 10% of earth’s species live there. It’s also the source of 20% of the land photosynthesis on earth while storing about 25% of the world’s terrestrial carbon.
The Amazon rain forest is vulnerable, and we do need to save it, mainly to conserve the countless, and often still undiscovered, unique species that live there. Yet, we can’t get that done by spreading misinformation, even if we don’t mean to. Policies have to be based on facts and evidence. That means that we all have a duty to learn what’s true and what isn’t.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.