US Fact check: Texas has more forests than California, but climate plays role in wildfires
Climate change doesn't cause wildfires, but here's why it's making them worse
The consequences climate scientists have long been warning about are coming to fruition in the increased intensity of natural disasters around the globe. The consequences climate scientists have long been warning about are coming to fruition in the increased intensity of natural disasters around the globe, recently in the form of devastating wildfires that ravaged the western states and enshrouded areas not plagued with flames under hazes of smoke.
The claim: Texas has more forestland than California but zero fires.
With a record 4 million acres of California forest charred by fire this year alone, a Facebookshared more than 25,000 times asserts that the Golden State would do well to emulate Texas when it comes to managing its timberland.
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“Texas has more acres of forest than California and currently has zero fires,” says the Sept. 21 post by Scott Osborn, of Texas. “Same global climate. Opposite forestry policies."
Obsorn, whose social media platforms express deep support for several conservative causes and numerous Republican political figures, did not respond to a request via social media for comment. Nor did he respond to the nearly 40 comments and replies, most of them supporting his observation, that followed his original post.
Comparing the forests
The first contention — that Texas has more forestland than California — is not disputed by authorities in either state.
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Donald Trump's Campaign Crafted a Careful Climate Message. Trump Ignored ItDuring a stop in California to observe the destruction caused by the state’s wildfires, Trump called for better forest management to reduce the risk of fire. When pressed by a state official on the link between climate change and worsening wildfires, Trump spoke bluntly — and inaccurately. “It will start getting cooler,” he said, seemingly conflating the upcoming change of season with the long-term shifting climate. Challenged further, he replied, “I don’t think science knows actually.
According to the, operated by the Texas A&M University system, the Lone Star State is home to approximately 62.6 million acres of forestland. The , known informally as Cal Fire, puts its state inventory at 33 million acres, or about half the forest space of Texas.
The 'burning question'
Weldon Dent, of the Texas Forest Service, said holding up any given fire-free day as a representative sample of any time period proves nothing.
“As I’m sure you are aware, wildfires can, and do, occur at any time of the year,” Dent said. “Texas is no exception. For example: on Sunday, Sept. 27, Texas A&M Forest Service responded to three wildfires. This is not including any wildfires that may have been responded to at the local level.”
Texas averaged about 10,200 wildfires per year from 2013 to 2018, he said. Those fires scorched just over 2 million acres. In 2011, when much of Texas lay prey to a yearlong drought, Dent said 31,000 separate fires roared through nearly 4 million acres of Texas timberland.
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When climate change was identified as the primary cause of the wildfires, Trump interrupted to say "it'll start getting cooler – you just watch."Though government officials and scientists identified climate change as the primary culprit behind the intense wildfires, Trump insisted during a briefing in Northern California that "forest management" is more to blame.
Contrasting the climates
The next parts of the claims cannot be fit neatly into simple three-word sentences.
According to a summary provided by experts from Cal Fire, the climates of the two states are significantly different. That’s especially true when isolated down to heavily forested areas.
“California has primarily hot-summer Mediterranean, warm-summer Mediterranean and hot desert climates,” the summary states. Meanwhile, much of the central and eastern parts of Texas are considered humid and sub-tropical.
That argument is upheld bywhich analyzes satellite information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources, the forest-rich Piney Woods of East Texas receive significant annual rainfall, “with precipitation even during the driest month.”
The same is true in North Central Texas and the south to the Hill County, where large pockets of mesquite, live oaks and mountain juniper thrive.
In the northern regions of California, which has been ravaged by this year’s fires, rainfall is heaviest in the colder months and rare in the summer, according to Climate Data. The southern regions, also hit hard by fires, are mostly dry year-round.
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Forest management in California, Texas
Maintaining forestland, especially when tens of millions of acreage is in the mix, is cumbersome and bureaucratic – both in California and in Texas.
Cal Fire says it is responsible for not only the state’s 33 million acres of forests but also for more than 50 million additional acres its calls “wildlands.” And, the agency points out, 38% of forest acres is privately owned, 62% is owned by Native American tribes or the federal government, and the tiny fraction left over belongs to the state.
Part of the agency’s role is to work with all those groups to manage the forest inventory, the summary said.
In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order stepping up such management procedures as thinning stands of dense trees and setting controlled fires to eliminate timber that would turn into fuel that would accelerate future wildfires. Later that year, Brown signed legislation strengthening Cal Fire’s ability to establish regulations to reduce wildfire risk.
The order called for accelerating forest management procedures such as cutting back dense stands of trees and setting controlled fires to burn out thick brush, news reports from the time said. Brown’s order also made it easier for private landowners to thin trees while encouraging the use of innovative wood products.
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In Texas, theowns about 675,000 acres. The bulk of the land, about 92%, is privately owned. As in California’s case, the state of Texas owns but a sliver.
Dent said the state’s forest service employs practices as such cutting back dense trees and controlled burns. Private timber companies in East Texas regularly harvest trees for lumber.
“Thinning competing trees allows remaining trees to grow stronger and be more resistant to pests,” Dent said. “Prescribed burning removes competing vegetation, improves habitat for wildlife, and reduces dangerous buildup of combustible forest fuels.”
But, he added, the policies, though effective, are not a guarantee.
“It is often not if disaster will strike – but when,” Dent said. “No single response agency can protect us from all disasters. Jurisdictional boundaries between state, private, and federal forests are apparent on a map – but for forest pests, disease and wildfire – those boundaries that are so clear to us, simply don’t exist.”
Our ruling: Partly false
The original post said that even though Texas has more forests and similar climate than California, superior forest management has kept the Lone Star State relatively forest fire free. It is true that Texas has more forestland. But it is false to say differing forest management is why there are fewer fires. The two states have different climates, which play a role. Their forest management policies, while not identical, do have similarities. Even the Texas Forest Services acknowledges that its state has seen its share of fires over the years.
Biden is the obvious 'climate choice' candidate in the current race
President Trump's recurring reaction has been to ignore the role of climate change and instead blame state governments for poor forest management. To address the latter point using California as an example, let us ask the question, "who owns and manages the forestland?"As the University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources Department points out, the majority (57 percent) of California forestland owned and managed by the fed governmental government, not the state government, and another 40 percent is privately owned. The state owns just 3 percent.
Our fact-check sources:
- The Texas Forest Service,
- , Sept. 21, 2018,
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY:
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