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Why Wildfires Are Burning Hotter and Longer

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Thursday, November 30, 2023

In 2023, wildfires ravaged communities in Canada, Hawaii and elsewhere across the globe. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz The 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, begins today in the United Arab Emirates. A new topic on the agenda this year is how wildfires are emerging as a serious health risk not just to those in their immediate vicinity, but even to people thousands of miles away. Last summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted not only as far south as the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, but even across the Atlantic Ocean. On the latest episode of the Smithsonian podcast “There’s More to That,” I speak with John Vaillant, whose book Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World recounts a 2016 wildfire in Canada that dislocated tens of thousands of people and caused billions of dollars in damage. That natural disaster seemed like a terrifying outlier when John began his reporting, but 2023’s unprecedented fire activity suggest that it was merely the shape of things to come. John explains how climate change is making wildfires hotter and harder to contain. Next, photojournalist Andria Hautamaki, who observed a “prescribed burn” in Plumas County, California, shares how these kinds of carefully planned, intentionally set fires can be a useful tool for preventing more destructive blazes. A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on the OceanGate Titan disaster, Killers of the Flower Moon, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and more, find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Chris Klimek: On a cool, damp day last fall, Andria Hautamaki traveled to the Sierra Nevada region of Northern California. Andria Hautamaki: I drove up here in this majestic pine forest, low-hanging clouds and mist still in the trees. Klimek: She was there to meet a special kind of neighborhood association. Hautamaki: It felt like a group of friends hanging out in a morning to do something together outside. They had some music playing. The fellow whose house it was brought out a table and set up a little umbrella, and brought out some pizza and some cold drinks. Klimek: All around this group of people were piles of burning wood, but this wasn’t a campfire. This was a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns, or controlled burns as they’re sometimes called, are planned, mini-forest fires that can actually prevent larger, more destructive fires from occurring. Andria recently wrote about them for Smithsonian magazine. She also photographed this group of people responsible for overseeing the burn. Hautamaki: Each person was taking over a couple of different piles, and as the fire goes down, they’re throwing on some extra leaves or some branches. Sitting around and just catching up, keeping an eye on a fire, but also enjoying some pizza. Klimek: Prescribed burns are gaining momentum as a possible solution to dangerous wildfires. The idea is to thin out things like underbrush and low tree limbs that are so good at stoking wildfire. Hautamaki: So when a forest is too dense, it’s also less resilient to fires and to the changes that we’re seeing in today’s climate. Prescribed fire is really about pre-emptive management, so by clearing out those thick underbrush and fuels, they’re able to have less intense wildfires. Klimek: It’s been a record year for wildfires, with horrific blazes all over the globe. Maui, Canada, Australia, just to name a few. Even those of us that live far from the epicenter of these fires spent a lot of the summer breathing their smoke. You may have read about the COP28 U.N. climate conference that’s happening now as we release this episode. Well, things have gotten so dire that this group is currently talking about wildfires and other climate-related events as major public health issues. So what do we do? Are prescribed burns the answer? And how do we get here in the first place? From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where we try to predict the future by learning from the past. On this episode, how to fight fire with fire in the change in climate. I’m Chris Klimek. Before we get back to Andria and the prescribed burns, let’s find out more about why wildfires happen and why they seem to be getting worse. John Vaillant is a writer and journalist based between Canada and the U.S. His latest book, Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World, was a 2023 National Book Award finalist. The book is about the devastating 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada. John Vaillant: It was so big, it created a pyro-cumulonimbus cloud, which are these huge fire-born storm systems that puncture the stratosphere. They are these massive entities that generate their own lightning. Biblical apocalypse, volcanic chaos. Ragnarok-type stuff. The power of this fire, despite the fact that the local lakes were still frozen, that there were car-sized blocks of ice on the Athabasca River while this fire was raging around it. … This Southern California-intensity fire was sweeping through this community that literally had frost five days earlier. So I thought, “This is really weird.” Klimek: John’s book was published before the massive fires that plagued Canada over the summer. Vaillant: I certainly never imagined that Fire Weather would actually come out the same year that Canada would burn as it never had before. Klimek: We turned to John for some on-the-ground reporting about these intense fires. Vaillant: We’re getting a respite finally, and this is after an absolutely relentless season that really started at the end of April. It was going full blast across the country by May and never stopped, so this has been a historic season for us. We burned ten times the average amount of forest this year, and we had a quarter of a million citizens evacuated, tens of thousands more standing by ready to run, and several communities burned to the ground. So it’s been an absolutely terrible summer, really the worst ever. Klimek: I’m speaking to you from Washington, D.C. We were reading a few months ago that the source of a lot of the smoke that was palpable in our atmosphere was originating from Canadian wildfires. How is that possible? Vaillant: Well, when you get as much of Quebec burning and as much of Ontario burning and as much of Nova Scotia burning as was burning in late May and early June, you can’t believe the emissions. Just to give you an idea, Canada is a massive emitter of industrial CO2, because we’re one of the biggest petroleum producers in the world. And we also have the tar sands, which are uniquely heavy emitters. The fires of 2023 in Canada produced three times our industrial emissions, and that is just way off the charts. You get that much smoke in the air, and then it’s air currents. The jet stream is a factor, which is really like a conveyor, but these are all these kinds of compounding issues around climate change. Because one of the very strong indicators of a climate in distress is our now-unpredictable jet stream, which used to go around the Northern Hemisphere in a fairly consistent conveyor belt-like way. Now, it’s moving more like a Mississippi River meander. It goes up and it goes down, and smoke along with temperature can get pushed into places where it wouldn’t ordinarily be. That said, I think even without a wonky jet stream, so much forest was burning in late May and June that everybody was going to get something. Spain got it. France got it. And that was Canadian smoke that literally crossed the Atlantic Ocean and shrouded the west side of the European continent. It was a massive smoke pall, and, I’m sorry to say, the Eastern Seaboard really got caught in the middle of it. Klimek: Are we getting to a place where even the expression “fire season” is an antiquated idea—where it’s no longer confined to these specific months? Vaillant: I’m afraid so. I think in California now … you can talk to members of CAL FIRE, which is the state firefighting agency, and you can talk to people who’ve been there 20 years, and even in the past 20 years, they will say, “Well, we used to have a four-month fire season, and now it pretty much runs year round.” And the difference now would just be intensity. They had 300 percent snowpack in the southern part of the state. And so they’ve had one of the lightest fire seasons they’ve had in years, because all the reservoirs filled up after nearly a dozen years of drought. We have no idea if that will be predictable. It’s almost certain though that it won’t be, so we’ll get some other extreme. Right now, even in Alberta, which is a sub-Arctic province—so you’re way up there—they’re having fires up there now in the winter, because snowfall is reduced. There’s been a steady trend of that, and then that’s exacerbated by El Niño systems, which impact interior continental weather. Now, we’ve got another El Niño coming, and they tend to move in two-year pulses, if you will, the second year being even more severe than the first. So that all points to Alberta, which had a terrible fire season this year, having a potentially even worse season in 2024. And that’s a daunting prospect. Klimek: I’m sure it’s a confluence of factors, but can we identify a few things that might be responsible for the wildfires this year being so much more intense and difficult to contain? Vaillant: We certainly can. We’re crossing invisible thresholds that we are barely aware of. Our climate is changing in some obvious and measurable ways, but it’s having effects that are not obvious. Really, for the past 50 years, there has been a steady warming. And that warming became more pronounced in the late ’90s, and then we really started seeing some significant spikes and departures through the early 2000s. 2023 has been a signal year for bizarre climate indicators, and Canada’s fire season was one manifestation of that. One of the ways these thresholds manifest themselves is in quiet ways that are not so obvious to us, but are very obvious to fire. One example would be in the Alberta boreal. These are these northern forests. Lots of poplar, lots of aspen, lots of black spruce, but there’s also a lot of bog in there, a lot of swamp. We call it “muskeg” in Canada. People have been doing test pits in some of these muskeg bogs in Alberta, and they have been dry six feet down. And that is super strange and deeply alarming, because most of the tree roots are shallow. That means all the tree roots are dry, and when you dry out a bog, you get peat. When you think of what Irish people have traditionally burned, what people all across Northern Europe have burned in past centuries, it’s dried peat. Ordinarily, in order to dry it, you dig it out of the ground. It’s sort of decayed plant matter that’s on its way to becoming coal, but that’s going to take thousands and thousands of years. But right now, it’s decayed, compressed plant matter that if you dry it out in the air and the sun, you can burn it like wood. Now, that stuff is drying in situ, which means you have this reservoir of fuel that can burn 12 months a year virtually endlessly. You can’t put them out. This is, again, a long journey into the weeds, but a huge amount of Alaska, a huge amount of Northern Canada, a huge amount of Northern Europe is composed of this kind of bog. When it dries out, not only does it release methane and CO2, but it also can catch on fire and stay on fire in really durable ways. Klimek: Beyond just, “My home is threatened by a wildfire,” what are the human health effects of increasing prevalence and intensity of wildfires? Vaillant: They’re really dramatic. When New York and the Eastern Seaboard was shrouded in smoke around the beginning of June, the number of people reporting to emergency rooms for pulmonary and cardiac issues spiked. If you are a relatively healthy person who doesn’t have asthma, you can just weather it. You might cough a little bit and you might blow your nose and get a funny color, but generally, you’re going to be fine. But elders, babies, people with any compromised health … when you add that much smoke to the system, it can put people over the edge, from a stable-but-not-ideal health situation to a really grievous health risk. What it does, the same way many disasters do, the most vulnerable parts of the landscape, the most vulnerable species, and the most vulnerable people will be hit first. And that’s what we’re seeing. Likewise, in the case of prolonged smoke inhalation … for example, if you were in Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, that’s a small city of about 20,000 people way in the far north of Canada that evacuated due to the fires in August, I believe. But they were in smoke basically all summer long. And so, there are going to be measurable health impacts, not just on the old and the young and the vulnerable, but on the general population. Klimek (narration): During our conversation, John identified one surprising reason for the increase in intense wildfires. He said that we don’t let some forest fires burn enough. Vaillant: Fire suppression is a legitimate culprit for one of the reasons our fire seasons have been so bad in North America. The good fire, as some people call it, has been taken off the land. Generally, what you see in a healthy forest where fire has been used in a seasonal and rhythmic way is a lot more space. When a small fire can go through, it’ll burn the small brush, it’ll burn the grass, but it won’t run up into the trees and start a crown fire, which is what’s almost guaranteed to happen now, because there’s so many ladder fuels—as they’re called—choking the forest floor. That’s what you see less so on the East Coast, but in the west, people clearing out the underbrush in between the larger trees in a forest, and then burning at safe times of year smaller fires through the forest floor to clean it up. It’s a kind of sweeping, really. Fire used properly and rhythmically acts as a broom in the forest. Klimek: I was a little confounded when you named fire suppression as one of the factors we were facing here. Forest firefighting organizations, broadly, how do they decide when they want to intervene directly and when it would be better to just let a fire burn itself out? Vaillant: That whole culture is really changing. Klimek (narration): John said the catalyst for this shift came in 1988, when Yellowstone National Park caught fire. Vaillant: Half the park burned, and there was a huge debate then: “Do we let it burn? Or do we put it out?” You’re younger than I am, but growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Smokey Bear was an icon right up there with Mickey Mouse. Klimek: I remember Smokey Bear. Vaillant: You put fires out every time you saw one, and that’s what the Forest Service did, too. Letting Yellowstone burn back in that terrible fire — I think it was ’86 — was a historic event. All this to say, since then, there has been a more open and often heated, if you’ll pardon the pun, debate around whether to let the fires burn or not. In 2023, we’re at a place where there’s an increasing tendency to let the fire burn unless it’s going to intrude into settled areas and threaten important infrastructure. There’s a better understanding now that a healthy forest is one that has fires in it. Right now, because there is this massive buildup of forest due to nearly a century of quite successful fire suppression, the forests are now overloaded. And then, you have rising temperatures and dropping humidity, and that skews the way fire would naturally burn in several different ways that create these catastrophic conditions that we increasingly find ourselves in. Klimek (narration): To learn more about the history of these prescribed burns and how they work, we called Andria Hautamaki, who you heard at the beginning of the episode. Andria seemed to live light-years away from my Washington, D.C. apartment. Hautamaki: I used to have to ride a horse to be able to make a phone call, so to be able to sit here and talk to you is fantastic. Klimek (narration): I couldn’t help but notice an unfamiliar noise behind her on the call. Klimek: What are we hearing in your office right now? Hautamaki: You’re hearing a wood-burning stove. I live on a cattle ranch in southern Chile most of the year. No relation, necessarily, with the story—it’s just how we’re able to keep our off-grid house warm. Klimek (narration): We began our conversation by getting into more of the benefits and mechanics of prescribed burns. Klimek: Can we talk about any animals living in the forest where a controlled burn is initiated? Do we know how they’re affected by this? Hautamaki: Yeah. Controlled burns happen at particular times of year, usually either in the spring or in the fall. The timing of the burns takes into account bird migration as well as the direction the smoke is going to travel, and the large mammals in the controlled burn context are generally able to leave or escape the area, because it’s a slower-moving fire. Now, the fire itself, though, is actually helpful for the wildlife, because instead of having these thick areas of dense vegetation where maybe a deer can’t get through, you’re opening up those areas and creating more of a mosaic. There’s different vegetation and different spaces for the animals to go. It’s also really good for the pollinators and for the bird populations. You’re opening up that forest floor and you’re being able to release some seeds, and when those wildflowers are able to come up, that’s a really important nectar source for your pollinators. It rejuvenates the forest. Klimek: Let’s talk about that a bit more. Why do forest ecosystems need fires to thrive? Hautamaki: Wildfire and fire has always been part of the North American landscape. Most of the North American ecosystem is actually fire-dependent. Even from the East Coast down to Florida, across to the Great Plains, and into the Western United States, all of that landscape used to have fire on it. Now, traditionally, Indigenous peoples would light fires or allow a lightning strike to burn out. That historically was the way that these ecosystems were managed. When fire was taken off the landscape in the early 1900s, that’s when we started seeing an increase of all this vegetation and an overgrowth, both in the forest context and in the grassland context. Now, as we’ve increased our cities and the spread of where humans live, it becomes a more challenging situation. Now we’re dealing with wildfire not just going through a forest, but communities. And so, it’s really important to bring back that fire to these landscapes and recreate, under a controlled system, the type of fire that naturally occurred. Klimek: When Andria says that fire was taken off the landscape in the 1900s, she’s referring to a federally controlled burn ban, which lasted for decades. But now, Andria says, there’s been a shift, and government agencies responsible for land management are once again considering prescribed burns as a fire-prevention tool. Hautamaki: What we’ve transitioned to now today is less so much of a suppression focus, but there’s an increased focused on including “good fire”—so, that would be the prescribed fires—into the management that’s used across the U.S. It’s a technique also that ranchers have used. Particularly in California, ranchers used fire to clear out healthy areas for grazing for livestock. As far as Prescribed Burn Associations, that’s a little bit newer development. Klimek: Prescribed Burn Associations, or PBAs, as they’re sometimes called, started popping up in the 1990s. First, in the Great Plains and then beyond. PBAs are a group of ordinary citizens that get together to share their resources and collaboratively prevent fires by setting fires on privately owned land. Don’t worry—they do this with proper training, and these fires are very closely planned and monitored. Hautamaki: Oftentimes, the barriers to fire is that you need to have enough knowledge, you have to have the right equipment, you have to have the resources to be able to do it safely. With the PBAs, the neighbors are coming together and they’re pooling those resources, so that they can undertake these prescribed fires on their own land. Klimek: Do we know where the idea for PBAs came from? Hautamaki: In the mid-’90s, John Weir was an extension specialist at Oklahoma State University. He frequently did prescribed fires out at the Oklahoma State University research range. Neighbors were repeatedly calling him and asking for help, and what he realized is that he didn’t actually need to go and burn for these people. He needed to educate them on how they could go and do a prescribed fire safely on their property. From the Great Plains area, he kind of started to develop this PBA model. Klimek: Plumas Underburn Cooperative is a direct descendant of that model. Today, it’s one of an estimated 22 Prescribed Burn Associations in the state of California. Andria photographed the Plumas Underburn Cooperative for her article, traveling to Plumas County, a forested mountainous region of Northern California about two hours north of Lake Tahoe. Hautamaki: It’s in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and you’ve got steep slopes. We’ve got some beautiful pine forests and rivers. It’s a place where you would maybe want to go to camp or to hike, and a beautiful community-oriented place to live. It seems like a place where everybody knows everybody. Klimek: What is their relationship to wildfires in Plumas County? Hautamaki: Plumas County had an extremely destructive wildfire in 2021, and that was the Dixie Fire. It unfortunately engulfed the town of Greenville. I think the Dixie Fire was the second-largest fire in California history. When I went and photographed the prescribed burn that’s in the story, there was, at least on a local level or a neighbor level, a really renewed focus by folks who are interested in incorporating prescribed fire into their communities. They saw that that was something that could be helpful as a way to protect themselves by creating buffer zones or safe spaces around their homes and around their towns. The Dixie Fire was a very hot and very intense fire. Now, when you have a forest fire that’s a catastrophic or an extremely intense fire, instead of preserving those old-growth trees, it’s just going to incinerate everything in its path because of the intense heat. These prescribed burns are controlled burns. The benefit is that it’s a low-intensity fire. It’s not scorching everything in its path. Oftentimes, it’s called an underburn. That’s when the fire creeps across on the bottom of the forest floor, cleaning up some old leaf litter. It’s cleaning up this layer of forest duff, and it’s about creating a healthier environment for those trees and for the plants on the forest floor. Klimek: What makes these groups effective versus government agencies or more formal organizations? Why do PBAs seem to work? Hautamaki: PBAs are a complement to the agencies. The agencies do a lot of work on public land. The prescribed burn associations are really helpful both in states that have a lot of private land—like Nebraska or Oklahoma, where if you’re actually going to get prescribed fire on that land, an agency can’t go into it, because they don’t own that land. But private property owners can. And then, the other reason that PBAs can be really effective, especially in areas like Plumas County, is that we’re talking about an area that people are living within a wilderness-type area. They’re able to do fire around their land and their homes on a micro scale in a closer-in area to protect these urban areas that the agencies wouldn’t be getting into. Klimek: Many of the members of the Plumas Underburn Collective remember the Dixie Fire well. Hautamaki: There’s one gentleman who is in the story. His name is Jeff Greef. He has a really unique story about how he used that preventative work to actually save his home when the Dixie Fire came through. He did this prep work on his property where he had completed an underburn, and he’d done some thinning to increase the health of his forest. And so, when the Dixie Fire came up over the ridge where his house is situated, it just died down when it got to his property. You can’t say that sort of prep work is always going to save your house, but it definitely helped the resiliency of his home. And if he hadn’t done that work, the outcome might’ve been different. Klimek: What do you do to prepare for a prescribed burn? Hautamaki: All of the prescribed burns have a burn plan, and they also often have an experienced leader who’s called a “burn boss.” That would be the point person or the person who is in charge of the fire that day. The major factor that they’re taking into account would be the weather: Is it an appropriate temperature? What’s the humidity? And then, also, the wind speeds. If there’s too much wind, then it wouldn’t be safe to burn that day. They’re taking into account the description of the area. What’s the topography? Is it steep? Is it flat? That’s going to impact the direction that the fire is going to go. Different states have different rules about when you can burn and what paperwork needs to be turned in, but the burn plans that folks have to turn in before they do this prescribed fire require a lot of thought and planning. They have to state the objective: “Why do we want to do a burn on this particular property, and how is it going to benefit?” That’s just the planning stage. After that, then they have to do the prep work, where they need to make a perimeter around the outside of where the prescribed burn is going to happen to make sure the fire doesn’t go outside of that area. And then, on the inside of the burn area, they might also be trimming the lower limbs of trees, so that the prescribed fire doesn’t climb up the trees. Or they might be piling up some downed logs and really preparing the ground before they even go in and burn that day. The individual that I photographed in the story, he said he spent, I think, over 40 hours of prep work getting ready for the pile burn that happened, for just a few hours one morning with some friends. Klimek: A pile burn is a type of controlled burn. It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: After the precautionary clearing of the area, logs are stacked up and burned in piles. Andria told us it was lucky she got to photograph one at all. Hautamaki: One of the challenges, both to photograph prescribed fire and also for the folks who do prescribed fire, is that weather is such a huge factor. There were several times where I was planning to go out and photograph, and to get the call that morning or on your way driving to a prescribed fire, and it’s like, “Oh, we called it off.” And it’s good that they do that, because it’s all about making sure that the burn can be done safely. But that is one of the challenges both of reporting on prescribed fire and also for the folks that are doing the on-the-ground work. The pile burn that happened this day was adjacent to a neighboring property, so you could definitely see where Saylor [Flett], who is the landowner, how he’d done the prep work. You could see where he’d cleaned out some small trees and you could see where he’d cut off some lower-limb branches on some of the mature trees. You could see where he’d piled up logs and cut big logs up into chunks, so that they were movable. Because if you looked on the adjacent property, you could see where there were logs still strewn over the forest floor. It looked more unkempt, I guess you could say. Klimek: How did they actually start the fire? Hautamaki: They use blowtorches! You can smell the drip torch fuel. And then, it also was a damp day, so you’ve got that wet forest smell that just is really nice. You can hear the crackle of the pine needles. They kind of make a crackling sound when they burn. You can smell that earthy singe of that coming up. And then, you’ve got the burning of the logs. You can hear them falling down on each other inside the pile. And then, there was that music that was going on in the background, where it just felt like a bunch of people hanging out in the woods and enjoying a morning, listening to some music. As you’re photographing, you don’t want to get too close to the flames, but you’ve got those gases coming off the fire. And so, it’s creating a nebulous-looking effect of the people that you’re photographing through the fire. You can hear the crackle and the snap of the wood burning. On a controlled setting like this, it kind of feels like you’re at a giant campfire. I was glad that I had arrived early, so that I could photograph the piles when you could still see them. Because when it was all done, you could see some little bits of smoke coming off the hillside from where the piles were, but it was not nearly as impressive as seeing all of the stacked wood that they’d prepared to burn that morning. Klimek: As the fires died down and the music played on, Andria found herself witnessing a sense of community. Hautamaki: There was one fellow, I think it was his 70th birthday, and that was what he was doing that morning. And then, in the afternoon, he was going to go celebrate with family and friends. I feel like from talking to folks … prescribed fire, especially in the PBAs, it’s a way for people to connect. It maybe gives them a reason to get together, and that they wouldn’t necessarily make the time to go and hang out with their neighbors unless they had this group project that they were doing together. Klimek: Are there any drawbacks to prescribed burns? Hautamaki: When you’re working with fire, there’re always challenges. There are incidences of when prescribed fires have escaped their boundaries. Maybe one of the more recent ones would be the Hermits Peak Fire that was in New Mexico. Some unexpected erratic winds caused the fire to jump outside of the boundary. But from my conversations with the people who work from the academic side of research and forest health, the benefits, the need for the forest to have fire outweigh the risks. When these agencies or when these landowners are taking all the responsible preconditions to be willing to burn safely, generally, the prescribed fire has a good safety record. Klimek: We know wildfires seem to be increasing. Do you think controlled burns will increase in a commensurate way as a way of controlling them? Hautamaki: There’s a lot of interest right now. In October of 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 332 into effect, and that was to encourage more prescribed burning by minimizing the associated liabilities. The interesting thing about prescribed fire is that it’s bringing together some really diverse groups. On that particular bill, you had support from the California Cattlemen’s Association. You had support from the Karuk Tribe. You had support from the Defenders of Wildlife. All of these different organizations, from the ranchers to the environmental groups to the Indigenous groups, see and value prescribed fire and the benefits that it can bring to the land. Klimek: Andria Hautamaki is a photojournalist. Thank you so much, Andria, for speaking with us today. Hautamaki: Thanks. It was great to be here. Klimek: To read an excerpt of John’s book, Fire Weather, and to see Andria’s photographs of the Plumas County Underburn Collective, head to SmithsonianMag.com. We’ve also put links in our show notes, along with a list of resources where you can learn more about prescribed burns. Before we let you go, we have a “dinner party fact” to send you off into the rest of your week. We’re hoping you can use this week’s fact instead of a cheesy pickup line, although it’s not about something conventionally romantic. Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Hey, there. I’m Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. I’m a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine, and my dinner party fact might come in handy if you find an attractive person at the next dinner party you attend. It’s a seduction technique I learned from an article I recently worked on about birds. Apparently, when a male roadrunner sees a female that he wants to court, he comes forward with a dead animal hanging from his beak. It could be a dead lizard or a centipede or a dragonfly. Or even a dead smaller bird. Apparently this is a very effective seduction technique, because roadrunners mate for life, so you might want to try this. Klimek: Okay, Jennie. What else you got? Rothenberg Gritz: Another bonus fact I’ll give you is that in spite of everything we’ve learned from cartoons, roadrunners cannot actually outrun coyotes. A roadrunner is fast. They can run about 25 miles an hour, but coyotes are even faster. They can run 35 to 43 miles per hour. Keep enjoying Looney Tunes, but please keep coming to Smithsonian for your science information. Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music. I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening. Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.

As conflagrations become more difficult to contain, a citizen movement to try to manage them through “prescribed burns” is growing

Wildfire illustration
In 2023, wildfires ravaged communities in Canada, Hawaii and elsewhere across the globe. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

The 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, begins today in the United Arab Emirates. A new topic on the agenda this year is how wildfires are emerging as a serious health risk not just to those in their immediate vicinity, but even to people thousands of miles away. Last summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted not only as far south as the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, but even across the Atlantic Ocean.

On the latest episode of the Smithsonian podcast “There’s More to That,” I speak with John Vaillant, whose book Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World recounts a 2016 wildfire in Canada that dislocated tens of thousands of people and caused billions of dollars in damage. That natural disaster seemed like a terrifying outlier when John began his reporting, but 2023’s unprecedented fire activity suggest that it was merely the shape of things to come.

John explains how climate change is making wildfires hotter and harder to contain. Next, photojournalist Andria Hautamaki, who observed a “prescribed burn” in Plumas County, California, shares how these kinds of carefully planned, intentionally set fires can be a useful tool for preventing more destructive blazes.

A transcript is below. To subscribe to “There’s More to That,” and to listen to past episodes on the OceanGate Titan disaster, Killers of the Flower Moon, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and more, find us on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


Chris Klimek: On a cool, damp day last fall, Andria Hautamaki traveled to the Sierra Nevada region of Northern California.

Andria Hautamaki: I drove up here in this majestic pine forest, low-hanging clouds and mist still in the trees.

Klimek: She was there to meet a special kind of neighborhood association.

Hautamaki: It felt like a group of friends hanging out in a morning to do something together outside. They had some music playing. The fellow whose house it was brought out a table and set up a little umbrella, and brought out some pizza and some cold drinks.

Klimek: All around this group of people were piles of burning wood, but this wasn’t a campfire. This was a prescribed burn. Prescribed burns, or controlled burns as they’re sometimes called, are planned, mini-forest fires that can actually prevent larger, more destructive fires from occurring. Andria recently wrote about them for Smithsonian magazine. She also photographed this group of people responsible for overseeing the burn.

Hautamaki: Each person was taking over a couple of different piles, and as the fire goes down, they’re throwing on some extra leaves or some branches. Sitting around and just catching up, keeping an eye on a fire, but also enjoying some pizza.

Klimek: Prescribed burns are gaining momentum as a possible solution to dangerous wildfires. The idea is to thin out things like underbrush and low tree limbs that are so good at stoking wildfire.

Hautamaki: So when a forest is too dense, it’s also less resilient to fires and to the changes that we’re seeing in today’s climate. Prescribed fire is really about pre-emptive management, so by clearing out those thick underbrush and fuels, they’re able to have less intense wildfires.

Klimek: It’s been a record year for wildfires, with horrific blazes all over the globe. Maui, Canada, Australia, just to name a few. Even those of us that live far from the epicenter of these fires spent a lot of the summer breathing their smoke. You may have read about the COP28 U.N. climate conference that’s happening now as we release this episode. Well, things have gotten so dire that this group is currently talking about wildfires and other climate-related events as major public health issues. So what do we do? Are prescribed burns the answer? And how do we get here in the first place?

From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where we try to predict the future by learning from the past. On this episode, how to fight fire with fire in the change in climate. I’m Chris Klimek.


Before we get back to Andria and the prescribed burns, let’s find out more about why wildfires happen and why they seem to be getting worse. John Vaillant is a writer and journalist based between Canada and the U.S. His latest book, Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World, was a 2023 National Book Award finalist. The book is about the devastating 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada.

John Vaillant: It was so big, it created a pyro-cumulonimbus cloud, which are these huge fire-born storm systems that puncture the stratosphere. They are these massive entities that generate their own lightning. Biblical apocalypse, volcanic chaos. Ragnarok-type stuff. The power of this fire, despite the fact that the local lakes were still frozen, that there were car-sized blocks of ice on the Athabasca River while this fire was raging around it. … This Southern California-intensity fire was sweeping through this community that literally had frost five days earlier. So I thought, “This is really weird.”

Klimek: John’s book was published before the massive fires that plagued Canada over the summer.

Vaillant: I certainly never imagined that Fire Weather would actually come out the same year that Canada would burn as it never had before.

Klimek: We turned to John for some on-the-ground reporting about these intense fires.

Vaillant: We’re getting a respite finally, and this is after an absolutely relentless season that really started at the end of April. It was going full blast across the country by May and never stopped, so this has been a historic season for us. We burned ten times the average amount of forest this year, and we had a quarter of a million citizens evacuated, tens of thousands more standing by ready to run, and several communities burned to the ground. So it’s been an absolutely terrible summer, really the worst ever.

Klimek: I’m speaking to you from Washington, D.C. We were reading a few months ago that the source of a lot of the smoke that was palpable in our atmosphere was originating from Canadian wildfires. How is that possible?

Vaillant: Well, when you get as much of Quebec burning and as much of Ontario burning and as much of Nova Scotia burning as was burning in late May and early June, you can’t believe the emissions. Just to give you an idea, Canada is a massive emitter of industrial CO2, because we’re one of the biggest petroleum producers in the world. And we also have the tar sands, which are uniquely heavy emitters.

The fires of 2023 in Canada produced three times our industrial emissions, and that is just way off the charts. You get that much smoke in the air, and then it’s air currents. The jet stream is a factor, which is really like a conveyor, but these are all these kinds of compounding issues around climate change. Because one of the very strong indicators of a climate in distress is our now-unpredictable jet stream, which used to go around the Northern Hemisphere in a fairly consistent conveyor belt-like way. Now, it’s moving more like a Mississippi River meander. It goes up and it goes down, and smoke along with temperature can get pushed into places where it wouldn’t ordinarily be.

That said, I think even without a wonky jet stream, so much forest was burning in late May and June that everybody was going to get something. Spain got it. France got it. And that was Canadian smoke that literally crossed the Atlantic Ocean and shrouded the west side of the European continent. It was a massive smoke pall, and, I’m sorry to say, the Eastern Seaboard really got caught in the middle of it.

Klimek: Are we getting to a place where even the expression “fire season” is an antiquated idea—where it’s no longer confined to these specific months?

Vaillant: I’m afraid so. I think in California now … you can talk to members of CAL FIRE, which is the state firefighting agency, and you can talk to people who’ve been there 20 years, and even in the past 20 years, they will say, “Well, we used to have a four-month fire season, and now it pretty much runs year round.” And the difference now would just be intensity.

They had 300 percent snowpack in the southern part of the state. And so they’ve had one of the lightest fire seasons they’ve had in years, because all the reservoirs filled up after nearly a dozen years of drought. We have no idea if that will be predictable. It’s almost certain though that it won’t be, so we’ll get some other extreme. Right now, even in Alberta, which is a sub-Arctic province—so you’re way up there—they’re having fires up there now in the winter, because snowfall is reduced.

There’s been a steady trend of that, and then that’s exacerbated by El Niño systems, which impact interior continental weather. Now, we’ve got another El Niño coming, and they tend to move in two-year pulses, if you will, the second year being even more severe than the first. So that all points to Alberta, which had a terrible fire season this year, having a potentially even worse season in 2024. And that’s a daunting prospect.

Klimek: I’m sure it’s a confluence of factors, but can we identify a few things that might be responsible for the wildfires this year being so much more intense and difficult to contain?

Vaillant: We certainly can. We’re crossing invisible thresholds that we are barely aware of. Our climate is changing in some obvious and measurable ways, but it’s having effects that are not obvious. Really, for the past 50 years, there has been a steady warming. And that warming became more pronounced in the late ’90s, and then we really started seeing some significant spikes and departures through the early 2000s.

2023 has been a signal year for bizarre climate indicators, and Canada’s fire season was one manifestation of that. One of the ways these thresholds manifest themselves is in quiet ways that are not so obvious to us, but are very obvious to fire. One example would be in the Alberta boreal. These are these northern forests. Lots of poplar, lots of aspen, lots of black spruce, but there’s also a lot of bog in there, a lot of swamp. We call it “muskeg” in Canada.

People have been doing test pits in some of these muskeg bogs in Alberta, and they have been dry six feet down. And that is super strange and deeply alarming, because most of the tree roots are shallow. That means all the tree roots are dry, and when you dry out a bog, you get peat. When you think of what Irish people have traditionally burned, what people all across Northern Europe have burned in past centuries, it’s dried peat.

Ordinarily, in order to dry it, you dig it out of the ground. It’s sort of decayed plant matter that’s on its way to becoming coal, but that’s going to take thousands and thousands of years. But right now, it’s decayed, compressed plant matter that if you dry it out in the air and the sun, you can burn it like wood. Now, that stuff is drying in situ, which means you have this reservoir of fuel that can burn 12 months a year virtually endlessly.

You can’t put them out. This is, again, a long journey into the weeds, but a huge amount of Alaska, a huge amount of Northern Canada, a huge amount of Northern Europe is composed of this kind of bog. When it dries out, not only does it release methane and CO2, but it also can catch on fire and stay on fire in really durable ways.

Klimek: Beyond just, “My home is threatened by a wildfire,” what are the human health effects of increasing prevalence and intensity of wildfires?

Vaillant: They’re really dramatic. When New York and the Eastern Seaboard was shrouded in smoke around the beginning of June, the number of people reporting to emergency rooms for pulmonary and cardiac issues spiked. If you are a relatively healthy person who doesn’t have asthma, you can just weather it. You might cough a little bit and you might blow your nose and get a funny color, but generally, you’re going to be fine.

But elders, babies, people with any compromised health … when you add that much smoke to the system, it can put people over the edge, from a stable-but-not-ideal health situation to a really grievous health risk. What it does, the same way many disasters do, the most vulnerable parts of the landscape, the most vulnerable species, and the most vulnerable people will be hit first. And that’s what we’re seeing.

Likewise, in the case of prolonged smoke inhalation … for example, if you were in Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, that’s a small city of about 20,000 people way in the far north of Canada that evacuated due to the fires in August, I believe. But they were in smoke basically all summer long. And so, there are going to be measurable health impacts, not just on the old and the young and the vulnerable, but on the general population.

Klimek (narration): During our conversation, John identified one surprising reason for the increase in intense wildfires. He said that we don’t let some forest fires burn enough.

Vaillant: Fire suppression is a legitimate culprit for one of the reasons our fire seasons have been so bad in North America. The good fire, as some people call it, has been taken off the land. Generally, what you see in a healthy forest where fire has been used in a seasonal and rhythmic way is a lot more space.

When a small fire can go through, it’ll burn the small brush, it’ll burn the grass, but it won’t run up into the trees and start a crown fire, which is what’s almost guaranteed to happen now, because there’s so many ladder fuels—as they’re called—choking the forest floor.

That’s what you see less so on the East Coast, but in the west, people clearing out the underbrush in between the larger trees in a forest, and then burning at safe times of year smaller fires through the forest floor to clean it up. It’s a kind of sweeping, really. Fire used properly and rhythmically acts as a broom in the forest.

Klimek: I was a little confounded when you named fire suppression as one of the factors we were facing here. Forest firefighting organizations, broadly, how do they decide when they want to intervene directly and when it would be better to just let a fire burn itself out?

Vaillant: That whole culture is really changing.

Klimek (narration): John said the catalyst for this shift came in 1988, when Yellowstone National Park caught fire.

Vaillant: Half the park burned, and there was a huge debate then: “Do we let it burn? Or do we put it out?” You’re younger than I am, but growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Smokey Bear was an icon right up there with Mickey Mouse.

Klimek: I remember Smokey Bear.

Vaillant: You put fires out every time you saw one, and that’s what the Forest Service did, too. Letting Yellowstone burn back in that terrible fire — I think it was ’86 — was a historic event. All this to say, since then, there has been a more open and often heated, if you’ll pardon the pun, debate around whether to let the fires burn or not.

In 2023, we’re at a place where there’s an increasing tendency to let the fire burn unless it’s going to intrude into settled areas and threaten important infrastructure. There’s a better understanding now that a healthy forest is one that has fires in it.

Right now, because there is this massive buildup of forest due to nearly a century of quite successful fire suppression, the forests are now overloaded. And then, you have rising temperatures and dropping humidity, and that skews the way fire would naturally burn in several different ways that create these catastrophic conditions that we increasingly find ourselves in.


Klimek (narration): To learn more about the history of these prescribed burns and how they work, we called Andria Hautamaki, who you heard at the beginning of the episode. Andria seemed to live light-years away from my Washington, D.C. apartment.

Hautamaki: I used to have to ride a horse to be able to make a phone call, so to be able to sit here and talk to you is fantastic.

Klimek (narration): I couldn’t help but notice an unfamiliar noise behind her on the call.

Klimek: What are we hearing in your office right now?

Hautamaki: You’re hearing a wood-burning stove. I live on a cattle ranch in southern Chile most of the year. No relation, necessarily, with the story—it’s just how we’re able to keep our off-grid house warm.

Klimek (narration): We began our conversation by getting into more of the benefits and mechanics of prescribed burns.

Klimek: Can we talk about any animals living in the forest where a controlled burn is initiated? Do we know how they’re affected by this?

Hautamaki: Yeah. Controlled burns happen at particular times of year, usually either in the spring or in the fall. The timing of the burns takes into account bird migration as well as the direction the smoke is going to travel, and the large mammals in the controlled burn context are generally able to leave or escape the area, because it’s a slower-moving fire.

Now, the fire itself, though, is actually helpful for the wildlife, because instead of having these thick areas of dense vegetation where maybe a deer can’t get through, you’re opening up those areas and creating more of a mosaic. There’s different vegetation and different spaces for the animals to go.

It’s also really good for the pollinators and for the bird populations. You’re opening up that forest floor and you’re being able to release some seeds, and when those wildflowers are able to come up, that’s a really important nectar source for your pollinators. It rejuvenates the forest.

Klimek: Let’s talk about that a bit more. Why do forest ecosystems need fires to thrive?

Hautamaki: Wildfire and fire has always been part of the North American landscape. Most of the North American ecosystem is actually fire-dependent. Even from the East Coast down to Florida, across to the Great Plains, and into the Western United States, all of that landscape used to have fire on it.

Now, traditionally, Indigenous peoples would light fires or allow a lightning strike to burn out. That historically was the way that these ecosystems were managed. When fire was taken off the landscape in the early 1900s, that’s when we started seeing an increase of all this vegetation and an overgrowth, both in the forest context and in the grassland context.

Now, as we’ve increased our cities and the spread of where humans live, it becomes a more challenging situation. Now we’re dealing with wildfire not just going through a forest, but communities. And so, it’s really important to bring back that fire to these landscapes and recreate, under a controlled system, the type of fire that naturally occurred.

Klimek: When Andria says that fire was taken off the landscape in the 1900s, she’s referring to a federally controlled burn ban, which lasted for decades. But now, Andria says, there’s been a shift, and government agencies responsible for land management are once again considering prescribed burns as a fire-prevention tool.

Hautamaki: What we’ve transitioned to now today is less so much of a suppression focus, but there’s an increased focused on including “good fire”—so, that would be the prescribed fires—into the management that’s used across the U.S.

It’s a technique also that ranchers have used. Particularly in California, ranchers used fire to clear out healthy areas for grazing for livestock. As far as Prescribed Burn Associations, that’s a little bit newer development.

Klimek: Prescribed Burn Associations, or PBAs, as they’re sometimes called, started popping up in the 1990s. First, in the Great Plains and then beyond. PBAs are a group of ordinary citizens that get together to share their resources and collaboratively prevent fires by setting fires on privately owned land. Don’t worry—they do this with proper training, and these fires are very closely planned and monitored.

Hautamaki: Oftentimes, the barriers to fire is that you need to have enough knowledge, you have to have the right equipment, you have to have the resources to be able to do it safely. With the PBAs, the neighbors are coming together and they’re pooling those resources, so that they can undertake these prescribed fires on their own land.

Klimek: Do we know where the idea for PBAs came from?

Hautamaki: In the mid-’90s, John Weir was an extension specialist at Oklahoma State University. He frequently did prescribed fires out at the Oklahoma State University research range. Neighbors were repeatedly calling him and asking for help, and what he realized is that he didn’t actually need to go and burn for these people. He needed to educate them on how they could go and do a prescribed fire safely on their property. From the Great Plains area, he kind of started to develop this PBA model.

Klimek: Plumas Underburn Cooperative is a direct descendant of that model. Today, it’s one of an estimated 22 Prescribed Burn Associations in the state of California. Andria photographed the Plumas Underburn Cooperative for her article, traveling to Plumas County, a forested mountainous region of Northern California about two hours north of Lake Tahoe.

Hautamaki: It’s in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and you’ve got steep slopes. We’ve got some beautiful pine forests and rivers. It’s a place where you would maybe want to go to camp or to hike, and a beautiful community-oriented place to live. It seems like a place where everybody knows everybody.

Klimek: What is their relationship to wildfires in Plumas County?

Hautamaki: Plumas County had an extremely destructive wildfire in 2021, and that was the Dixie Fire. It unfortunately engulfed the town of Greenville. I think the Dixie Fire was the second-largest fire in California history.

When I went and photographed the prescribed burn that’s in the story, there was, at least on a local level or a neighbor level, a really renewed focus by folks who are interested in incorporating prescribed fire into their communities. They saw that that was something that could be helpful as a way to protect themselves by creating buffer zones or safe spaces around their homes and around their towns.

The Dixie Fire was a very hot and very intense fire. Now, when you have a forest fire that’s a catastrophic or an extremely intense fire, instead of preserving those old-growth trees, it’s just going to incinerate everything in its path because of the intense heat.

These prescribed burns are controlled burns. The benefit is that it’s a low-intensity fire. It’s not scorching everything in its path. Oftentimes, it’s called an underburn. That’s when the fire creeps across on the bottom of the forest floor, cleaning up some old leaf litter. It’s cleaning up this layer of forest duff, and it’s about creating a healthier environment for those trees and for the plants on the forest floor.

Klimek: What makes these groups effective versus government agencies or more formal organizations? Why do PBAs seem to work?

Hautamaki: PBAs are a complement to the agencies. The agencies do a lot of work on public land. The prescribed burn associations are really helpful both in states that have a lot of private land—like Nebraska or Oklahoma, where if you’re actually going to get prescribed fire on that land, an agency can’t go into it, because they don’t own that land. But private property owners can.

And then, the other reason that PBAs can be really effective, especially in areas like Plumas County, is that we’re talking about an area that people are living within a wilderness-type area. They’re able to do fire around their land and their homes on a micro scale in a closer-in area to protect these urban areas that the agencies wouldn’t be getting into.

Klimek: Many of the members of the Plumas Underburn Collective remember the Dixie Fire well.

Hautamaki: There’s one gentleman who is in the story. His name is Jeff Greef. He has a really unique story about how he used that preventative work to actually save his home when the Dixie Fire came through. He did this prep work on his property where he had completed an underburn, and he’d done some thinning to increase the health of his forest.

And so, when the Dixie Fire came up over the ridge where his house is situated, it just died down when it got to his property. You can’t say that sort of prep work is always going to save your house, but it definitely helped the resiliency of his home. And if he hadn’t done that work, the outcome might’ve been different.

Klimek: What do you do to prepare for a prescribed burn?

Hautamaki: All of the prescribed burns have a burn plan, and they also often have an experienced leader who’s called a “burn boss.” That would be the point person or the person who is in charge of the fire that day. The major factor that they’re taking into account would be the weather: Is it an appropriate temperature? What’s the humidity? And then, also, the wind speeds. If there’s too much wind, then it wouldn’t be safe to burn that day.

They’re taking into account the description of the area. What’s the topography? Is it steep? Is it flat? That’s going to impact the direction that the fire is going to go. Different states have different rules about when you can burn and what paperwork needs to be turned in, but the burn plans that folks have to turn in before they do this prescribed fire require a lot of thought and planning. They have to state the objective: “Why do we want to do a burn on this particular property, and how is it going to benefit?” That’s just the planning stage.

After that, then they have to do the prep work, where they need to make a perimeter around the outside of where the prescribed burn is going to happen to make sure the fire doesn’t go outside of that area.

And then, on the inside of the burn area, they might also be trimming the lower limbs of trees, so that the prescribed fire doesn’t climb up the trees. Or they might be piling up some downed logs and really preparing the ground before they even go in and burn that day. The individual that I photographed in the story, he said he spent, I think, over 40 hours of prep work getting ready for the pile burn that happened, for just a few hours one morning with some friends.

Klimek: A pile burn is a type of controlled burn. It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: After the precautionary clearing of the area, logs are stacked up and burned in piles. Andria told us it was lucky she got to photograph one at all.

Hautamaki: One of the challenges, both to photograph prescribed fire and also for the folks who do prescribed fire, is that weather is such a huge factor. There were several times where I was planning to go out and photograph, and to get the call that morning or on your way driving to a prescribed fire, and it’s like, “Oh, we called it off.”

And it’s good that they do that, because it’s all about making sure that the burn can be done safely. But that is one of the challenges both of reporting on prescribed fire and also for the folks that are doing the on-the-ground work. The pile burn that happened this day was adjacent to a neighboring property, so you could definitely see where Saylor [Flett], who is the landowner, how he’d done the prep work.

You could see where he’d cleaned out some small trees and you could see where he’d cut off some lower-limb branches on some of the mature trees. You could see where he’d piled up logs and cut big logs up into chunks, so that they were movable. Because if you looked on the adjacent property, you could see where there were logs still strewn over the forest floor. It looked more unkempt, I guess you could say.

Klimek: How did they actually start the fire?

Hautamaki: They use blowtorches! You can smell the drip torch fuel. And then, it also was a damp day, so you’ve got that wet forest smell that just is really nice. You can hear the crackle of the pine needles. They kind of make a crackling sound when they burn. You can smell that earthy singe of that coming up. And then, you’ve got the burning of the logs. You can hear them falling down on each other inside the pile.

And then, there was that music that was going on in the background, where it just felt like a bunch of people hanging out in the woods and enjoying a morning, listening to some music. As you’re photographing, you don’t want to get too close to the flames, but you’ve got those gases coming off the fire. And so, it’s creating a nebulous-looking effect of the people that you’re photographing through the fire.

You can hear the crackle and the snap of the wood burning. On a controlled setting like this, it kind of feels like you’re at a giant campfire. I was glad that I had arrived early, so that I could photograph the piles when you could still see them. Because when it was all done, you could see some little bits of smoke coming off the hillside from where the piles were, but it was not nearly as impressive as seeing all of the stacked wood that they’d prepared to burn that morning.

Klimek: As the fires died down and the music played on, Andria found herself witnessing a sense of community.

Hautamaki: There was one fellow, I think it was his 70th birthday, and that was what he was doing that morning. And then, in the afternoon, he was going to go celebrate with family and friends. I feel like from talking to folks … prescribed fire, especially in the PBAs, it’s a way for people to connect. It maybe gives them a reason to get together, and that they wouldn’t necessarily make the time to go and hang out with their neighbors unless they had this group project that they were doing together.

Klimek: Are there any drawbacks to prescribed burns?

Hautamaki: When you’re working with fire, there’re always challenges. There are incidences of when prescribed fires have escaped their boundaries. Maybe one of the more recent ones would be the Hermits Peak Fire that was in New Mexico. Some unexpected erratic winds caused the fire to jump outside of the boundary.

But from my conversations with the people who work from the academic side of research and forest health, the benefits, the need for the forest to have fire outweigh the risks. When these agencies or when these landowners are taking all the responsible preconditions to be willing to burn safely, generally, the prescribed fire has a good safety record.

Klimek: We know wildfires seem to be increasing. Do you think controlled burns will increase in a commensurate way as a way of controlling them?

Hautamaki: There’s a lot of interest right now. In October of 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 332 into effect, and that was to encourage more prescribed burning by minimizing the associated liabilities. The interesting thing about prescribed fire is that it’s bringing together some really diverse groups. On that particular bill, you had support from the California Cattlemen’s Association. You had support from the Karuk Tribe. You had support from the Defenders of Wildlife. All of these different organizations, from the ranchers to the environmental groups to the Indigenous groups, see and value prescribed fire and the benefits that it can bring to the land.

Klimek: Andria Hautamaki is a photojournalist. Thank you so much, Andria, for speaking with us today.

Hautamaki: Thanks. It was great to be here.

Klimek: To read an excerpt of John’s book, Fire Weather, and to see Andria’s photographs of the Plumas County Underburn Collective, head to SmithsonianMag.com. We’ve also put links in our show notes, along with a list of resources where you can learn more about prescribed burns.


Before we let you go, we have a “dinner party fact” to send you off into the rest of your week. We’re hoping you can use this week’s fact instead of a cheesy pickup line, although it’s not about something conventionally romantic.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Hey, there. I’m Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. I’m a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine, and my dinner party fact might come in handy if you find an attractive person at the next dinner party you attend. It’s a seduction technique I learned from an article I recently worked on about birds.

Apparently, when a male roadrunner sees a female that he wants to court, he comes forward with a dead animal hanging from his beak. It could be a dead lizard or a centipede or a dragonfly. Or even a dead smaller bird. Apparently this is a very effective seduction technique, because roadrunners mate for life, so you might want to try this.

Klimek: Okay, Jennie. What else you got?

Rothenberg Gritz: Another bonus fact I’ll give you is that in spite of everything we’ve learned from cartoons, roadrunners cannot actually outrun coyotes. A roadrunner is fast. They can run about 25 miles an hour, but coyotes are even faster. They can run 35 to 43 miles per hour. Keep enjoying Looney Tunes, but please keep coming to Smithsonian for your science information.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa.

The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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Pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, have “the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should be called … ‘biocides.’”Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement. But more than six decades later, we are still struggling to heed her warning. Farmlands and lawns in the United States are drenched in about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.The Environmental Protection Agency recently reapproved paraquat, a toxic herbicide, even though a group of environmental and public health groups have been suing the agency for ignoring multiple studies showing paraquat exposure increases a person’s odds of developing Parkinson’s disease. That’s in addition to paraquat’s short-term effects, which can include heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, and lung scarring if even a small amount of it is ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC fact sheet on paraquat includes the striking recommendation that if you get any on your clothes you should cut the affected garment off your body—because it is too dangerous to pull it over your head and risk ingesting paraquat—and see a doctor immediately. The company that sells paraquat, according to documents leaked to The Guardian in 2022, has known about possible long-term neurological effects since 1975 and deliberately downplayed them.What’s particularly grim about the paraquat decision is that it was Rachel Carson’s writing—and the environmental movement her book helped to inspire—that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, precisely to stem the flood of poisons she warned about. As Richard Nixon envisioned it, studying and regulating the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was one of the new agency’s major tasks. Then, in 1972, Congress greatly strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, creating a much stricter regulatory framework for the EPA to follow.Over the last half-century, however, industry has grown ever more adept at creating and widening loopholes in that framework. The EPA also doesn’t make full use of its power. For example, despite having enormous authority to protect endangered species, the agency has never studied the impact of a pesticide on an endangered animal or plants prior to approving its use. When other organizations and government agencies have studied the effect of pesticides on biodiversity, they’ve concluded that the harm is staggering; a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that just two widely used pesticides alone posed an existential threat to some 1,300 species.Another example is the agency’s struggle to curb Roundup, a weed killer that has proved extremely dangerous to humans. Roundup contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has described as “probably carcinogenic.” In 2022, the CDC found that 80 percent of urine samples taken from U.S. adults and kids had traces of glyphosate in them. A follow-up by CDC and National Institutes of Health scientists found that people with glyphosate in their urine also have cancer biomarkers in their urine. Bayer, the company that owns the agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto, which makes Roundup, has faced numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s toxic health effects. Courts have often ruled in favor of the company, but Bayer has spent billions settling many of the lawsuits, and more cases are currently proceeding. Plaintiffs have been winning some of them. Last week an appeals court in Georgia turned down Bayer’s effort to dismiss a suit arguing that Roundup caused cancer, and the previous week, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion to a man who developed lymphoma after using the product on his own property for decades.Here again, the EPA has not been of much help and seems markedly less concerned than other U.S. government agencies. The EPA in 2020 said Roundup posed no “risks of concern to human health.”For decades, an anti-regulatory ideology has seeped into our government like atrazine leaching into our groundwater. But the EPA’s problems are more directly a result of deliberate interference by industry. Agribusiness spends heavily on lobbying the EPA and on extensive strategies to compromise research at the agency, according to exhaustive reporting by the Intercept in 2021.  But recent weeks have shown that the United States isn’t the only government struggling to regulate these poisons, 60 years after Rachel Carson’s death. The European Union announced that it was dropping an ambitious plan to cut pesticide use in half, following weeks of disruptive protests by farmers across Europe using tractors to block highways and railways and burning hay bales and tires. The farmers argued that the new rules would mire them in bureaucracy and hurt their businesses. Death threats and right-wing disinformation on the topic didn’t help matters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announcing the decision to abandon the bill, described the effort to reduce pesticides as “worthy” but said that it had become “a symbol of polarization.” Those still hoping, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to stanch the flow of toxins, can claim some recent victories and momentum. Those most harmed by pesticides—from human babies to honeybees—are widely loved. It’s always politically fruitful to evoke that love, as Carson did when she confronted us with the threat of silencing some of our favorite sounds: the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in our streams. That’s probably why in December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, not usually a politician feared by earth-ravaging special interests, signed the Birds and Bees Protection Act, prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds and pollinators, as well as other wildlife. Beekeepers in Vermont are pushing for a similar law.We have known about the damage from pesticides for such a long time—even longer than we’ve known about global warming. These “biocides” are every bit as dangerous as Rachel Carson once described, and our knowledge of their harms has only grown more horribly specific. It’s decades past time for our governments to choose life over disease, suffering, and death.  

Pesticides, Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, have “the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil—all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should be called … ‘biocides.’”Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement. But more than six decades later, we are still struggling to heed her warning. Farmlands and lawns in the United States are drenched in about a billion pounds of pesticides per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.The Environmental Protection Agency recently reapproved paraquat, a toxic herbicide, even though a group of environmental and public health groups have been suing the agency for ignoring multiple studies showing paraquat exposure increases a person’s odds of developing Parkinson’s disease. That’s in addition to paraquat’s short-term effects, which can include heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure, and lung scarring if even a small amount of it is ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC fact sheet on paraquat includes the striking recommendation that if you get any on your clothes you should cut the affected garment off your body—because it is too dangerous to pull it over your head and risk ingesting paraquat—and see a doctor immediately. The company that sells paraquat, according to documents leaked to The Guardian in 2022, has known about possible long-term neurological effects since 1975 and deliberately downplayed them.What’s particularly grim about the paraquat decision is that it was Rachel Carson’s writing—and the environmental movement her book helped to inspire—that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970, precisely to stem the flood of poisons she warned about. As Richard Nixon envisioned it, studying and regulating the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was one of the new agency’s major tasks. Then, in 1972, Congress greatly strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, creating a much stricter regulatory framework for the EPA to follow.Over the last half-century, however, industry has grown ever more adept at creating and widening loopholes in that framework. The EPA also doesn’t make full use of its power. For example, despite having enormous authority to protect endangered species, the agency has never studied the impact of a pesticide on an endangered animal or plants prior to approving its use. When other organizations and government agencies have studied the effect of pesticides on biodiversity, they’ve concluded that the harm is staggering; a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that just two widely used pesticides alone posed an existential threat to some 1,300 species.Another example is the agency’s struggle to curb Roundup, a weed killer that has proved extremely dangerous to humans. Roundup contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organization has described as “probably carcinogenic.” In 2022, the CDC found that 80 percent of urine samples taken from U.S. adults and kids had traces of glyphosate in them. A follow-up by CDC and National Institutes of Health scientists found that people with glyphosate in their urine also have cancer biomarkers in their urine. Bayer, the company that owns the agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto, which makes Roundup, has faced numerous lawsuits over the herbicide’s toxic health effects. Courts have often ruled in favor of the company, but Bayer has spent billions settling many of the lawsuits, and more cases are currently proceeding. Plaintiffs have been winning some of them. Last week an appeals court in Georgia turned down Bayer’s effort to dismiss a suit arguing that Roundup caused cancer, and the previous week, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion to a man who developed lymphoma after using the product on his own property for decades.Here again, the EPA has not been of much help and seems markedly less concerned than other U.S. government agencies. The EPA in 2020 said Roundup posed no “risks of concern to human health.”For decades, an anti-regulatory ideology has seeped into our government like atrazine leaching into our groundwater. But the EPA’s problems are more directly a result of deliberate interference by industry. Agribusiness spends heavily on lobbying the EPA and on extensive strategies to compromise research at the agency, according to exhaustive reporting by the Intercept in 2021.  But recent weeks have shown that the United States isn’t the only government struggling to regulate these poisons, 60 years after Rachel Carson’s death. The European Union announced that it was dropping an ambitious plan to cut pesticide use in half, following weeks of disruptive protests by farmers across Europe using tractors to block highways and railways and burning hay bales and tires. The farmers argued that the new rules would mire them in bureaucracy and hurt their businesses. Death threats and right-wing disinformation on the topic didn’t help matters. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announcing the decision to abandon the bill, described the effort to reduce pesticides as “worthy” but said that it had become “a symbol of polarization.” Those still hoping, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to stanch the flow of toxins, can claim some recent victories and momentum. Those most harmed by pesticides—from human babies to honeybees—are widely loved. It’s always politically fruitful to evoke that love, as Carson did when she confronted us with the threat of silencing some of our favorite sounds: the song of the birds and the leaping of the fish in our streams. That’s probably why in December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, not usually a politician feared by earth-ravaging special interests, signed the Birds and Bees Protection Act, prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds and pollinators, as well as other wildlife. Beekeepers in Vermont are pushing for a similar law.We have known about the damage from pesticides for such a long time—even longer than we’ve known about global warming. These “biocides” are every bit as dangerous as Rachel Carson once described, and our knowledge of their harms has only grown more horribly specific. It’s decades past time for our governments to choose life over disease, suffering, and death.  

Scientists shocked to discover new species of green anaconda, the world’s biggest snake

Green anacondas are the world’s heaviest snakes, and among the longest. it’s remarkable this hidden species has slipped under the radar until now.

Source: Jesus RivasThe green anaconda has long been considered one of the Amazon’s most formidable and mysterious animals. Our new research upends scientific understanding of this magnificent creature, revealing it is actually two genetically different species. The surprising finding opens a new chapter in conservation of this top jungle predator. Green anacondas are the world’s heaviest snakes, and among the longest. Predominantly found in rivers and wetlands in South America, they are renowned for their lightning speed and ability to asphyxiate huge prey then swallow them whole. My colleagues and I were shocked to discover significant genetic differences between the two anaconda species. Given the reptile is such a large vertebrate, it’s remarkable this difference has slipped under the radar until now. Conservation strategies for green anacondas must now be reassessed, to help each unique species cope with threats such as climate change, habitat degradation and pollution. The findings also show the urgent need to better understand the diversity of Earth’s animal and plant species before it’s too late. Scientists discovered a new snake species known as the northern green anaconda. Bryan Fry An impressive apex predator Historically, four anaconda species have been recognised, including green anacondas (also known as giant anacondas). Green anacondas are true behemoths of the reptile world. The largest females can grow to more than seven metres long and weigh more than 250 kilograms The snakes are well-adapted to a life lived mostly in water. Their nostrils and eyes are on top of their head, so they can see and breathe while the rest of their body is submerged. Anacondas are olive coloured with large black spots, enabling them to blend in with their surroundings. The snakes inhabit the lush, intricate waterways of South America’s Amazon and Orinoco basins. They are known for their stealth, patience and surprising agility. The buoyancy of the water supports the animal’s substantial bulk and enables it to move easily and leap out to ambush prey as large as capybaras (giant rodents), caimans (reptiles from the alligator family) and deer. Green anacondas are not venomous. Instead they take down prey using their large, flexible jaws then crush it with their strong bodies, before swallowing it. As apex predators, green anacondas are vital to maintaining balance in their ecosystems. This role extends beyond their hunting. Their very presence alters the behaviour of a wide range of other species, influencing where and how they forage, breed and migrate. Anacondas are highly sensitive to environmental change. Healthy anaconda populations indicate healthy, vibrant ecosystems, with ample food resources and clean water. Declining anaconda numbers may be harbingers of environmental distress. So knowing which anaconda species exist, and monitoring their numbers, is crucial. To date, there has been little research into genetic differences between anaconda species. Our research aimed to close that knowledge gap. Read more: Stop killing brown snakes – they could be a farmer's best friend Green anaconda have large, flexible jaws. Pictured: a green anaconda eating a deer. JESUS RIVAS Untangling anaconda genes We studied representative samples from all anaconda species throughout their distribution, across nine countries. Our project spanned almost 20 years. Crucial pieces of the puzzle came from samples we collected on a 2022 expedition to the Bameno region of Baihuaeri Waorani Territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We took this trip at the invitation of, and in collaboration with, Waorani leader Penti Baihua. Actor Will Smith also joined the expedition, as part of a series he is filming for National Geographic. We surveyed anacondas from various locations throughout their ranges in South America. Conditions were difficult. We paddled up muddy rivers and slogged through swamps. The heat was relentless and swarms of insects were omnipresent. We collected data such as habitat type and location, and rainfall patterns. We also collected tissue and/or blood from each specimen and analysed them back in the lab. This revealed the green anaconda, formerly believed to be a single species, is actually two genetically distinct species. The first is the known species, Eunectes murinus, which lives in Perú, Bolivia, French Guiana and Brazil. We have given it the common name “southern green anaconda”. The second, newly identified species is Eunectes akayima or “northern green anaconda”, which is found in Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. We also identified the period in time where the green anaconda diverged into two species: almost 10 million years ago. The two species of green anaconda look almost identical, and no obvious geographical barrier exists to separate them. But their level of genetic divergence – 5.5% – is staggering. By comparison, the genetic difference between humans and apes is about 2%. Read more: The forgotten Amazon: as a critical summit nears, politicians must get serious about deforestation in Bolivia The two green anaconda species live much of their lives in water. Shutterstock Preserving the web of life Our research has peeled back a layer of the mystery surrounding green anacondas. This discovery has significant implications for the conservation of these species – particularly for the newly identified northern green anaconda. Until now, the two species have been managed as a single entity. But each may have different ecological niches and ranges, and face different threats. Tailored conservation strategies must be devised to safeguard the future of both species. This may include new legal protections and initiatives to protect habitat. It may also involve measures to mitigate the harm caused by climate change, deforestation and pollution — such as devastating effects of oil spills on aquatic habitats. Our research is also a reminder of the complexities involved in biodiversity conservation. When species go unrecognised, they can slip through the cracks of conservation programs. By incorporating genetic taxonomy into conservation planning, we can better preserve Earth’s intricate web of life – both the species we know today, and those yet to be discovered. Professor Bryan G. Fry is a National Geographic Explorer and has previously received funding as part of this role.

The Mysterious 280-Million-Year-Old Fossil That Fooled Scientists for Decades

Paleontological analysis shows renowned fossil thought to show soft tissue preservation is in fact just paint. A 280-million-year-old fossil that has baffled researchers for decades...

Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution – but has now been found to be, in part a forgery. Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues but is now known to be paint. Credit: Dr. Valentina RossiPaleontological analysis shows renowned fossil thought to show soft tissue preservation is in fact just paint.A 280-million-year-old fossil that has baffled researchers for decades has been shown to be, in part, a forgery following new examination of the remnants.The discovery has led the team led by Dr. Valentina Rossi of University College Cork, Ireland (UCC) to urge caution in how the fossil is used in future research. Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution.Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues. This led to its classification as a member of the reptile group Protorosauria.Uncovering the TruthHowever, this new research, published in the scientific journal Palaeontology, reveals that the fossil renowned for its remarkable preservation is mostly just black paint on a carved lizard-shaped rock surface.The purported fossilized skin had been celebrated in articles and books but never studied in detail. The somewhat strange preservation of the fossil had left many experts uncertain about what group of reptiles this strange lizard-like animal belonged to and more generally its geological history.Dr. Valentina Rossi with an image of Tridentinosaurus antiquus. The fossil, discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931, was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution – but has now been found to be, in part a forgery. Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues but is now known to be paint. Credit: Zixiao YangDr. Rossi, of UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, said:“Fossil soft tissues are rare, but when found in a fossil they can reveal important biological information, for instance, the external coloration, internal anatomy, and physiology.“The answer to all our questions was right in front of us, we had to study this fossil specimen in detail to reveal its secrets – even those that perhaps we did not want to know.”The microscopic analysis showed that the texture and composition of the material did not match that of genuine fossilized soft tissues.Deception and DiscoveryPreliminary investigation using UV photography revealed that the entirety of the specimen was treated with some sort of coating material. Coating fossils with varnishes and/or lacquers was the norm in the past and sometimes is still necessary to preserve a fossil specimen in museum cabinets and exhibits. The team was hoping that beneath the coating layer, the original soft tissues were still in good condition to extract meaningful paleobiological information.The findings indicate that the body outline of Tridentinosaurus antiquus was artificially created, likely to enhance the appearance of the fossil. This deception misled previous researchers, and now caution is being urged when using this specimen in future studies.The team behind this research includes contributors based in Italy at the University of Padua, Museum of Nature South Tyrol, and the Museo delle Scienze in Trento.Co-author Prof Evelyn Kustatscher, coordinator of the project “Living with the supervolcano,” funded by the Autonomous Province of Bolzano said:“The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades. Now, it all makes sense. What was described as carbonized skin, is just paint.”However not all is lost, and the fossil is not a complete fake. The bones of the hindlimbs, in particular, the femurs seem genuine, although poorly preserved. Moreover, the new analyses have shown the presence of tiny bony scales called osteoderms — like the scales of crocodiles — on what perhaps was the back of the animal.This study is an example of how modern analytical paleontology and rigorous scientific methods can resolve an almost century-old paleontological enigma.Reference: “Forged soft tissues revealed in the oldest fossil reptile from the early Permian of the Alps” by Valentina Rossi, Massimo Bernardi, Mariagabriella Fornasiero, Fabrizio Nestola, Richard Unitt, Stefano Castelli and Evelyn Kustatscher, 15 February 2024, Palaeontology.DOI: 10.1111/pala.12690

Unmasking Chlormequat: Toxic Pesticide Found in 80% of People Tested

A study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide associated with health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, highlighting the need for...

A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide linked to health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, indicating widespread exposure through oat consumption and raising questions about its impact on human health.A study by the Environmental Working Group found chlormequat, a pesticide associated with health risks in animals, in 80% of participants, highlighting the need for regulatory oversight and further research on its impact on human health.A new Environmental Working Group peer-reviewed study has found chlormequat, a little-known pesticide, in four out of five people tested. Because the chemical is linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animal studies, the findings suggest the potential for similar harm to humans.EWG’s research, published February 15 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, tested the urine of 96 people for the presence of chlormequat, finding it in 77 of them. “EWG’s new study on chlormequat is the first of its kind in the U.S.,” said EWG Toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D, lead author of the study. “The ubiquity of this little-studied pesticide in people raises alarm bells about how it could potentially cause harm without anyone even knowing they’ve consumed it.”Some animal studies show chlormequat can damage the reproductive system and disrupt fetal growth, changing development of the head and bones and altering key metabolic processes.This research raises questions about whether chlormequat could also harm humans.Increasing Exposure and Regulatory ConcernsFor its study, EWG sourced urine samples collected between 2017 and 2023 from 96 people in the U.S. and tested them for chlormequat at a specialized lab in the United Kingdom.The tests found chlormequat in the urine of more people and at higher concentrations in samples collected in 2023, compared to earlier years – suggesting consumer exposure to chlormequat could be on the rise.Environmental Protection Agency regulations allow the chemical to be used on ornamental plants only – not food crops – grown in the U.S.But since 2018, the EPA has permitted chlormequat on imported oats and other foods, increasing the allowed amount in 2020. Both regulatory changes took place under the Trump administration. Many oats and oat products consumed in the U.S. come from Canada.In April 2023, in response to an application submitted by chlormequat manufacturer Taminco in 2019, the Biden EPA proposed allowing the first-ever use of chlormequat on barley, oats, triticale, and wheat grown in the U.S. EWG opposes the plan. The proposed rule has not yet been finalized.“The federal government has a vital role in ensuring that pesticides are adequately monitored, studied, and regulated,” Temkin said. “Yet the EPA continues to abdicate its responsibility to protect children from the potential health harms of toxic chemicals like chlormequat in food.”EWG’s Call to ActionEWG urges the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration to test foods for chlormequat and requests that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add chlormequat to its biomonitoring program. The organization also calls for more research on the effects of chlormequat on human health.EWG conducted its own tests of oat-based foods in 2022 and 2023, finding chlormequat in numerous non-organic oat-based products. Organic oat products had little to no detections of the chemical.Reference: “A pilot study of chlormequat in food and urine from adults in the United States from 2017 to 2023” by Alexis M. Temkin, Sydney Evans, Demetri D. Spyropoulos and Olga V. Naidenko, 15 February 2024, Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.DOI: 10.1038/s41370-024-00643-4

Another Endangered Whale Was Found Dead off East Coast. This One Died After Colliding With a Ship

Federal authorities said the second critically endangered North Atlantic right whale found dead in the last month showed injuries consistent with a collision with a ship

Federal authorities said the second critically endangered North Atlantic right whale found dead in the last month showed injuries consistent with a collision with a ship.The whales number less than 360 and they have experienced decline in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was notified of a dead right whale floating off Savannah, Georgia, on Feb. 13.The agency said late Friday that a necropsy of the animal “found evidence of blunt force trauma including fractures of the skull” and that those “injuries are consistent with a vessel strike prior to death.” The announcement came just days after NOAA released more details about a dead right whale off Massachusetts that showed signs of entanglement in fishing gear, which is the other major threat the animals face.The back-to-back deaths of the rare whales that both showed evidence of the species' two major threats should motivate rule changes, numerous environmental groups said Saturday. The groups have long pushed for stricter rules governing shipping and commercial fishing to help protect the whales.“The North Atlantic right whale’s nursery is becoming a crime scene," said Greg Reilly, southeast marine campaigner for International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Without enhanced protections, the North Atlantic right whale is doomed to extinction. Lawmakers need to get out of the way and let the administration finalize the amended vessel speed rule.”NOAA has proposed new vessel speed rules to try to protect whales, but they have yet to go into effect. Environmental groups have sued to try to force a deadline for the new rules. New fishing standards designed to protect the whales from entanglement in rope are also the subject of ongoing lawsuits involving environmentalists, fishing groups and the federal government.The whale that died off Massachusetts that was found in January showed signs of entanglement in fishing lines that originated in the Maine lobster fishery, NOAA said this week. Entanglement of whales in Maine rope is very rare, said Kevin Kelley, a spokesperson for the Maine Lobstermen's Association.“Maine lobstermen have made significant changes to how they fish over the last 25 years to avoid entanglement and continue gear testing,” he said.The right whales were once abundant off the East Coast, but they were decimated during the commercial whaling era and have been slow to recover. The whales migrate from the waters off Florida and Georgia to New England every year and face hazards like collisions and entanglement along the way. Some scientists have said warming ocean waters has caused them to stray from protected zones during the journey.Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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