A lovely example of good science reporting

forest fire by phidauex

Ecopolitology: Big fire in beetle-wrecked forest. But are dead trees more flammable, really?
[Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

Ecopolitology is an environmentally-oriented new media outlet in Fort Collins, Colorado (see its ‘about’ ). From the looks of one example it is providing old-fashioned journalism – nimble and multiply sourced and with a timely hook. The story is by Timothy B. Hurst, its editor and founder. It is about a big fire burning through a pine beetle-blasted lodgepole forest and a new report that addresses what seems a dumb question: Are forests full of dead, red-needled and crackly dry conifers any more likely to go up in flames than nice green ones?

Answer: looks like no.

I went looking for coverage of this news deliberately. A few days ago NASA’s Goddard Space Center put out a press release – linked in Grist below – with an eye-opening spot of news. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin teamed up with NASA LandSat imagery analysts to figure out whether western forests hit hard by beetles are any more likely to host wildfires than are green and presumably healthy tracts? Teams from the National Park Service and elsewhere helped get ground truth, calibrating the LandSat data. Result: hold that beetle-killed “tinderbox” talk. Dead forests, the researchers surmise now that the data make them think about it harder, drop needles fast and their flammable oils degrade.

Such effects seem to mean that dead stands of trees don’t support crown fires any better than live ones. Not worse, either, maybe, but the data say don’t blame the dead trees for the recent upsurges in wildfires (blaming them both, however, on warming climate is a good bet, the scientists say).

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Taking some information, provided via a NASA report, that seems counter-intuitive is always a good thing to write about. Discussing how tender needles and wood full of sap are possibly more flammable than dead wood, or at least as flammable, provides some wonderful insight into the data from the report.

But the thing that kicks this into a higher strata was this little bit, something that demonstrates how good science leads to more questions, ones which can produce a greater understanding.

Hurst took the NASA report, knitted it into news on the Fourmile Fire near Boulder, and got himself a story.

By the way, I mentioned this story and study to Mrs. Tracker this morning. She exclaimed of course there aren’t so many fires in those dead trees – who would want to go camping there? Hmmm. So, having not read the formal report, one does wonder if they considered the percentage of wildfires set by careless or pyromaniacal people and, if it’s significant, corrected for the different number of visitors to dead versus live forests.

This adds a nice layer to the report, demonstrating how the scientific process really works. It also shows some nice insight because those sorts of questions can only come up if people get the science.

The fire rates may seem the same between live and dead trees, but humans, who are most responsible for fires, really don’t visit dead tree areas. Dead trees may be more flammable but since fewer people visit the rates seem the same.

How would we measure that difference? Perhaps looking only at fires caused by lightening, which should be randomly placed, might help. Or see if there really is a correlation between popularity and fires?

So now we want to dig deeper into the report to find out more.

It is hard enough to get across scientific data and knowledge to lay people. But, to also provide insights into how this knowledge leads to the need for further data, is something not often seen.

That is why I love sites like Tracker because they often provide some wonderful insights, not only into the reporting of science but also into the scientific process. This helps people develop a better understanding of the underlying principles, not only of the world around us but also of science itself.