Heavy machinery “rakes” Finland’s forest floors after tree cutting, greatly reducing fire risks
President Donald Trump was recently ridiculed for telling California Governor Jerry Brown that the Golden State should do as my country does. Trump critics laughed at what some called his “bizarre” claim that foresters in Finland “rake” areas that have been thinned or clear-cut, to remove leaves and other debris that could otherwise start conflagrations like the recent tragic fires in California.
The Washington Post spread similar misinformation. The Los Angeles Times carried an article by Finnish “green” journalist Anu Partanen. “Finland to President Trump: We don’t rake the forest floor, but we do other things you should emulate,” the headline read. Late night talk show hosts had more fun at the President’s expense.
Ironically, all this happened at just about the time that Finland’s own forest specialists declared that Mr. Trump was correct about what he told Governor Brown. The foresters disseminated that information widely to the Finnish media and public.
As a result, much of Finland’s mainstream news media began ridiculing Finns who posted photos of garden rakes with the hashtag #RakingAmericaGreatAgain. Now the media are saying the self-styled comic activists were wrong to laugh at the President.
Of course, that too is ironic, since many of that same, very green Finnish mainstream media had actively questioned and ridiculed Mr. Trump just days earlier.
Back in America, not surprisingly, the exoneration story has been largely ignored. The media, pundits and late-night comedians had already made up their minds, don’t want to be confused by the facts – and don’t want their audiences confused by facts, either. Here’s the rest of the story: the missing facts, anyway.
One of the most pressing ecological problems today is preservationist forestry principles. This ideological approach prevents harvesting mature (or even any) trees, thinning out dense stands of timber to remove excess biomass (and thus allowing remaining trees to grow better, faster, thicker and taller), or even removing dense underbrush. This leads to an over-accumulation of biomass in trees and on forest floors. It makes forests vulnerable to raging and fast moving forest fires, especially during dry seasons, even more so when winds are blowing.
If these policies are accompanied by active suppression of forest fires over long periods of time – or by policies of not dousing “natural” fires until they become really big and dangerous – any ignition can lead to catastrophic events that cause tragic loss of property and human lives.
The “confusion” over what President Trump said unfortunately came initially from the Finnish side, as even our media thought “raking” meant only light removal of leaves, pine cones and other debris from forest floors. Even Finnish president Sauli Niinistö did not understand that the practice really involves “raking” with heavy machinery that removes extensive amounts of combustible material. Mr. Niinistö simply told Mr. Trump he could rely on advice from Finland to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
In Finland, after clear-cutting a forest area, crews use heavy machinery (similar to what is used in this video) to “rake” or gather tree harvesting residues, tree roots and other material into huge piles. The biomass is then chipped onsite after it has dried up sufficiently, and chips are hauled to local heat-producing plants to generate warmth for local residents.
In addition, throughout the clear-cut area, crews heavily till the soil so that a fire cannot move easily into or through the clear-cut area. This harvesting policy is motivated by the idea that clear-cutting mimics wildfires in pristine forests. Wildfires start a new succession: a new generation of trees in forests. Cutting does too, but without destroying soils and soil organisms the way raging fires do.
When the new succession has started in the previously clear-cut forest, Finnish law requires thinning operations around the best remaining trees, and accumulating biomass is again removed from time to time from these young forests. This again lessens the probability of uncontrolled wild fires, while allowing the strongest, healthiest trees to grow more fully in less confined spaces and with improved access to water, sunlight and nutrients.
There was some sense in Washington Post writer Rick Noack’s suggestion that forest roads can help prevent fires from spreading. They help fire brigades gain rapid access to fires before they get too big to control. They also provide open areas (“fire breaks”) that stop fires at their perimeters, if the fires aren’t too big.
Finland is about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. It has an extensive forest road network (120 thousand kilometers, or 75,000 miles!) – and significantly more trees than 100 years ago, despite clear-cutting being at the center of our wood harvesting policy.
However, Mr. Noack also said, “The forest service in Finland does carry out controlled burns of the forest floor, mostly to clear away underbrush and also promote new saplings.” This is misleading, because it makes controlled burns seem more important than they actually are.
As a recent Finnish morning television program pointed out, the yearly acreage of controlled forest fires is only 200-300 hectares (500-750 acres), which is next to nothing. Moreover, these controlled burns are apparently performed on state lands only to symbolically please environmentalists.
Finland’s last “large” forest fire took place in 1997. It burned 250 hectares (625 acres) of forest in Southern Finland – a tiny fraction of what many U.S. fires burn every year.
The catastrophic fires seen in California and elsewhere are not due to climate change – natural or manmade – although warmer, drier, windier weather can certainly be a major contributing factor. The important point is that foresters must adapt to both weather and climate change, and revise past practices that are now known to cause serious problems. They must manage forests better, more scientifically and more responsibly, with special attention to areas where large populations of people reside.
Governments could also implement new standards for homes built in or near forests. Homes should have fire-resistant roofs and walls, and people should be required to keep brush and debris from accumulating.
Governor Brown and others seem to cite climate change as a way to absolve them of responsibility for ideological or incompetent decisions that help create or perpetuate conditions that spawn horrific, deadly infernos. This must not continue.
One final point regarding climate change. Finland’s official forest studies estimate that climate change (warmer temperatures and more atmospheric carbon dioxide) will help increase annual timber growth from the current 102 million cubic meters (m3) to 130 million m3 by 2050. The current wood harvesting rate is around 72 million m3, and the government announced recently that annual growth increased by five million m3 to a staggering 107 million in 2018.
Finland manages theses forests for timber, wildlife, controlled fires – and protection of nearby homes and people. Its lessons can and should be applied elsewhere. President Trump understands that. His incomplete grasp of Finnish “raking” and other practices led to confusion and ridicule, but should not result in these principles and practices being rejected out of hand.
Mikko Paunio of Helsinki, Finland is a science and policy adviser of the American Council on Science and Health. He has served with numerous national and international climate adaptation working groups.