USA Today Forgets That Climate Is a Part of Wildfire Context

Wildfire (cc photo: H Dragon)

(cc photo: H Dragon)

“An era of catastrophic wildfires in the West is taking a giant bite out of the US Forest Service’s budget, shortchanging its programs for recreation and land management,” reports a front-page USA Today story (10/21/13).

About 6,700 fires that have burned 1.3 million acres of federal land since January led to another costly “fire transfer” of hundreds of millions of dollars this summer as the fiscal year closed in September, Forest Service records show.

Since 2002, more than $3 billion has been diverted from recreation and management budgets to squelch fires that demand expensive hand crews, smoke jumpers, air tankers and hundreds of firefighters, according to a review of the transfers.

That’s a big problem–but what’s the cause of this “era of catastrophic wildfires”? USA Today‘s Nick Penzenstadler provides one sentence of explanation: “Heavy fuel loads, intensive fire suppression and urban sprawl have led to an era of ‘superfires’ over ranges of ponderosa pine.”

Well, yes–but isn’t there something missing from that list? Maybe something like this?

Climate change will likely cause more frequent wildfires in the western United States within the next 30 years and throughout North America and most of Europe by the end of the century primarily because of higher temperatures, scientists report Tuesday.

The source for that? USA Today (6/12/13).

You could give USA Today credit for having mentioned the connection before, even if the paper doesn’t remember what it’s reported. Or you could note that the word “wildfire” has come up 1,457 times in USA Today‘s reporting, according to a search of the Nexis news database–and it’s been accompanied by the phrase “climate change” 73 times. So about 95 percent of the time that USA Today talks about wildfires, the context of a changed climate that they’re occurring in goes unmentioned.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.