USA – The claim: Texas has more forestland than California but zero fires.
With a record 4 million acres of California forest charred by fire this year alone, a Facebook post shared more than 25,000 times asserts that the Golden State would do well to emulate Texas when it comes to managing its timberland.
“Texas has more acres of forest than California and currently has zero fires,” says the Sept. 21 post by Scott Osborn, of Texas. “Same global climate. Opposite forestry policies.”
Obsorn, whose social media platforms express deep support for several conservative causes and numerous Republican political figures, did not respond to a request via social media for comment. Nor did he respond to the nearly 40 comments and replies, most of them supporting his observation, that followed his original post.
Weldon Dent, of the Texas Forest Service, said holding up any given fire-free day as a representative sample of any time period proves nothing.
“As I’m sure you are aware, wildfires can, and do, occur at any time of the year,” Dent said. “Texas is no exception. For example: on Sunday, Sept. 27, Texas A&M Forest Service responded to three wildfires. This is not including any wildfires that may have been responded to at the local level.”
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Texas averaged about 10,200 wildfires per year from 2013 to 2018, he said. Those fires scorched just over 2 million acres. In 2011, when much of Texas lay prey to a yearlong drought, Dent said 31,000 separate fires roared through nearly 4 million acres of Texas timberland.
Contrasting the climates
The next parts of the claims cannot be fit neatly into simple three-word sentences.
According to a summary provided by experts from Cal Fire, the climates of the two states are significantly different. That’s especially true when isolated down to heavily forested areas.
“California has primarily hot-summer Mediterranean, warm-summer Mediterranean and hot desert climates,” the summary states. Meanwhile, much of the central and eastern parts of Texas are considered humid and sub-tropical.
That argument is upheld by Climate-Data.org, which analyzes satellite information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources, the forest-rich Piney Woods of East Texas receive significant annual rainfall, “with precipitation even during the driest month.”
The same is true in North Central Texas and the south to the Hill County, where large pockets of mesquite, live oaks and mountain juniper thrive.
In the northern regions of California, which has been ravaged by this year’s fires, rainfall is heaviest in the colder months and rare in the summer, according to Climate Data. The southern regions, also hit hard by fires, are mostly dry year-round.
Maintaining forestland, especially when tens of millions of acreage is in the mix, is cumbersome and bureaucratic – both in California and in Texas.
Cal Fire says it is responsible for not only the state’s 33 million acres of forests but also for more than 50 million additional acres its calls “wildlands.” And, the agency points out, 38% of forest acres is privately owned, 62% is owned by Native American tribes or the federal government, and the tiny fraction left over belongs to the state.
Part of the agency’s role is to work with all those groups to manage the forest inventory, the summary said.
In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order stepping up such management procedures as thinning stands of dense trees and setting controlled fires to eliminate timber that would turn into fuel that would accelerate future wildfires. Later that year, Brown signed legislation strengthening Cal Fire’s ability to establish regulations to reduce wildfire risk.
The order called for accelerating forest management procedures such as cutting back dense stands of trees and setting controlled fires to burn out thick brush, news reports from the time said. Brown’s order also made it easier for private landowners to thin trees while encouraging the use of innovative wood products.
In Texas, the U.S. Forest Service owns about 675,000 acres. The bulk of the land, about 92%, is privately owned. As in California’s case, the state of Texas owns but a sliver.
Dent said the state’s forest service employs practices as such cutting back dense trees and controlled burns. Private timber companies in East Texas regularly harvest trees for lumber.
“Thinning competing trees allows remaining trees to grow stronger and be more resistant to pests,” Dent said. “Prescribed burning removes competing vegetation, improves habitat for wildlife, and reduces dangerous buildup of combustible forest fuels.”
But, he added, the policies, though effective, are not a guarantee.
“It is often not if disaster will strike – but when,” Dent said. “No single response agency can protect us from all disasters. Jurisdictional boundaries between state, private, and federal forests are apparent on a map – but for forest pests, disease and wildfire – those boundaries that are so clear to us, simply don’t exist.”
Our ruling: Partly false
The original post said that even though Texas has more forests and similar climate than California, superior forest management has kept the Lone Star State relatively forest fire free. It is true that Texas has more forestland. But it is false to say differing forest management is why there are fewer fires. The two states have different climates, which play a role. Their forest management policies, while not identical, do have similarities. Even the Texas Forest Services acknowledges that its state has seen its share of fires over the years.