The worst forest fires in California’s history are still burning. So far they’ve left more than 70 people dead and at least 1,300 missing.
At the weekend, US President Donald Trump visited Paradise, a Californian town devastated by wildfires. His solution to the state’s problem? Following Finland’s example.
Speaking amid smouldering ruins, Mr Trump told reporters: “I was with the president of Finland and he said ‘We have a much different — we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation, and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. And they don’t have any problem.”
Mr Trump has repeatedly blamed mismanagement of California’s forests for the outbreak of this autumn’s destructive wildfires. The US president tweeted that there is “no reason for these massive deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”
President Niinistö disputes Trump’s recollection
Trump’s comments have drawn criticism, not least from Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, who contradicted his American counterpart’s recollection of their conversation.
Niinistö told Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat “I mentioned to him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network.”
The Finnish president said he remembers saying the phrase, “we take care of our forests,” but adds “raking wasn’t brought up in the conversation.”
Do Finns rake their forests?
“No. It’s definitely not true,” says Henrik Lindberg, a forestry expert and principal lecturer at Häme University of Applied Sciences HAMK.
“About 200 years ago in central Europe there was a practice called ‘litter raking’, to collect leaves for animal husbandry and bedding, but it was never done in Finland,” he says.
Instead, he says, Finns “service” forests by collecting dead wood where possible. That process is mainly the responsibility of Finland’s large forestry industry.
Metsähallitus – Finland’s state owned forestry corporation – is keen to downplay the significance of forest maintenance in preventing forest fires.
“We do not rake forest floors in any circumstances,” says Metsähallitus’s sustainable develoment manager Antti Otsamo.
“Sometimes we collect logging residues like branches for energy production, but this is done by appropriate machinery. Even then the main purpose of the activity is to collect energy wood, not fire prevention,” Otsamo adds.
What if there’s a fire in Finland?
“Regular forest thinnings reduce the likelihood of ground fires spreading,” says Lindberg, but he thinks the most important fire reduction factor is Finland’s dense network of forest roads, built by the forestry industry to improve access for its workers.
“It helps give people access to forests. For example if they’re in the forest picking mushrooms and have their mobile phones, they can call if they see a fire.”
The roads can slow down the spread of fires and also improve access for emergency services, he says: “They were designed for timber trucks, but can also be used by fire trucks.”
Finland’s forest monitoring system also comes into play. The system, operated by the Finnish Meteorological Institute FMI, triggers warnings when the conditions are right for fire to break out. Those warnings are then spread by the media, telling Finns that they aren’t allowed to light fires in forested areas.
If a fire does break out, it’s tracked from above by aircraft and satellite imaging. The Finnish government even pays for private flying clubs to fly over affected areas and inspect the scale of the fire. “It’s quite cheap because they’re volunteer pilots,” says the Interior Ministry’s Rami Ruuska.
The extensive monitoring system and forest road networks help to fight fires before they get out of control. According to university lecturer Lindberg, Finland has far fewer serious forest fires when compared to neighbouring Sweden.
He says in part that comes down to Finland’s network of voluntary firefighters: “Guys who know their backyards.”
In a way, Lindberg says, “Finland is an exception in having amazingly few forest fires.”
California and Finland are worlds apart
Ultimately, the experts are clear on one thing: comparing Californian and Finnish forests doesn’t make any sense.
“It’s maybe not a fair comparison,” says Ruska. “Our nature and forests are so totally different. Maybe it’s fairer to compare California and the Mediterranean.”
Lindberg goes further, saying the climate and forest structure of the two are entirely different.
“It’s a bit wild, and even absurd, to compare it,” he says.
Metsähallitus’ Antti Otsamo agrees, saying Finland’s climate just isn’t right for forest fires to develop: “Forestry areas are covered by snow for several months every year, and the actual fire risk period is short or sometimes non-existent.”
So how big of a risk are forest fires in Finland? According to Lindberg, in the summer of 2018 – one of the hottest on record – only 1,000 hectares of forest was destroyed by fire. That’s out of a total 23 million hectares of forest in Finland.
Lindberg says you only have to look at the nation’s insurance payouts to forest owners to see the scale of the problem.
“Normally you would see insurance payments between €200,000 – €800,000 for fires,” he says. Wind damage from storms is a far bigger threat, leading to annual payouts of between €2 – €3 million, and in some years up to €20 million, he adds.
Humorous online reaction
Finns reacted to Trump’s comments on twitter, coining the hashtags #rakenews and #rakeamericagreatagain in English, and #haravointi in Finnish.
From members of the public tweeting pictures of them raking in the forest, to civil society, celebrities, politicians and sports stars, it seems the idea of trolling Donald Trump on social media caught the nation’s imagination on Sunday.
Basketball star Lauri Markkanen, who plays in the NBA for Chicago Bulls, posted a picture of himself with a rake with the caption “anybody need their floors raked? #FinnishRakingSeason”
Pyry Luminen wrote on twitter “Just another ordinary day in the forest”.
Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry’s Director of Communications for Europe Ville Cantell got creative and wrote “When you are Finnish, you can just grab them by the handle and go at it in the forest. And they let you do it”.