California’s famous giant sequoia trees are under threat from a fast-moving wildfire that has hundreds of firefighters battling to extinguish it. The Washburn Fire, which was first spotted on July 7 in Yosemite National Park, doubled in size over the weekend. Preemptive burns are now being conducted in order to starve the fire of fuel; meanwhile, firefighters have installed a sprinkler system around the famous Grizzly Giant sequoia to protect the tree should the fire reach its base.
While the Washburn Fire is relatively small — it’s scorched just over 3,000 acres and is roughly 22% contained — and firefighters are increasingly confident of saving the sequoia trees, climate change is still playing a role in the blaze.
A review of coverage of the Washburn Fire from July 9 through 11 by Media Matters found:
- Corporate broadcast TV outlets — ABC, CBS, and NBC — aired a combined 16 segments on the fire; 6 (38%) of them referenced climate change.
- Cable TV news networks CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 41 Washburn Fire segments, referencing climate change in 15 (37%) of them.
In general, the Western U.S. wildfire season is becoming longer, with wildfires burning more acres. A historic climate-fueled megadrought and worsening heat waves are contributing to these worsening wildfires. Specific to the sequoia trees, climate change-fueled hotter temperatures and drier ground fuels “have combined to create a situation in which ladder fuels can easily turn a low-intensity brush fire into an extremely hot blaze that reaches the canopies of Giant Sequoia trees,” according to a local Sacramento news station interview with a redwood expert. The article further notes:
According to the National Park Service, during the past six years, six different wildfires have combined to burn about 85% of the acreage of Sequoia groves. The NPS anticipates that 20% of the world's giant Sequoia population, which only grows in California, could be lost to wildfires in the next three to five years.
A ranger, Simon Fierst, who works at the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park told The New York Times that losing 1,000-year-old trees, “that’s like losing Notre Dame.”
Corporate broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC mentioned climate change in a combined 38% of segments on the Washburn Fire
Over a three-day period from July 9 to July 11, TV news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 16 segments on the Washburn Fire; 6 of them, or 38%, mentioned climate change.
Each network aired 2 segments each about the fire that mentioned climate change. All three nightly news shows on July 11 mentioned it, with perhaps the best example coming on CBS Evening News. Opening the segment, host Norah O’Donnell referenced the sequoias, stating, “These national treasures have survived everything for thousands of years and they’re now in jeopardy because of climate change.” Later, reporter Jonathan Vigliotti noted that “California's drought, worsened by climate change, has already taken a terrible toll on the sequoias. Tens of thousands have been killed.”
The other mentions came on the July 11 editions of ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS Mornings, and on the July 10 edition of NBC’s Sunday Today.
These climate reporting figures are very good when compared to their climate reporting figures on extreme weather events from earlier this summer. During a weeklong period that included various extreme weather events from June 14-21, these networks mentioned climate change in only 9% of combined segments, even though there was a clear climate link to these events.
Cable TV networks CNN and MSNBC mentioned climate change in a combined 37% of segments on the Washburn Fire
News shows on CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 41 segments on the Washburn Fire, with 15 of them mentioning climate change.
On MSNBC, 9 of 12 segments on the Washburn Fire mentioned climate change. A good example comes from the July 11 edition of Chris Jansing Reports. Host Chris Jansing noted that “climate change is making these fires more explosive than ever.” Later, reporter Cal Perry said that “it is in so many ways a climate story.”
During the aforementioned weeklong period of extreme weather in June, MSNBC mentioned climate change in just 4 of 20 segments and weather reports.
Only 6 of 29 segments about the Washburn Fire on CNN mentioned climate change; 5 of them came in the context of a longer segment on how climate change is threatening U.S. national parks in general. A good example comes from the July 10 edition of CNN Newsroom With Jim Acosta. Correspondent René Marsh discussed the fire’s threat to the sequoias and then stated, “It is not just Yosemite. This issue of climate change and the impact of climate change at these national parks is an issue across the United States.” Marsh did an excellent job in the segment explaining how wildfires, hotter temperatures, and rising seas are affecting national parks.
CNN’s climate reporting figures in this time frame are down from the weeklong period in June, when the network mentioned climate change in 19 of 88 segments and weather reports on extreme weather.
Media Matters also reviewed Fox News’ reporting on the Washburn Fire, but the network did not run any segments on the fire.
TV networks must center climate change as a key part of their extreme weather reporting
In the examples above, climate change was mentioned at least twice in the segment. In the CBS and MSNBC examples, the term was introduced by the host in the segment and then brought up again by the reporter. This also happened in several other MSNBC examples reviewed during this time frame.
In the CNN example, climate change was the focal point of the segment. René Marsh talked about climate’s impact on the Washburn Fire before leading into a segment on how climate change is influencing extreme weather events more broadly at national parks. It’s an excellent example of how networks should be reporting on climate-fueled extreme weather. As emissions continue to rise, climate change will worsen, and so will the intensity of certain extreme weather events. In reports on these events, climate change shouldn’t just be mentioned in passing — it should be the focus of the segment. Let’s hope these networks build off these above examples and provide more context for their viewers going forward.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “wildfire,” “fire,” “blaze,” or “burn” within close proximity to the words “Washburn,” “Yosemite,” “Sequoia,” “California,” “West,” or “Mariposa” from July 9, 2022, through July 11, 2022.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the wildfire was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the wildfire. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the wildfire with one another. Also included as segments were weather reports, which we defined as instances when the wildfire was the stated topic of discussion by a meteorologist in front of a green screen.
We did not include passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the wildfire, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the host or anchor promoted a segment about the wildfire coming up later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed each segment for mentions of the terms “climate” or “global warming.”