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Learning New Things

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Everyone tells you to be a lifelong learner.  Few of us really do it.  We fall into habits, reject new information and bray against new processes because it disrupts our habits and confirmation biases.  “That’s the way we always have done it.”  Common refrain.  Another one, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.”

In the summer, I spend my time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  I am in the middle of nature all summer.  The past two days I have seen two different black bears driving down the road.  One was what we call an “H” bear, for huge.  One was an “M” bear for medium.   We were fishing the other night and my daughter spotted a wolf pup padding along the shore.  (see photo above) This is wilderness.

Since we rehabbed the cabin, I have internet, electricity, and reliable running water.  I can conduct business up here and do anything I need to do, except meet people in person.

As I am typing this, I am watching the hummingbirds feed at our feeders. They are trying to fatten up for the trip south.  You can tell the seasons are changing because the birds are a lot more active at all of our feeders.

Where I live during the summer is totally out of my comfort zone.  It’s rural.  Grand Marais is a town of 1100 people.  I have to do a lot with my hands and there is a lot of manual labor.  You gain new respect for the pioneers when you split wood.  We have a wood splitter but occasionally I split kindling with a maul.  I have no idea how people survived winters up here without electricity or propane heat.  I will be up here this year until September 30th.  We got here around May 18th.

This summer has been uncharacteristically dry.  We haven’t had a big rain at our place since June 14th.  We received half an inch two nights ago.  Typically, we get a steady amount of rain all summer.  The wetness keeps the mosquitoes alive!  We haven’t had a lot of bugs this year because of the drought.  But we have had fires.

There are always fires in the BWCA every year.  Lightning strikes are the primary cause.  Occasionally, a campfire will get out of control.  But, due to the moisture, they never really get going.  This summer has been different since they didn’t receive a lot of snow either.  There is an especially strong La Nina which has caused drought conditions and weird weather patterns everywhere.  La Nina’s can happen in consecutive years, and that’s what is going on now.  Early summer saw a lot of fires in Canada on the other side of the border in their version of the BWCA, Quetico.  There were some small fires way up the Gunflint Trail far far away from me.  Occasionally, when the wind was right we would smell smoke.

Forest fires are scary.  Why?  Because they are so random.  Lightning is random.  Even a campfire that you aren’t around and don’t know about that gets out of control is random.  If a power line comes down, it is something totally out of your control and it is a random event.  Most people are very uncomfortable with randomness and lack of control over their own situations.

The other aspect of a forest fire is that once it gets rolling, the path is random and uncontrollable.  Fires get pushed by wind and in some cases can create their own wind.  No one can control the wind.  Currently, the John Elk fire did nothing and was burning about 3 acres.  After a big wind it has blown up into a 1500 acre fire.  It’s in a remote area of the wilderness where humans and machines have a hard time going so they are using planes to try and control it.

For kicks, I looked at the statistics on the Ham Lake fire.  The fire was started by an unattended campfire.  It was in 2007, and it was around 30-40 miles north of where I am.  You can still drive from my place to the Ham Lake fire and pick blueberries and see jack pine growing.  Of course, today because of recency bias, most people assumed the current fires were started by a campfire, or by a downed power line because of California.  Both were incorrect.  Some people threw wild stats around like “the Ham Lake fire moved 35 miles in one day”.  The most it moved was 13 miles, and the mean movement was just over 3 miles with a standard deviation of just over 3 miles.  The fires that are burning today are around 40 miles from where I am.  That gives you some comfort but of course, because of the randomness of fire, you are on edge.  One could start anywhere especially given the dry conditions, and you have no control.

If you look at good data, it helps you stay rational.  You can alleviate a lot of fear by looking at good objective data.  For an example of ways to look at data subjectively, just look at Covid policy over the past 20 months.  Our policymakers would have made far different decisions with Covid if they objectively looked at data.  Instead, they politicized it.

Statistics are hard to understand.  There are lies and there are damned statistics and you can manipulate them for sure.

I have the benefit of having a grandfather who spent his entire career in the US Forest Service.  I learned a fair bit about the woods from him but I certainly do not know everything.  One thing we do around here is to try to do all we can to limit fire risk.  We clean up the brush.  We trim trees so the undergrowth of the property doesn’t have combustible material. I put a metal roof on my cabin which is fire resistant.  Of course, if a fire really got rolling through here there would be little we could do but at least we have good practices.  Every day we keep our good practices helps keep us aware and clear-headed to the risk of fire.

Fortunately, the USFS has been pretty active at managing the BWCA to decrease forest fire risks unlike the state of California which has really biased environmental policies.  My grandfather was pretty upset with the USFS in the late 90s early 2000s because they abandoned a lot of active management policies in favor of “let nature run its course”.  In the ensuing years, the USFS doesn’t seem to have followed that path, at least in the BWCA. A couple of years ago, I ran across a USFS sanctioned controlled burn not too far from my cabin.  That was refreshing to me.

Big fires don’t happen overnight.  They take time to develop.  If a fire rages through a place that was clearcut ten years ago it won’t be as bad as a fire that runs through the forest that was never cut or cut 50 years ago.  Trees grow slowly and they provide the bulk fuel for the fire to sustain itself.  Dry grass and underbrush enhance the spread.

Another interesting thing about the forest up here is the soil will burn.  There is a lot of peat in the soil.  The photographic fires you see with lots of flames are mostly “crown fires” or the tops of trees burning.  I have seen fire spread via the peat in the soil and that sort of fire is different.  You might think you have the fire out because there aren’t any observable flames, but it’s smoldering in the soil.

Some background is necessary to understand what is happening today.

Way back in 1999, there was a weird storm that blew through the BWCA.  It is called a “derecho”.   100 mile an hour winds combined with a raging thunderstorm tore through the forest and blew down acres and acres of trees.  A few years later, spruce budworm started killing large spruce trees throughout the forest.  The blowdown provided a lot of ground fuel for forest fires.  I assumed that spruce budworm added fuel to any potential fire.

However, upon doing some research, I found I was wrong and I wound up learning something new.  It turns out, spruce budworm actually helps stop the fire from spreading as fast.  It is not necessarily a “good” thing.  But, it’s not as “bad” as it seems to be.  What really piqued my interest is that the study I linked to is counterintuitive to what you would think.  This is true with a lot of concepts. I see it frequently in economics and markets.

Predictably, most folks use linear logic to think about the problem.  It’s climate change.  It’s this.  It’s that.  When you logically and objectively analyze the situation, you realize that it’s just randomness and 100% unpredictable with any certainty at all.  Lightning strikes don’t always start fires.  In fact, while most fires are started by lightning strikes, it’s rare when you compare how many lightning strikes happen with how many fires get going.

It looks like the fires will burn until we get some big rain, or until late October when the snow starts to fly.  Anyway, my big learning moment was I assumed that spruce budworm added fuel to the fire when it turns out it doesn’t.

Below is a new dock we built this summer.  I am learning basic carpentry skills.

The post Learning New Things first appeared on Points and Figures.


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