California Wildfires: not global warming, but "business as usual" for nature

There has been the usual blame game tossed about in some news stories and letters to the editor about the fires in California being caused by “global warming”. To that I say, “bunk”. The main reason is a shift in the regional climate due to changes in the Pacific Ocean. Specifically the large La Nina we saw this year, and the shift in Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which last shifted from Cool to warm phase in 1977.

This year it shifted back to the cool phase, which also means less precipitation for California. So it is not surprising to see a change in California’s weather patterns. It has been this way before. There was a news story today citing research that showed the smoke pall we see this week has happened before, with even greater magnitude, and well before anybody knew to be afraid of Al Gore’s traveling slide-show.

From the article:

“The scientists estimated that an average 4.4 million acres burned annually in California before 1800, compared with an average 250,000 acres a year in the last five decades, 1950 through 2000.”

“The amounts of smoke particles emitted [then] are overwhelming by today’s standards.”


Smoke is normal – for 1800s

sacbee.com - The online division of The Sacramento Bee

By Chris Bowman, The Sacramento Bee

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No one in Colfax or Auburn will breathe a whit easier knowing this, but the heavy wildfire smoke that gave their towns a carbon black eye on the Air Quality Index on Monday is historically the norm for the foothills, studies show.

Analysis of tree rings and oral histories of American Indians and Euro-American surveyors suggests that the cobalt blue skies typifying the Sierra today were more the exception up through the 19th century.

The skies likely were smoky much of the summer and fall in the mountains and other remote and parched regions of California, where fires were largely ignored.

The Chumash Indian name for what is now the Los Angeles area translates to “the valley of smoke,” according to Gordon J. MacDonald, a geophysicist and professor formerly with the University of California, San Diego.

The chronic pall of dense smoke frustrated mapmakers. As C.H. Merriam, chief of the federal Division of Biological Survey, noted in 1898:

“Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific slope in California every summer to see the mountains, few see more than the immediate foreground and a haze of smoke which even the strongest glass is unable to penetrate.”

Wildland firefighting didn’t occur until the turn of the 20th century, after the federal government set aside land as parks and created the Forest Service.

“Fire suppression became its reason for being,” Yosemite-based U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jan W. van Wagentdonk wrote of the Forest Service in an article last year for the journal Fire Ecology.

“It was the only policy for all federal land managers until the late 1960s when (National Park Service) officials recognized fire as a natural process.”

The amount of land burned in today’s far more urbanized and farmed California pales against the acreage consumed historically, before Euro-American settlements, according to University of California, Berkeley, environmental researchers.

The scientists estimated that an average 4.4 million acres burned annually in California before 1800, compared with an average 250,000 acres a year in the last five decades, 1950 through 2000.

That’s nearly as much land as wildfire consumed in the entire United States during a whole decade, 1994-2004, which fire officials deemed “extreme,” said the study, which was published last year in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.

“The idea that a U.S. wildfire area of approximately (4.4 million acres) annually is extreme is certainly a 20th or 21st century perspective,” the researchers concluded.

To calculate the extent of historic wildfires, scientists led by UC Berkeley’s Scott Stephens calculated the extent of pre-1800 fires from published data on fire rotation – the length of time necessary to burn an area.

They also determined fire frequency based on the years between fire scars on tree rings and the burning practices of American Indians, found in oral histories. The amounts of smoke particles emitted are overwhelming by today’s standards.

Looking at the estimated burned acreage, researchers found that wildfires spewed an average 1.3 million tons a year of tiny smoke particles in prehistoric California compared with about 78,000 tons in 2006, the most recent year for which the data in available.

Original story is available here at this link

26 thoughts on “California Wildfires: not global warming, but "business as usual" for nature

  1. When they used to do agricultural burning of the rice fields in the Sacramento area many years ago, it was much worse than anything we see today. But when there’s no news, the media goes into arm-waving mode over the temporarily hazy air.
    Agricultural burning happens all over the world. Look especially at southern Africa: click

  2. The primary cause is human fire suppression and fragmentation of forest which prevent frequent burning of the forest which would happen in it’s natural state and causing large fuel loads to build up.
    Here in Western Australia we still have very large areas of contiguous natural forest with no human habitation in a similar climate to southern California. Fires start from lightning strikes and burn for long periods over very large areas. One bush fire in the 1990s burned continuously for 2 years over 4 million acres.

  3. Environmentalists ought to be railing against all those firefighters defying nature. Of course, as in most religions, hypocrisy is a fundamental underpinning element. So, rather than risk any loss of support, I doubt they’d take the tack of proclaiming fire as natural to California. As well I doubt such as NBC, CBS, ABC, et al would put these fires in perspective and note how below normal today’s fire damages are. They have to hype the problem, so there will continue to be stories of the monstrous nature of these fires.
    Of course if it’s your house that’s on the fire line, you wouldn’t care whether fire is normal or not to California, or whether today’s fire levels are far below the historic record. The danger of losing all your property to a wildfire would be your only concern. Is it any wonder then that man’s normal reaction to natural events is to try to control them?

  4. Pingback: The North Pole could melt this year - Page 20 - US Message Board

  5. There has been the usual blame game tossed about in some news stories and letters to the editor about the fires in California being caused by “global warming”. To that I say, “bunk”. The main reason is a shift in the regional climate due to changes in the Pacific Ocean. Specifically the large La Nina we saw this year, and the shift in Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which last shifted from Cool to warm phase in 1977.
    I.e., it was global cooling.

  6. I wonder how much CO2 got spewed into the atmosphere by those uncontrolled fires that does not get burned now due to forest management?

  7. Chris Bowman wrote a balanced fact driven rather then emotional based article. This sort or reportage is rare for the Bee.
    Mr. Bowman sounds like a reporter worth cultivation.
    I mean if we were to send him the real story regarding climate change, he just might print it.
    After all, Al Gore and Jimmy Hansen in league with the Tides foundation, Wikipedia Connolley, Fenton Communications, Real Climate, and Enron, screwing the whole state energy grid, in order to make some lack luster Natural Gas infrastructure into a climate change gold mine is a very sexy story.

  8. Good Morning America’s daily Cailfornia fire report came from Chico. Their area map include a flame near Paradise. I’ve always thought that California’s nickname should be “The Disaster State”. Evan, perhaps “They [should pave] Paradise and put up a parking lot.”
    In local NH, err, New Hampshire, news, a contingent of firefighters were sent out to California to help out. Given the temperature forecast for your area, I’m glad I’m not one of them.

  9. Of course, the fact that most of the houses built in fire country seem to be made of timber frames and siding doesn’t get a mention. Block and concrete construction with galvanised roofs would make buildings very much less vulnerable to forest fires. Come to that, rather like people who build in flood plains, if you make yourself a target and get hit, don’t come crying “Why me?”. Or you don’t want to have your house fried, either build it fireproof or don’t build it there.

  10. Evan Jones, you said, “I.e., it was global cooling.” No, it was regional cooling. A negative ENSO index (La Nina) correlates with a shift in atmospheric circulation patterns that has strong, albeit divergent regional weather changes. Anthony noted one of the important ones which is an emergent pattern over the Southwest, particularly California, which is characterized by strong winds and less precipitation – weather which strongly helps conditions for forest fires. However, this is not the only pattern that evolves from a La Nina. If you check out the “El Nino southern oscillation” page on Wikipedia, there are some good diagrams that show both the Summer/Weather regional weather patterns associated with El Nino and La Nina.
    Appropriate blame has been brought up over the mis-informed environmentalist meme of the past few decades which stated that all forest logging is bad. Logging, when practiced in a prescribed manner, can be pivotal in helping regulate the natural “fire cycles” which forests undergo. However it is my understanding that opening up our forests to un-regulated logging would not improve the fire conditions in a positive manner. This is because that logging as a profitable endeavour targets the wrong material; the root of forest fires is the buildup of clutter on the forest floor – stuff that has no potential monetary yield for loggers. Regulated logging which helped reduce some of the over-cluttered forest floor while maintaining floor diversity in flora in fauna could dramatically help us reduce the risk of forest fire and help us control its spread.

  11. Once the indians got horses, they did what the Mongols did when they got horses, started large fires to create and maintain grasslands which increased the value of their horses, for the same reason we built the interstate highway system.
    Also, potassium production throughout the little ice age meant that the eastern North American skies were always smokey. Greenland ice cores show this. Alaskan ice cores also keep a record of fire levels. Not sure what they show historically, but we have smoke data going back thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. THere is no reason for any scientifically literate person not to do the comparison for themselves.

  12. This am CNN’s meteorologist Miles O’Brien tied the fires to AGW despite total lack of evidence; it’s becoming more and more obvious that fanning the flames of this hysteria is part of the CNN corporate agenda. As they say, follow the money.

  13. The entire Great Plains burned every 4-7 years. One fire in the 1870s burned from the Missouri River into Texas in just a few days.

  14. Ric Werme: “Evan, perhaps “They [should pave] Paradise and put up a parking lot.””
    Now you’ve gone and done it! You owe Joni Mitchell a royalty check!

  15. So, Californians, do you know what, if any, is your state government’s strategy to deal with a prolonged period of drought and above normal wildfire conditions for the next 30 years?

  16. The funniest thing about this article put out in 2008 is that Gordon J. MacDonald has been dead since 2002.
    Where the hell did they get all those quotes?
    REPLY: This: “The Chumash Indian name for what is now the Los Angeles area translates to “the valley of smoke,” according to Gordon J. MacDonald, a geophysicist and professor formerly with the University of California, San Diego.”
    Apparently came froma paper he published which is easily found on Google:
    The Journal of Environment & Development Gordon J. MacDonald authored for his Harvard Class of 1950 50-year class reunion in … lates into “the valley of smoke.” When there is a temperature inver- …
    jed.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/12/2/151.pdf – Similar pages
    You can be dead and quoted from a journal or article. Look how often people quote what Einstein or John F. Kennedy said. A little research before shooting cowboy.

  17. I too have been wondering about how much CO2 is in the local atmosphere when our region (in the Northern California Valley) is inundated with smoke — 1000+ ppm? Redding was re-covered with smoke yesterday evening, but temperatures cooled off quickly overnight. This never happens on cloudy nights, which are notoriously warm, perhaps demonstrating that H2O truly is the king of greenhouse gases.

  18. In addition to the La Nina / Negative PDO drought the past two rainy seasons, there is something else I have noticed. Namely, synoptic scale winds have not really entered into a true summer pattern this year. Instead, the spring / fall northerly seems to be dominating. That is a double curse, because it prevents the marine westerly flow, and, brings compressive wind events on the downslopes. Really bad deal.
    Global cooling means more fires in Cali.

  19. Read the book, 1491, for an interesting look at environmental management by the aboriginal Americans prior to Columbus. It was very heavy handed. The Indians in the Northeast burned the place down every fall to be sure that there would be good grazing for the wildlife come spring. The early English settlers in New England were amazed to find the forests so open that they could drive a horse and carriage through them with no trouble at all. These days, the forests are so dense that you have a very hard time getting a hundred yards off the trail in a wilderness area. And if you did manage it, you’d be lost in no time.

  20. Tony Brown:
    Concrete, metal-roofed houses would indeed be much more fire resistant than wood construction. Unfortunately, earthquake-proofing concrete quadruples the cost over wood, and ditto with metal roofing. It’s much, much, much cheaper to clear brush and buy some of that fire gel stuff that you spray on before the fire hits. Why the firefighters don’t use more of this gel stuff I don’t know, seems like it would be cheaper to protect people and structure with this, and let the fires burn themselves out.

  21. REPLY: This: “The Chumash Indian name for what is now the Los Angeles area translates to “the valley of smoke,” according to Gordon J. MacDonald, a geophysicist and professor formerly with the University of California, San Diego.”
    Apparently came froma paper he published which is easily found on Google:

    Chris Bowman uses google to check and recheck the facts!
    Twice as rare for the Bee.
    Oh and counter, the temperature of the planet is at a 20 year low – the planet – not just the Pacific Northwest. Evan is right.

  22. R.J. Hendrickson:

    Concrete, metal-roofed houses would indeed be much more fire resistant than wood construction. Unfortunately, earthquake-proofing concrete quadruples the cost over wood, and ditto with metal roofing. It’s much, much, much cheaper to clear brush and buy some of that fire gel stuff that you spray on before the fire hits. Why the firefighters don’t use more of this gel stuff I don’t know, seems like it would be cheaper to protect people and structure with this, and let the fires burn themselves out.

    I recommend a fire wrap over gels and foams, which can quickly lose their effectiveness under dry, hot conditions.

  23. If you build a house six feet below sea level, near an ocean, sooner or later it will get wet. Ditto if you build on a flood plain.
    If you build on a fault line, it will eventually fall down.
    Build in a dry forest and some day it will burn down.
    Hubris: assuming you can beat Mother Nature.

  24. A friend of mine from California says that a major contribution to the fire devastation of homes and infrastructure there is due to very strict regulations on clearing undergrowth. Is this the case?
    REPLY: Yes that is true, environmentalists have fought tooth and nail to keep that from happening. The big fires in Lake Tahoe last year were a direct result of that.

  25. It is correct to point out that many things influence the frequency of wildfires. Fire suppression and other land-use activities rank high in that regard. But how do quasi-annual shifts in the PDO account for the 2 month increase in the fire season from the 1970s to the present? No list of personal opinions and painstakingly selected anecdotes explains it, regardless of their number. The post avoids addressing that central fact.

Comments are closed.