Wildfires: Separating Demagoguery from the Science

Guest essay by Jim Steele

I just received notice that my article, Wildfires: Separating Demagoguery from the Science

published in RANGE magazine received a joint 2nd place honor for Best Investigative or In Depth Story by the Nevada Press Association noting it was a “Good overview of fire ecology in the region.” I also cross published the article here on WUWT. I proudly cross publish all my article here on WUWT as it is the best place for independent thinkers to share with the public. I am very pleased that articles published on WUWT are also widely recognized elsewhere as important scientific journalism.

The award winning article is reprinted below and was shortly followed by an investigative article also cross published at WUWT titled Deconstructing the Climate Demagoguery of the Wine Country Wildfire Tragedies.

Wildfires: Separating Demagoguery from the Science

In 2016 Climate Central, notorious global warming demagogues, published the article Climate Change’s Fingerprints All Over California Wildfires. Ignoring a well-documented history of natural climate change, ignoring the ill-advised 20th century policy of fire suppression, and ignoring the increased percentage (~80 to 90%) of fires ignited by humans, Climate Central tried to persuade the public that California fires, (as well as all recent fires) are “part of a dire global warming-fueled trend toward larger, more frequent and intense wildfires.”

Whether you believe recent warming was natural or caused by rising CO2, warmer temperatures have promoted better growing conditions and that has been good for man and beast. During the cold Little Ice Age tree lines retreated. From the 1400s to the end of the 1800s forests thinned, especially where it was too cold for tree seedlings to establish. Since the beginning of the 20th century that trend reversed, our climate warmed and growing seasons lengthened. Indeed, more warmth can generate more wood for fires. On the other hand, along with improved agricultural efficiency, this more favorable growing climate has allowed us to feed a rapidly growing global population despite Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions we would experience mass starvation by the 1970s.

The Fire Suppression Effect

The statistical rise in fires since 1970 is mostly due to changes in fire suppression policies. The debate over pros and cons of fire has a long history. Native Americans had used fire to promote favored food plants and wildlife. Fire historian Stephen Pyne noted timber owners and ranchers in California promoted the use of prescribed “light burning” in the 1880s to reduce fuels, maintain pastures and reduce the likelihood of larger more destructive fires. Small natural wildfires also created natural fire breaks and a patchy forest mosaic that reduced a fire’s ability to spread beyond a local patch. Unfortunately, a few terrifying fires led land managers to embark on a policy of complete fire suppression. The Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire of 1871 blackened 1.5 million acres and caused the deaths of 1,500 to 2,500 people. Fires threatened recently formed Yellowstone National Park in 1886, and the army was called in to fight it.

But by 1996 fire ecologist Thomas Swetnam echoed the growing consensus against fire suppression. He wrote, “The paradox of fire management in conifer forests is that, if in the short term we are effective at reducing fire occurrence below a certain level, then sooner or later catastrophically destructive wildfires will occur. Even the most efficient and technologically advanced firefighting efforts can only forestall this inevitable result. It is clear from many years of study and published works that the thinning action of pre-settlement surface fires maintained open stand conditions and thereby prevented the historically anomalous occurrence of catastrophic crown fires that we are experiencing in today’s Southwestern forests”

Around the 1970s, some government agencies began adopting “let it burn policies” if human habitat was not threatened. An increasing use of prescribed burns attempted to reduce abnormal fuel loads and restore the natural fire balance. But fire ecologists still “estimated that approximately 3 to 6 times more area must be burned to restore historical fire regimes.” The unnaturally low fire frequencies of the 1980s and 90s can be seen in Figure 5 from a 1999 research paper by Dr. Swetnam. Based on fire scars of old living trees from 64 southwest study sites, fires were 5 to 15 times more numerous and widespread between 1700 and 1880 than during the 1990s. When global warming demagogues argue climate change has now resulted in 5 times more fires than observed in the 1970s, they fail to inform the public this increase is largely due to a shift away from the previous complete fire suppression policy to selectively allowing fires to burn.

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Figure from Swetnams (1999) Historical Fire Regime Patterns in the Southwestern United States_Swetnam

Not only were fires naturally more common before “global warming”, earlier fires could be huge. Newspaper articles from Tucson, Arizona reported individual fires that scorched over a million acres before 1890. Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire blackened 1.5 million acres in 1871 and over 3 million acres were torched in the Big Blowup (aka Great Fire of 1910). The largest fire in Canadian history was the Miramichi Fire of 1825 that burned 3 million acres in News Brunswick and extended into the state of Maine. Unfortunately, large fires are more likely today because past fire suppression has caused an unnatural build up fuels.

Misuse of Global Average Temperatures

Fires are more likely during droughts. So, demagogues blame a “dire global warming-fueled trend” for increasing droughts and thus fires. But regional temperature trends usually differ from the global average statistic. For example, the western Arctic was cooling in the 80s and early 90s until shifting winds removed thick insulating ice into the warmer Atlantic, allowing stored subsurface heat to more readily ventilate. Arctic temperatures then rose twice as fast as the global average. In contrast, the eastern half of Antarctica has not warmed at all. The misleading use of a global average statistic reminds me of an old joke.

A man got his head stuck in a hot oven. While trying to extricate himself he got his feet stuck in the freezer. Not knowing what to do, his wife summoned a doctor hoping he could ease her husband’s pain. But after a careful examination, the doctor concluded her husband was just fine. On average, his body temperature was perfectly normal.

In contrast to the global average, the southeastern USA has not warmed since 1900. The illustration below is from a 2017 research paper Timing and Seasonality of the United States ‘Warming Hole’. It shows summer temperatures cooled by about 1°C from 1930-1950. While warmth in the northern USA began to recover from 1950 to 1975, the southeast remained cool. Despite some recent warming, as of 2005 temperatures in much of the southeast are still slightly cooler than 1901.

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Figure from Mascioli et. Al. (2017) Mascioli et al (2017) Timing and Seasonality of the

                     United States ‘Warming Hole’; Environ. Res. Lett. 12

In 2016, devastating fires burned over 100,000 acres across 7 states of southeastern USA. The Public Broadcasting System’s PBS Newshour hyped the fires with the headline “How Big Droughts and Forest Fires Can Become the New Normal in Appalachia”. They interviewed U.S. Forest Service ecologist James Vose who stated, “It’s very rare to have this many fires burning this amount of area in the Southeast.” But before extensive logging, the Southeast was dominated by the Longleaf Pine, a fire-adapted tree that depends on frequent fires to remove competing vegetation. Its widespread dominance could only be maintained by frequent forest fires. And with no warming trend since 1900, Appalachia’s “old normal” was likely no different than the “new normal”.

After the USA’s widespread mid-century cooling, California’s average temperature began warming since the 1970s.  But as exemplified by temperatures in Yosemite, the trend in maximum temperatures for the northern two thirds of California has declined since the 1930s. Because maximum temperatures are the main determinant of heat stress, it is hard to honestly blame California’s fires on a “dire global warming-fueled trend.”

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Data source: US Historical Climate Network

Extreme swings between wet and dry years, driven by El Niños and La Niñas, are exactly what natural climate change predicts. Periodic La Niñas induce droughts that amplify the effects of California’s annual summer drought and cause anomalously high temperatures.  El Niños induce greater winter rainfall and more growth, that then serves as fuel for the next dry fire-season.

California’s Blue Oaks are sensitive to changes in precipitation, and based on their tree rings scientists have reconstructed California’s precipitation anomalies. Negative anomalies indicate less rain and more drought and positive anomalies indicate heavier rains. The blue star highlights the extreme drought conditions of 2014 and the dashed blue line serves as a reference to 2014. We see extreme drought conditions, similar to or worse than 2014, happened 3 or 4 times a century. Likewise there were frequent periods of anomalously high rainfall. Despite 700 years of these natural extreme weather swings, Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh blames recent swings on global warming stating, “This is exactly what state-of-the-art climate models predicted should have happened, and what those models project to intensify in the future as global warming continues.”

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Figure from Griffin, D., and K. J. Anchukaitis (2014), How unusual is the 2012–2014 California drought?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41

Should We Trust Model Projections of Impending Doom

There is no consensus among climate scientists regards the effects of increasing CO2 on the strength and frequency of El Niño events. Some models indicate more La Niña-like conditions. Some models indicate more El Niño-like conditions. Tree rings suggest no trend since the 1300s. Most likely periodic droughts and high fire risks will always be a fact of life, exactly as natural climate change predicts.

It is worth noting the only “evidence” scientists have that the earth’s changing climate has been driven by rising CO2 is based on their models’ failures to simulate 20th century warming when only “known” natural factors are considered. When increasing CO2 is added, their models can simulate average global warming since the 1970s. But their models fail to simulate earlier oscillating weather patterns.  So, there is a high likelihood climate models have failed to incorporate some critical natural factors affecting climate change. For example, the natural Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) results in 20 to 30-year periods of more frequent El Niños, which alternate with periods of more La Niña’s. The negative phase of the PDO amplifies the impacts of La Nina droughts and increases the risk of fires from California to the Colorado Rockies to southeastern USA. Yet the PDO was not even named until 1997 and is still not accurately incorporated into global climate models.

In 2014, the scientist who discovered the PDO co-authored a research paper demonstrating how the PDO explained observed climate swings along much of west coast North America. The impact of the PDO was highly significant but contributions from greenhouse gases were insignificant.

As illustrated below in a graph highlighted in a past National Climate Assessment, CO2 driven climate models failed to replicate the extent and severity of observed droughts since 1900. The number on the left axis represent the proportion of the USA and Mexico that was in drought. The red and black lines represent actual observations. During the Dust Bowl years 20% to 35% of the USA and Mexico were in extreme drought. Gray lines represent the scatter of individual models. The blue line represents averaged model results, which project that as CO2 rises we’ll experience growing widespread catastrophic droughts in the 21st century. That catastrophic projection is what the media hypes. But should we trust dire future predictions from models that totally failed to simulate the extreme droughts of the 20th century.  Would you trust a doctor’s diagnosis, if he failed to correctly diagnose his previous patients?

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Figure from Wehner (2011) Projections of Future Drought in the Continental United States and Mexico

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23 thoughts on “Wildfires: Separating Demagoguery from the Science

  1. “… large fires are more likely today because past fire suppression has caused an unnatural buildup of fuels.”

    Blaming firefighters for fires is akin to blaming doctors for disease or police officers for crime. If we got rid of the garbage collectors, would we thus eliminate garbage? Not hardly. And since when has forest growth been “unnatural”?

    It’s the plants, Watson. The fuel that feeds the fires is neither animal nor mineral; it’s all vegetable. The fuel is (or was once) alive, and what’s more, fuel grows! Plants get bigger every year.

    The climate hasn’t really changed anywhere, not perceptibly, not based on any reliable data, at best negligibly, at the fringe of measurement as compared to a “moving average” or some such nonsense.

    On the other hand, our forests, shrublands, and grasslands have changed measurably and very obviously in recent decades: the plants have grown. Gross biological production has vastly outpaced decay. Unmanaged forests in the West can accumulate upwards of 5 to 10 tons of biomass per acre per year. There are many acres with over 500 tons per acre of live and dead plant matter. Shrublands and grasslands, left unmanaged, accumulate biomass. That’s what plants do; they grow.

    In fact, today across the West, on urban, rural, and especially Federal lands, the fuel loadings, i.e. total biomass accumulations, are the most they have been in the entire Holocene.

    If suppressing fires causes fires, then allowing them to burn unchecked should reduce or even eliminate fires. After all, once the forest burns, it won’t burn again for a long time, right? That’s the logic behind Let It Burn, our Federal lands policy for the last 30 years. That’s the theory. Does it work?

    Not hardly. Consider the Checto region, a million or so acres of mountains, canyons, and rivers between the SW Oregon coast and the Illinois River 40 miles to the east.

    In 1964 Congress designated 100,000 acres within the Chetco as the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. In 1987 a lightning fire (the Silver Fire) in the KW was designated a “prescribed natural fire” and allowed to burn, which it did, consuming 180,000 acres including most of the KW. According to the Fire Suppression Causes Fires Theory, that should have fixed the problem. But it didn’t, because 15 years later (in 2002) another lightning fire in the KW (the Biscuit Fire) was again allowed to burn, and ended up consuming 500,000 acres, including most of the land burned over in 1987.

    That really should have fixed things, according to the theory, but it didn’t, because 15 years later (2017) the Chetco Fire, burned 190,000 acres. Then this summer (2018) the Klondike Fire burned 167,400 acres– both in the footprint of the Biscuit Fire.

    Whoops! The theory is a dud. Eliminating fire suppression doesn’t stop fires. It’s a fine theory; it just doesn’t comport with reality. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Fires that are allowed to become megafire holocausts breed more megafire holocausts on the same ground and even more frequently.

    What’s the problem? It’s not fire suppression; it’s the plants, Watson. Plants are the fuel, plants grow, and it only takes a few years for the biomass to accumulate to hazardous levels.

    • once the forest burns, it won’t burn again for a long time, right?
      =========
      burning doesn’t reduce the number of fires, it reduces the heat of the next fire, which is more likely to spare the large trees.

      the underbrush and saplings are killed in either case, but with frequent fires the large trees will mostly survive. especially those trees with thick bark that shed their lower branches as they grow.

    • HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

      Fire is a major influence on the dynamics of most forest ecosystems in the United States. The frequency and occurrence of fires has been influenced by humans living in or near these forests for about 12,000 years. Brose and others (2001) present a graphic representation of fire history of Appalachian oak forests and show three profoundly different fire regimes (Figure 5). This model generally applies to all of the fire dependent forest ecosystems in the United States. During the first the period prior to European settlement, indigenous tribes used fire to prepare sites for planting; drive game; encourage fruit and berry production; create open forests, prairies, and savannas desired for early successional wildlife and to maintain a network of trails to facilitate travel. These fires were periodic, low intensity surface fires.

      Following European settlement, early settlers adopted the burning practices of the indigenous people. However the low intensity fire regime was replaced by high-intensity, stand replacement fires caused by the onset of extensive logging and mining activities and the introduction of steampower for transportation and processing of raw materials. This resulted in fires of increased size and intensity, often burning over vast areas. The massive wildfires of the late 1800s and early 1900s contributed to a nationwide movement that identified fire as an undesirable, destructive force that must be controlled.

      Following the massive wildfires of 1910 in the Northern Rocky Mountains, fire protection improved and eventually reduced destructive wildfires by more than 90 percent: from 20–50 million acres per year to 2–5 million acres (Frederick and Sedjo 1991, Powell and others 1994) (Table 3, Figure 6). This third phase resulted in virtual exclusion of fire from many ecosystems, causing significant changes in the character of the vegetation and fuel conditions. These forests are now susceptible to intense, stand replacement fires. Foresters and ecologists have begun to recognize the role of fire in these ecosystems and are re-introducing prescribed fire as a vegetation management tool.

      US Forest Service, 2003

      PDF of Fire  Historical Perspective

      The fire protection programs of the mid-20th century left the forests “susceptible to intense, stand replacement fires, which began to increase in the 1980’s, particularly in the west.  This is supported by numerous recent studies.

    • Mike says , “Blaming firefighters for fires is akin to blaming doctors for disease ”

      Whoa! Never said such a thing. You are totally confused Mike. There is a big difference between fire suppression policy and firefighters.

      Nor did I ever argue fire suppression cause fires. from 80 to 95% of the fires are due to human ignition.

      What fire suppression has done, is low the frequency of fires during the past 100 years while simultaneously causing fuel loads to increase. Media hype that fires are increasing due to global warming is the result of cherry-picked statistics and ignorance of the fire history and natural climate oscillations

      • That startled me too! That’s actually the opposite of what you wrote. It’s like he read the first paragraph and read no further.

        And I’m surprised nobody else reacted to that except yourself, and then not until the next morning.

  2. “A man got his head stuck in a hot oven. While trying to extricate himself he got his feet stuck in the freezer. Not knowing what to do the wife summoned a Doctor… On average, his body temperature was perfectly normal.”

    Ha! I was eating dinner reading the computer and fell off my chair choking. Was almost an accident statistic. But I will remember that one in trying to explain averages. Good one!

    On my woodlot, I have been measuring tree volumes, doing statistical timber cruising drilling and measuring rings. Mixed conifer forest about 115-120 years old. One of the things I am finding is that in the last 40 years I have been managing these timber lands, the timber volume has nearly doubled, but the dead brush, fallen branches and younger juvenile trees that died out due to competition has increased by a factor of 3 to 4. Used to be able ride a horse through it, but now can hardly walk through it. It has turned into a giant fire hazard and from noticing the few older Fir/Cedar vets still standing with the older fire burnt fall down and intact partial charred trunks from the last fire that started this new forest all on its own, it seems there was a major fire about every 100-150 years historically. It is a firescape evolved forest, so this is not surprising. But my sense is that the trees are growing faster, especially the deciduous brush. Maybe more rainfall these last 40 years with warmer temps, and maybe some extra growth due to additional CO2 in the atmosphere. But you can’t really stop the forest from growing back even after you clear cut it. Maybe in 2-3 rotations the soil will deteriorate without the fibre it had for millenniums rotting back into the forest soils, but for the next 100-200 years, my sense is that forestry is going to be just fine. Fires notwithstanding burning me out, but then I am just in the way. Fires are normal; the abnormal part now is so many humans living in or near the forest.

    • My observations exactly.

      Parents owned a farm in northern Ohio. There were two wooded areas that were unsuitable for farming and had been left as wooded areas from the time the first owner took possession of the property – early 1800’s. I loved playing in those woods. The thing that amazed me the most was that the soil under the trees was like the brown peat moss that you get in a bag at the garden store. The canopy was so thick that there were no saplings or undergrowth other than ferns and many forest flowers like Trillium. There used to be a section of Chestnut trees till the worms killed them in the 40’s – 50’s. After they died, these were cut and made into beautiful wood. However without the lush canopy the brush took over and you could barely walk through the area. My father tried to keep the brush down, but that was impossible back then without fire or the heavy equipment we have today. Two draft mules pulling a wheel driven sickle bar was worthless.

    • Projections created by validated models are acceptable. That is how architecture and civil engineering work in the modern world. Imperfect, but acceptable.

  3. Congratulations with your award, Jim!

    Real data and the best reasoning finally will win, even when it is a tough game with Big Money from Big Government.

  4. Thanks for the oven /freezer joke pointing out the problem with using averages. Another favorite quote in that regard:

    Beware of averages. The average person has one breast and one testicle.          Dixie Lee Ray

  5. We traveled the west about 20 years ago. The Mesa Verde Park had areas of dry dead ground cover up to five feet deep covering vast areas. A frightful pile of dry fuel which did burn in a subsequent year. This fuel load was acknowledged by the naturalists who said they were not permitted nor funded to do anything about it. It was the result of many years of suppression. The eventual burn was big and hot. The newly exposed land revealed many pre-history habitations and artifacts.

    Great paper. History, data, facts, common sense. Governor Moonbeam will never read or understand it. Must blame stuff on somebody else and collect a tax on it.

  6. Eliminating fire suppression is deadly to plants, animals, and people. Let It Burn is a catastrophic failure. Megafires every 15 years do not spare any trees; instead they convert forests to permanent tickbrush.

    The principal cause of our current fire crisis is racism. Fire regimes have been anthropogenic in North and South America for 10,000 years. Human beings, the First Residents, have controlled what burns and when for the entire Holocene. Nature is not a deterministic machine; people have been the caretakers of nature here for millennia. Denial of historical human agency is racist, pure and simple.

    You are so hell-bent on “proving” that climate change is not responsible that you miss the truth by a mile. That’s demagoguery in spades. It’s the fuels, stupid, the plants, and real people have long been the gardeners of this continent.

  7. If you want to understand fire suppression you must read “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan. It lays out the history of progressives Teddy Roosevelt and his life long friend from Yale, Gifford Pinochet and their vision on forest management.

  8. If you want to understand the true history of fire on this continent you must read America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, and Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest by Robert Boyd, for starters.

    The Great American Wilderness, like gerbil worming, is a myth — a politically motivated false narrative designed to enslave the masses. Climb out of that hole for your own good as well as for the rest of us.

  9. What happened to the option to give the article a star rating. Can’t see it anywhere. Am I going blind?

  10. Log it. Why let a renewable resource go to waste. LOG IT and use it. Letting it burn is a waste
    of the timber and money spent to police the fires. LOG IT.

      • A lot of woodland is not economical to log for various reasons or cannot be logged without serious environmental damage. At least that’s my impression from living in the Canadian Rockies. Apparently that’s a problem in the boreal forest too, judging by the fire that recently destroyed Fort McMurray in Alberta.

  11. Wherever it appears that global warming is leading to dangerous climate change, WUWT adduces natural causes for the change, tailor made for each local manifestation. Thus, we are urged to believe that instead of the one force, man made global warming, causing all these changes in climate, each local change has its own local — and natural— cause. And it happens, by coincidence, that all these local causes should be synchronized to create specious evidence for global man-made climate change.

    So, first it was the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists who are blowing smoke into our eyes, so to speak. And now it is nature itself.

    I find it more plausible that it is WUWT that is blowing smoke into our eyes.

    • Jesse, The foundation of science is the null hypothesis. Before we can argue how much CO2 has contributed to wildfires, we must examine all the natural factors as well as the other anthropogenic factors, and then determine if there is a CO2 effect that those factors cannot account for . Oddly you seem to object to the basic scientific process.

      A recent paper looked at fires started naturally by lightning and those by human ignition. Human ignitions caused more fires, extended the fire season 3 times longer than natural, and started fires when fuels were less dry than natural. So indeed there are human causes, but you cant blame CO2 and global warming for the longer fire season.

      It is well documented for the western USA that bigger fires happen more often when a La Nina conicides with a negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation. All climate scientists agree those are natural events, and the models are conflicting whether of not rising CO2 affects those natural conditions.

      In California worse part of the fire season is driven by the San Anna and Diablo winds. The intensity of those winds is driven the the temperature gradient between the high desert regions and the ocean. The high desert cools faster than the ocean, so dry adiabatically heated winds descend from the deserts driving fast moving fires. Ironically whether a warming trend is due to natural causes or CO2, the warming trend would heat the deserts and reduce the winds.

      Fire suppression built up fuel loads, and prevented the creation of natural mosaics of burned areas that serve as natural firebreaks.

      When all things are considered, there is no evidence to blame CO2 warming for worse fires . It is alarmists like Gov Brown who are blowing smoke.

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