Why Worse Wildfires? Part 2

Guest post by Jim Steele,

from What’s Natural? column

published in Pacifica Tribune, December 4, 2019

Why Worse Wildfires? Part 2

clip_image002

Figure 1 Managing forest ground fuels

Why worse wildfires? The short answer is more humans cause more wildfire ignitions in altered landscapes. Since 1970, California’s population doubled, adding 20 million people. As more human habitat was developed, the increasingly disturbed landscape quickly became covered in easily ignitable invasive grasses (see part 1). To protect human habitat, fires were suppressed and ground fuels increased. Development also expanded a vulnerable electric grid. Furthermore, more people increased the probability of careless fires and more innocent accidents. And sadly, a larger population added more arsonists.

During a typically warm and dry July day, a rancher was innocently driving a stake into the ground to plug a wasp’s nest. Surrounded by dry grass, the hammer’s spark ignited a devastating inferno named the Ranch Fire. Despite sensationalist’s hype, global warming had not made the grass drier. Grass becomes highly combustible in just a few hours of dry weather. And like most of northern California, there has been no warming trend for maximum summertime tempertures. Based on Western Regional Climate Center data, maximum summer temperatures in the Mendocino area had cooled by 3°F since the 1930s. The rapidly spreading Ranch Fire soon merged with a different fire to form the Mendocino Complex Fire, California’s largest documented fire.

Similarly, a highway accident sparked roadside grasses that kindled northern California’s 7th largest fire, the Carr Fire.

clip_image004

Careless fires cannot be considered accidents and offenders should be held accountable. A hunter’s illegal and improperly attended campfire caused the August 2013 Rim Fire, centered around Yosemite National Park. It was California’s 5th largest fire.

Governments and utility companies should likewise be held accountable for carelessly maintaining our electric grids. An electric spark ignited California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. As a 2018 research paper estimates, “Since the year 2000 there’ve been a half-million acres burned due to powerline-ignited fires, which is five times more than we saw in the previous 20 years.

More disturbing is the number of fires started by arson. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nationally, as in California, one in every five brush, grass, or forest fires since 2007 were intentionally set. Arsonists have been recently charged for some of California’s 2019 fires. Arson accounted for 55% of Kentucky’s fires and is the leading cause of Florida’s fires. Because arson is so difficult to prove, arson statistics are probably underestimated. So, experts in Australia combine arson and “suspicious” fires to argue half of Australia’s fires were likely intentionally set. That means each year 31,000 Australian bushfires are intentionally ignited. And as in the American west, Australia’s bush fires have been increasingly fueled by invasive grasses like Buffel grass.

Wildfires caused by natural lightning ignitions, peak during the summer months of July and August, and become virtually non-existent in the autumn and winter. In contrast, human ignitions have created year-long fire seasons. Counter-intuitively, California experiences the most dangerous fire weather during the cooler and wetter seasons. As seasonally cold air settles in over the high mountain deserts in autumn and winter, episodes of high winds, known as the Santa Ana and Diablo winds, flow downslope. Sinking air warms 5°F for every 1000-foot drop in elevation so these downslope winds can raise lowland temperatures 25°F in just a few hours. That warming causes relative humidity to fall, so these winds rapidly suck moisture out of whatever vegetation it passes over. In combination with faster spreading embers, fires burn 2 to 3 times more area during high wind events.

clip_image006

Under natural conditions, seasonally extreme winds never coincided with the season of abundant lightning. But due to human ignitions there has been an increased probability of more ignitions occurring during strong cool-weather winds. California’s 2nd biggest fire, the Thomas fire, was ignited in December by a downed power line during high winds. The third largest fire, the Cedar Fire was ignited in October by a lost hunter who carelessly lit a signal fire. California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire, was ignited by a powerline and fiercely spread due to a November high wind event.

Climate change does not ignite fires. Climate change does not affect how quickly dead grasses and bushes can dry. Climate change may affect the winds, but any warming, natural or human, would reduce those extreme winds. Regards California’s worst fires, a US Geological Survey’s wildfire expert states, “Some will argue that it’s climate change, but there is no evidence that it is. It’s the fact that somebody ignites a fire during an extreme [wind] event.”

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

46 thoughts on “Why Worse Wildfires? Part 2

  1. Many fires are caused by Pyroterrorism. The U.S. Forest Service had a conference on Pyroterrorism. Plans are on the internet, in Arabic, for building remote-controlled incendiary devices. A Jihadist was caught in 2017 after he started a brush fire. Look up “Pyroterrorism” on Google to learn more. This will not be covered by the MSM.

    • Pyroterrorism, yes! And many possibilities with 21st century technology. So isn’t the first question: ‘Who Benefits?’

      Jihadists aside, the most obvious ‘beneficiary’ is Agenda 2030, which intends to remake California [and the rest of the country & world] and its rail system just happens to line up perfectly with the location of the fires. And as depopulation is the ‘final solution’, any reduction in population is a ‘good thing’. And though the death toll seems low, who can check the numbers?

      And if you think ‘No one would do such a thing!’, where have you been? ‘Survival of the Fittest’ means anything goes, and it does.

  2. Are some of these fires made worse by grazing practices? Not grazing intensely enough, continuous grazing vs rotational?

      • Robert,
        What is being discussed is California, not the Great Plains. Also, Steele is talking about modern times, not historical.

          • Robert
            You asked, “So in your mind history has no place in the present” No, the inverse of James Hutton’s aphorism would be that the past is the key to the present. However, one has to be careful that historical observations are actually applicable to the present. Your terse question doesn’t explain what it is you are even suggesting beyond some undefined link between California wildfires and the disappearance of bison, which took place around 1400 CE in Southern California.

          • Robert
            You said, “your [sic] claiming to know the grazing habit of buffalo” I made no such claim. Your original statement was so nebulous that it isn’t clear what you were even suggesting. Were you suggesting that the cropping of grass might have some bearing on the issue, or that the hoofs of millions of bison leave an non-flammable soil surface behind, or that the flammable ‘buffalo chips’ somehow have an impact?

            What was being discussed in Steele’s article was primarily how the chaparral/forest interface, as modified by human structures, respond to wildfires during the different seasons and climate changes. In California, when there were still bison, they lived in open grassy areas, not the upland areas where fires have become problematic. How about actually saying what your hypothesis is? Also, try adding some punctuation so that is is clear that you are asking a question rather than making a statement.

      • We have some bison in Wood Buffalo Park, perhaps we can spare a few for California.

        They won’t find old cattle fences any trouble, and they might carry tuberculosis and brucellosis.

        Do sub-Saharan countries have a lot of wildfires, or is the grass grazed off and the deadwood collected continually.

        • POOR land management generally makes things worse…. but there is no such thing as “zero” management.

          Part of the discussion is how to do things better. Don’t kid yourself that land managers want to be burnt out…

    • Actually, excessive grazing reduces fire risk by reducing fuel. The damage done by excessive grazing is related to promoting the takeover of grasslands by exotics, some of which are dangerous for cattle or wild animals to graze on .. and increased soil erosion and loss of fertile topsoil.

      Native Americans are well known for intentionally starting range fires in order to remove the less desirable species of plants, resulting in higher quality grass for grazing and therefore higher production of grazing animals like buffalo. It’s good grassland maintenance practice … but alas, not very compatible with modern land users in houses that burn.

  3. Thanks Jim; a nice series.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    My “favorite” ignitions are those from a smoking hot car that incites the driver to pull to the side of the highway. I recall 3 such within 30 minutes of Ellensburg, WA.
    One of those caused a massive grass fire west of Vantage, WA that caused long delays and detours. I was lucky; it only delayed me for 2 hours.
    If my auto catches, I’ll stop in the middle of the road.

    • Those fires tend to be started by a catalytic converter which requires high temperatures for operation.

      The good news is that most if not all catalytic converters nowadays have heat shields installed around them.

      • Heat shield only protects from incidental contact. Park a brand new hot car in tall dry grass and you will burn it to the ground heatshield or not. Living in the grass seed capital, we see this happen every year.

  4. Watch out for the stats also. I think the smallest fire that can be recorded is 1/10 of an acre even if the fire is actually 6 inches around. Not only that lots of fires that one wouldn’t think would be classified as wildfires are counted as such. I would be interested in seeing the stats with the smallest fires excluded from the calculations to see how the numbers shake out.

  5. Jim,
    Many thanks for another of your level headed contributions. Here in Australia we are going through a renewed bout of bush-fire events, leaving behind them a devastating toll on life and property. It has also become a political three ringed circus, with the left-green media trumpeting climate change as the principle driver, and the federal government scrambling to appease these views. There are of course conflicting statements around causation, however, it is remarkable how these statement mirror many of the points you make in your paper. in essence, in Australia the bushfire frequency is a function of fuel load and humidity, indeed about 1/2 of northern Australia burns every year!! One point that is rarely made is the likelihood of increasing temperatures (from whatever cause you care to ascribe) actually increasing humidity. Would this not work to lessen bush fires? – Ironically of course, increasing CO2 increases plant productivity, ergo fuel load, so there will doubtless be a number of confounding factors to deal with.
    Thanks again.

  6. Off Topic:

    From the LA Times:

    California must act now to prepare for sea level rise, state lawmakers say
    By the end of this century, the sea could rise more than 9 feet in California — possibly more if the great ice sheets collapse sooner than expected.

    Comes to almost 35 mm/year starting right now. Well over ten times the current rate.

    OK back to your regular programming.

  7. There is no excuse for the PG&E fires. The winds aren’t new, the fire danger isn’t new. The tech to bury or enclose lines in high danger areas isn’t new. What was, and is, the problem is a utility that is run as a fictional private corporate entity, that has a symbiotic relationship with its regulator, the PUC. They were insulated from culpability for so long, everyone rode the gravy train right into the cemetery. I make the death toll since the San Bruno explosion at least 125.

    • Monster
      The Camp Fire started in the Feather River canyon near Pulga. Are you familiar with the area? If so, you would understand that it isn’t a matter of trenching in soil and back-filling. The sides of the canyon are too steep to climb, and it would require extensive blasting to place lines underground. Also, the PUC is under political pressure to keep electricity affordable, particularly for the poor. They do that by controlling what PG&E can charge customers. The PUC also controls the profit PG&E can make. If PG&E doesn’t have sufficient profit, then they don’t have the funds to properly maintain the aging infrastructure.

      Go visit the Columbia State Park on Highway 49, north of Sonora. See how the people in the mid- to late-1800s constructed buildings. They used brick or native stone for the walls. They put iron doors and iron shutters on the buildings, and metal, slate, or tile roofs on them. Compare them to the buildings that burned in Paradise.

    • If you want to see your posts show up nearly immediately. Hit the refresh button on your web brouser and they’ll appear.

      • chemman: Not necessarily. My comments take a very long time to show up. I wait and hour and then check back. Hitting refresh or even going out of the post and coming back in does not work. This has been true since the sight was attacked. I just wait and check back.

  8. Our wildlands full of dried grasses and other biomass are no different than a house of cards. Once that house of cards gets to be 3-4 feet high, it can be reasonably assumed it’ll all come down in a catastrophic manner. It matters not that the dog hit the table leg, the heater turned on, or an outside door opened with a gust of wind. And so it is in the wildlands: it’ll likely burn and it matters little what the ignition source is.

    Let’s not get hung up on what the ignition source is; let’s eliminate the biomass from areas where the ignition sources are likely to be.

    • Not having fires in forested country is not an option.
      Only when we want them, or when we don’t.

      Over-simplified maybe, but it holds pretty good.

    • Not as much as a portable barbecue next to a monitor in a remote Colorado dam car park does. If you get it right, you can take the local temperature up to 115 deg F and have it declared the hottest Colorado temperature ever recorded!! The location of other monitor stations within ten miles, all five of them came nowhere near 115 deg F, so portable barbecues are clearly the most effective tool to prove global warming.

    • To date the largest wildfire in Colorado was the Hayman Fire, near the Stevenson monitoring station at the north end of Chatfield Reservoir. I can’t find the temperature data graphs. Climate Audit happened to be covering the Chatfield record at the time, but Steve has purged his website of such long term records, probably to save data space; also missing from Anthony’s Surface Station Data and the NHCDC and CSU data banks. The monthly averages, showed an anomalous spike for that area relative to 30 year averages, and it was a significant spike.

      The fire started June 8 and over several weeks spread to the east and north, eventually encircling the north end of Chatfield Reservoir where the monitoring station was located. The flames were large enough to create pyrocumulus clouds, shown on pg. 7 of the report that was compiled by the forest service. The station was right in the middle of the pincers of the flames as they closed in around the lake – then stopped. Love to see some of that old data.

      https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr115.pdf

      … And in my opinion, yes, the fire was a significan influence on the monthly averages for the area.

  9. Up here in MT the national forests are a bit of a mess. The beetle kill timber is wide spread covering
    million of acres, the deadfall known as “jackstrawed” is impenetrable . In many areas the
    percent of dead timber is nearly 100%. Hiking in the mountains is risky due to trees/tops
    falling. The wind can start in an instance and that’s when things get interesting.

    When it burns the soil gets sterilized and wont adsorb
    rainfall leading to mudslides and erosion. The Blackfoot River ran muddy/ black
    for weeks last’summer after the fires of ’17 near the headwaters.

    Then there is the Green Mob enviros that sue over any proposed forest management
    project. Michael Garrity /Alliance for the Wild Rockies is at the top of serial litigators..
    Literally hundreds of suits. He’s said to be financially backed by some big money types.

    Biomass energy would be a good place to start in my view…This article is just a small part
    of the issue.

  10. Wait a minute–this is all blatantly obvious and needing no further study. It can’t be right…

  11. The Native Americans certainly wanted to be “burned out” – they purposely set range fires to manage the rangeland for better production of food – buffalo. Well documented practice by early explorers, trappers, and settlers on the Great Plains in the early to middle 19th century. It’s a great management practice, if your society is not built around absolutely preventing all wildfires, as ours has been for the last 120 years or so.

    • We used to have a shepherd pen sheep on our farm yard to keep weeds down around the machinery and reduce fire risk (and double bonus, they buff the oxidation off the old paint and it was cheaper, easier, and quieter than hand mowing, and safer than annual burning).

      They would have to occasionally be moved around to give the grass time to recover, otherwise barley foxtail and other unpalatable (but flammable) species would take over. It might not be applicable to another area, as our climate was cooler and drier than California, and certainly there’s enough expertise in Australia on the subject of grazing sheep that I wouldn’t weigh in there.

      The latest fear-mongering I’ve seen is wondering what will happen when wildfires strike densely populated, poverty-stricken parts of the world? I would think that they graze or mow all the vegetation they can for fodder, and gather every dry stick they can find as fuel for cooking. And they also do intentional burning.

      • Randy,
        Once when I was touring New Zealand, I observed a goat tethered to a mailbox post. The mailbox was alongside the road and the local vegetation was tall grasses and weeds that were as tall as the mailbox. The goat did a good job of keeping the mailbox accessible to the mailman.

    • Duane
      They apparently would also set fires to stampede a herd over a buffalo jump.

      In California, forest fires were set purposely to open up the undergrowth and provide browse for deer and elk. There are some that have suggested that the relatively pure stands of coastal redwoods are a result of them being resistant to ground fires that were set by the natives. Back in those days, there were no multi-thousand dollar homes to burn.

  12. I have a theory about the derivation of the term “cheat grass” – maybe somebody hereabouts knows enough to confirm or refute it – either way, I’d be interested. I’ll use Merriam Webster’s for these points, but they are similar in other dictionaries.

    The usual meaning of cheat is (as a verb) to swindle, mislead, dupe, etc. Synonyms are deceive, trick, victimize. And near the bottom of the meanings cited in most dictionaries, cheat is defined as downy brome or rye-brome. As Jim Steele has observed, it’s an invasive grass that has spread through North America over hundreds of years. Some books that trace its genetic origin claim it came originally from Asia. But I believe the grass found its way to us through Western Europe.

    The English word “Cheat” ultimately comes from “escheat”, a word which derives from Old French – and ultimately Latin. It means 1a: “the falling back or reversion of lands in English feudal law to the lord of the fee (fief) upon the failure of heirs capable of inheriting under the original grant b: the lapsing or reverting of land to the crown…” A synonym is “a confiscation or forfeiture”.

    When property in the Middle Ages reverted to a seigneur due to a forfeiture – a death of the primary serf working the land – it would inevitably sit fallow until another tenant could be found to put its arable land under the plow and return it to productive service.

    During that fallow, land that had been productive became ideal (for reasons well-documented by Mr. Steele’s posts) for the invasion of brome and rye grasses. It would be useful to know how cheat grass was dealt with then, but certainly the Medieval villein’s tools were limited: fire, marling and manuring (fertilization), grazing, multiple plowing and re-seeding.

    I imagine that escheat grass was a common term at the time, and as problematic for the average farmer of the 13th Century as it is to land managers and ecologists today. It exploited the misfortune of the landholder and his heirs when they were most vulnerable, and must therefore have been despised.

    My 2 cents.

  13. your unsubscribe and email modification links are unwieldy and dont work in my email program. For some reason I am now getting every blasted reply to this thread and I’m unable to modify that in my email program except by blocking you as a sender entirely.

    Can you put some workable subscription modification options on your pages please. thank you

Comments are closed.