Grass Fires, Not Forest Fires Dominated Washington State in 2020: What Does That Imply Regarding Global Warming?

Reposted from the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The wildfire season has now ended in Washington State, with no major fires currently burning and a very wet weather system approaching for the weekend.

Although the first half of the fire season had below normal acreage burned, we ended up with more fires and more burned acreage than normal (see WA DNR statistics below).  

Global warming?  Or is something else going on?

Some politicians and media outlets are claiming that global warming was the explanation, but as we shall see, something else was going on:  COVID-inspired trash burning and the extraordinary dominance of grass fires over forest fires.

Let’s begin by looking at a map of this summer’s wildfires over the state (see below).   There were some big fire areas in eastern Washington.  But look carefully and you will notice something important:  nearly all the acreage burned was not in terrain or in forests, but in the grasslands and scrub of the  eastern Washington lowlands.

If you wanted a clearer view of this situation, here is a recent MODIS satellite image centered on the Columbia Basin in which the burned areas are indicated by red.  You can see the agricultural areas (light green) and forested areas (darker green).  

We can compare the fires this year, with the fires of the past 20 years (see below), many of which have been on the eastern Cascade slopes and the slopes of the Okanagan and Blue Mountains.  But not this year.

As I noted in earlier blogs, 2020 was not a particularly favorable year for higher-elevation wildfires, with normal April 1 snowpack and temperature/precipitation conditions that were not particularly unusual.

But this year, something did happen that made the grass/sageland burn.  Something unusual. 

 Extraordinary, record-breaking winds (for the season) hit eastern Washington, with gusts reaching 50-70 mph on September 7th.

These winds both helped initiate grass fires, for example from failing, sparking powerlines, and caused the rapid growth and spread of the grass/sagebrush/brush fires.

The grass was already dry enough to burn after a normal, hot dry summer in eastern Washington.  And even if it were WET, a few hours of strong winds would have ensured it was dry enough to burn.

A plot of the ten-hour fuel moisture at the Columbia NWR RAWS fire weather site in central Columbia Basin (below)  for the 60 days ending Sept 8 shows the story.   Then ten-hour fuel moisture is for vegetation of 1/4 to 1 inch in diameter and values under 15% are dry enough to burn.  As you can see, the 10-h fuels were dry enough to burn all summer (below 10%).  Grasses (one-hour fuels) would have been even drier.  The same thing would be true of summers of other years (I checked).

The area near site and location are shown below:

Summer grass fires like this have NOTHING to do with climate change
 A normal summer makes these fuels dry enough to burn.  Increasing temperatures are irrelevant, and global warming models do not show much change in precipitation (and even if it got drier it would not make a difference).  The temperature and precipitation today are sufficient for fires.
The key issue in this event was the strong winds, which were accompanied by COLDER THAN NORMAL temperatures.   The crazy powerful winds were forced by a cold, high pressure areas to the east and such cold highs should become LESS frequent under global warming.
And there is something else.   Unirrigated areas in eastern Washington are much more flammable today than a century ago because of the invasion of highly flammable invasive grasses such as Cheatgrass (a.k.a. grassoline)–check the map below to see this.

It is totally frustrating that certain politicians, some local newspapers, and some environmental activist groups are pushing an inaccurate claim, not supported by any scientific evidence, that the eastern Washington wildfire siege of September 7-8 was the result of global warming.  It is simply not true.
Such false claims not only promote unnecessary fear and concern but work against taking steps that would actually help mitigate future future fires.
For  example, when very strong winds are forecast (and they were), eastern WA utilities could de-energize the power lines, as done in California.  Homes in the middle of grassland/brush could be built or remodeled to lesson their tendency to burn.  And grass/brush/flammables could be cleared away around buildings to create a safe space.

As I mentioned above, Washington State had more fires than normal.   The cause was not global warming, but COVID-19.
Many of the fires this year were debris fires that got out of hand.   Folks, forced to stay home because of COVID ,decided to clean up their properties and then burned the debris.  To quote from Hillary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands:
“Everybody is following the ‘stay home, stay safe’ order. They’re getting more time at home to do yard work. We’re seeing an unprecedented number of debris piles, and we’re seeing an unprecedented number of people that are lighting those piles on fire”

In contrast, to grass fires, global warming may well increase the risk for forest fires in some areas over the course of the century.   But there are a number of other factors that play a role in the long-term trend in forest fires, including fire suppression over the past century, poor forest practices, human ignition of fires, invasive grasses and plants, and people moving into wildland areas.   It’s complicated.
This is the kind of blog that gets me into trouble with the climate activist community, but folks in our state deserve the truth and only the truth will allow society to take rational steps to protect itself from environmental threats.   
After blogs like this, activist groups like 350Seattle typically call me names (denier, etc) and previously pushed KNKX to kick me off the radio.  Well, they succeeded at KNKX but at least I have this blog and the support of many of you.  ___________________________________________My blog on KNKX and the Undermining of American Freedom is found here.
An extraordinary story about Matt Martinez, Program Director of KNKX, is found here.  All KNKX listeners should read it.


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October 7, 2020 6:11 pm

“Extraordinary, record-breaking winds (for the season) hit eastern Washington, with gusts reaching 50-70 mph on September 7th.”

The region NORMALLY get dry wind in August/September as the summer season is winding down towards fall, but usually in the 20-30 mph range, thus happens every year, this year is was extreme weather event that made the fire season a lot worse than usual.

Ron Long
October 7, 2020 6:26 pm

Amen to the menace of cheatgrass. Working in the field in northern Nevada after a wet spring and a dry summer, the cheatgrass fires are amazing to see, and very deadly. All of us geologists watch for these fires and do not get caught downwind in a dead-end canyon. If you are camped out and lightening hits upwind from you, pack up and run. This is a good report as it is clearly a Reality Check, especially as regards not everything due to “climate change”.

Reply to  Ron Long
October 7, 2020 6:37 pm

It is an attractive plant in the grass stage (winter/spring) , especially with additional moisture in the spring, then goes bone dry by early summer.

The plant grows from seed in the Fall, lays over through the winter, then grows fast setting new seeds in late spring, plant dries up during the summer months.

It is a winter annual, that sets ABUNDANT seeds, it is a very successful weed in Eastern Washington.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Thomas Pearson
October 7, 2020 7:24 pm

Jim Steele laid out very clearly recently how these invasive annual grasses are largely responsible for any fire issues.

It is human caused but it’s definitely not climate change

Reply to  Thomas Pearson
October 8, 2020 3:53 am

would the shortage of grazing animals- removed due to green schemes -also play a apart in the grass volumes?
dont the local councils run disploughed firebreaks around park edges
or force farmers to do so?
they do in aus

October 7, 2020 6:36 pm

Uncomfortable truths… diversity (i.e. color judgment) denies individual dignity, denies individual conscience, normalizes color blocs, color quotas, and affirmative discrimination. Diversity dogma is a Pro-Choice, selective, opportunistic, politically congruent quasi-religious belief not limited to racism, sexism, and other class-based bigotry.

October 7, 2020 6:44 pm

Floyd was not killed, he died from a drug overdose, comorbidities, and stress (i.e. criminal activity). The diversitists (i.e. racists) held a warlock trial, then protested in a national witch hunt lead by Some, Select Black Lives Matter, invaded people’s property, intimidated, burned, looted (redistributive change) in a murderous frenzy. Yeah, uncomfortable truths. Wicked choices, solutions.

October 7, 2020 6:59 pm

In 1910, one of the worst fires ever occurred in Montana and Idaho.

The link is here:

The Peshtigo Marsh fire in Wisconsin, which was started by unattended “trash” fires set by lumberjacks and aggravated by low rain levels, destroyed thousands of acres of woodlands and (as I understand it) jumped from the eastern shore of Wisconsin across Green Bay onto the peninsula across the bay. It was impossible to put it out, and it occurred at the same time as the Chicago Fire, but got nearly no publicity because of the Great Chicago Fire’s occurrence.

A fire does not have to be huge in volume to be deadly and destructive. Once a wildfire starts, unless there is a way to control the spread (which was not available in Montana in 1910, or at Peshtigo, WI), it becomes out of control and consumes everything that may be ignitable.

I don’t want to see that happening anywhere near me, EVER.

October 7, 2020 7:59 pm

Thanks Cliff for your important post. I have been trumpeting the fact that grasses are the big factor that are easily ignited and cause rapid wide spread fire, yet the media and alarmists scientists ignore the facts.

Reply to  Jim Steele
October 7, 2020 9:50 pm

My article on why more wildfires are happening totally agrees with CLiff’s analysis

Fred Middleton
Reply to  Jim Steele
October 9, 2020 8:03 am

One hour fuels – grass, needles, leaves carry fire from one place to the next. 10 hour, 100 hour, 1000 hour 10,000 hour fuels.

Dennis G Sandberg
October 7, 2020 8:22 pm

One thing has become obvious from the climate debate. The more someone is convinced that global warming is controlled by CO2 from “fossil fuels” and that it’s causing “extreme weather” the less that someone knows about science. I give you Governor Newsom, California.

John F Hultquist
October 7, 2020 8:50 pm

There are “Firewise” for homes and Firewise community programs.
Sometimes there is some money to help make the changes. Clearing and chipping brush, more gravel (less fuel), fire resistant siding and roofs — cost money.
Not putting firewood under a deck is a common-sense idea that doesn’t cost.

Many folks like the seclusion of being surrounded by vegetation. So while we have a few bucks and the energy to make changes — neighbors refuse. Or they have neither the money or energy to make changes.
This summer’s projects included stone-panels and fiber/cement (Hardieplank) on half the house, and a few other things.
Panic2020 hasn’t helped with this effort.
Oh, I should mention we live in the region discussed in this posting.

Joel O'Bryan
October 7, 2020 8:56 pm

Story Lede (headline): “Grass Fires, Not Forest Fires Dominated Washington State in 2020: What Does That Imply Regarding Global Warming?

Betteridge’s law of headlines is an adage that states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist who wrote about it in 2009, although the principle is much older.

In this casehere, No = Nothing, the negative case.
Q: What Does That Imply Regarding Global Warming?
A: Nothing.

October 7, 2020 9:17 pm

Even if it was Climate Change there is nothing you could do about for around a century so just ignore it and work with stuff you can do.

October 7, 2020 9:18 pm

Welcome back, CTM. Hope you’re doing well.

Thanks for reposting this post by Cliff Mass.

Stay safe and healthy, all.


October 7, 2020 9:50 pm

If the alarmists want to eliminate all wild fires, no mater the cause, just reduce CO2 levels to under 150 ppmv, and there won’t be any grass or trees or much else. Life will be mostly extinct. Fire is the norm, and the grasses and forests evolved over exceedingly long time frames to be a firescape evolved ecology. This is as normal as it gets when the conditions are ripe for fire and sooner or later they always are. There is evidence for this everywhere there is vegetation that can burn.

Unfortunately people are now in the way. There will be a lot of flowers and wildlife browsing in this newly burned range next year. Put some cows on it if you don’t want the grass growing too high, and that will make things healthier too. Plus get some beef, but they are opposed to this too, so how can you win?

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Earthling2
October 7, 2020 11:23 pm

The solution to pollution is dilution.

Q: So is CO2 a pollution?
A: Reduce CO2 by 10x and the entire planet biosphere dies.

Reply to  Earthling2
October 7, 2020 11:29 pm

“Fire is the norm, and the grasses and forests evolved over exceedingly long time frames to be a firescape evolved ecology.”

That’s what I keep saying. Washington is the “Evergreen State” because of natural fires for thousands of years.

Reply to  Earthling2
October 8, 2020 6:30 am

But, but, but,…all those cows depositing fertilizer will made the grasses grow taller, quicker, and have a higher oil content.

Max P
Reply to  Earthling2
October 8, 2020 11:12 am

Imagine what the fires would be like if the O2 level was higher? Just lower O2 levels down to about 10% and it will be damned difficult to get a fire started at all.

Max P

October 7, 2020 11:53 pm

It implies that it is climate change, not lack of forest management…

a change to summer drought, then rain concentrated in a winter period producing a lot of grass to dry out and catch fire in an earlier starting and longer lasting fire season…

Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 12:28 am

“It implies that it is climate change”


You have no evidence of that at all.

Its all in your deluded mind.

And your comment shows it is WEATHER.

You still are too dumb to figure out the difference.

Come on, don’t keep running away..

In what ways has the global climate changed in the last 50 years , that can be SCIENTIFICALLY proven to be of human causation?

Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 12:49 am

You obviously didn’t even try to read or COMPREHEND any of the evidence put forward, did you griffool.

Otherwise you wouldn’t have made such a moronically stupid comment.

Reply to  fred250
October 8, 2020 8:55 am

fred, yes griff is a fool and a vexious troll, but as a friend, I would advise you to ignore him for a while. He’s starting to take up residence in your brain.

JimH in CA
Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 8:49 am

The grasses here in the CA foothills will germinate once we get about 3 inches of rainfall, usually in Oct. to Nov. They then set seed and die off long before the season rains stop in April.
Over the last 20 years,I have measured no less than 26 inches of rain, and 2017 was a crazy 63 inches.
40 inches is an average for us a 1,000 ft.
So, variation in rainfall and summer temps seem to have little affect on the growth of the seasonal grasses.
Those acres of our ranch where cattle graze keep the growth to a few inches and a fire last year literally stopped when it reached the grazed areas.

The ‘Northern Complex’ fire near Quincy was started by lightning and burned slowly in steep canyons for 2 weeks and had burned about 20,000 acres. Then the strong north-east winds kicked up, which pushed the fire downhill quickly causing evacuations and has now burned over 300,000 acres.

Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 8:54 am

Wet winters and dry summers are what is called normal, for that area.
There is no evidence that winters are getting wetter or summers getting drier. Yes there is year to year variation, but no trend. Not that griff understands either of those concepts.

Beyond that, I see griff is still ignoring the problem of invasive grasses.

Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 9:01 am

Wrong again, griff. The frequency and acreage of wildfires worldwide has dropped dramatically in the last century – proving that there are wildfire factors more important than climate change. You must know this yet you choose to (fecklessly) attempt to mislead. Why?

Reply to  griff
October 8, 2020 9:39 am


You are so ignorant about Downy Brome, since it is a WINTER annual, it grows from seed in the fall, overwinters, sets seed in the spring, dries up in early summer.

I live right in the middle of the range of downy brome, I see it growing right now in my yard, it stays green all winter, a hardy annual that dries to a bone by early summer, every year.

That is what Dr. Mass talking about, the grass fires are mostly the NORMALLY dried up downy brome vegetation.

Peta of Newark
October 8, 2020 2:15 am

In what might argued to be an “Ideal World”, the default vegetation growing on said world would be forest.
Endless trees with, as per the forests of SE Asia, a dense undergrowth.

Things can and do unravel because The Forest becomes a Rainforest. i.e. makes its own climate
The heavy daily rains and thunderstorms gradually erode the dirt under the trees. This is despite their best efforts to create a thick layer of highly absorbent material in the soil underneath themselves (dead trees, leaves, twigs etc etc= Organic material)
Thus the macro and micro nutrients the trees need, gradually wash away into The Ocean. Never (not quite) to return. This results in fewer weaker trees, less decomposing mush in the dirt below them and what mush there is is becoming exposed to the sun, drying it out.
The Forest might then become liable to burning and once it starts it is like a cancer. It spreads and is unstoppable.

Hence grasses appear, to fill in the gaps where trees once stood and to give new trees a bit of cover/shelter while they re-establish. Also to cover the soil from (drying effects of) sun exposure and get some organics back into the dirt following the fire.

Now, Enter Humans.
They don’t like trees or forests. We are hopeless at climbing trees, cannot fly, cannot move within them easily and even if we could, there’s not a lot of anything for us to eat in there.

So what we do (did) was to encourage the grasses. Grasslands are great especially as large herbivores also like grasslands and we like eating them (the herbivores, not the grasses)
We cut and burned the trees, encouraged the herbivores, who as any livestock keeper will assert, hate trees.
The big grass eaters ‘know’ that trees are their enemy because like us, there is nothing for them in The Forest.
They actively seek out sapling trees and eat them. Simple

But when The (Rain) Forest goes, so does the rain and in comes The Fire.
Like cancer it spreads and grows until *nothing* is left except sand

Just like the Sahara, Fertile Crescent. Australia and is well advanced up/down the West Coast.

The ONLY ways to stop the fires are:
1) Let/watch them burn until nothing is left. A good way to do that is with pro-active burning= as generally recommended around here. Infallible logic – if there’s nothing to burn, nothing *will* burn. simples

2) Re-mineralise the dirt. Put back the trace elements and micro nutrients that are all presently at the bottom of The Ocean – actually just offshore making up the Continental Shelves.
Let the rainforest re-establish and by being a rainforest (permanently sodden wet) – it wont burn and the Climate will stabilise.

We have the technology, it was glimpsed in the story about asbestos just recently. Yes, maybe dirt controls The Climate. Indirectly, via trees, Yes It Does

Except don’t use asbestos, use ground up rock/ash/dust as you might find in/near/roundabouts any old normal volcano.
Off you go…..

Reply to  Peta of Newark
October 8, 2020 8:54 am

Speaking of Washington State, the reason that the Olympic Peninsula is a rain forest, Western Washington is wet, and Eastern Washington (where the fires were) is arid is the Cascade Mtns. Warm, moist air comes out of the Pacific ocean from the Southwest, rises to get over the Olympic and Cascade Mtns, cools, and rains out the moisture before it can get to Eastern Washington. No amount of mineral/fertilizer replacement is going to turn Eastern Washington into a rain forest. It’s too dry and’always has been.

Also, the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mtns was a grassland covered by as many as 60 million buffalo well before humans significantly affected the landscape. It’s thought that the desertification of Arizona was hastened by buffalo hunting. The fact is that grasslands are a natural consequence of mountains blocking moisture flow. Most trees need moisture year round, grasses don’t. Grass grows in the wet spring, dies during the dry summers, and regrows the following year. It has for millions of years.

Reply to  Meab
October 8, 2020 5:49 pm

“Western Washington is wet”

Not really. There are some high rainfall areas, but Seattle gets about the same annual rainfall as Dallas. (~36″). I live about 70 miles north of Seattle, and we get about 26″ annual rainfall. Not very wet.

Jeremiah Puckett
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
October 8, 2020 8:56 pm

That’s pretty wet to me.

October 8, 2020 5:19 am

Mow your lawn or be fined by the HOA.

October 8, 2020 5:40 am

Fire and the ability to nurture and contain fire has made mankind the predominant species on this planet. From the stone age , copper , bronze , steel and finally the tech age we find ourselves in today that has removed us from the environment.

We now view wildland with some awe and much romantic fantasy.

How big is Kalifornias wildland fire carbon footprint?

Mitigation is still very much a necessity but no longer is it a way of life even the idea of the woods worker is frowned upon as an uneducated bottom feeder. The building codes exclude the natural materials from use in structures. The air quality codes exclude wood burning for heat and cooking
fuel. Instead of some bad air in the winter we now breath it all summer. Some naturalists can’t tell the difference between a dead tree or a live one and have no clue how to prune ladder fuels. camping has moved into rv’s with propane appliances , even mountaineers use pack stoves with various packed in fuel sources.

Burn bans are signaled to start after the fires start not when the fuel is tinder dry and run weeks into the rainy season , causing a loss of respect for those in charge. Fire breeds pine beetles that migrate downwind to the neighboring forest killing the weaker trees and causing a surplus fuel load. Beetle spraying has caused a hybrid beetle that hits the treetops where spraying doesn’t reach. Poorly managed cutting moves infected wood to new areas. The trees that are left alive in the burn area no longer have protection from the wind they grew up with and most blow down.

Indigenous peoples could never have managed such a large area however they were nomadic and had the good sense to move on when fuels got to dry. While they used stone tools and couldn’t handle large fuels they were quite capable of harvesting dead branches shrubs and other ladder fuels in the immediate area. They were also well versed in fire use and containment.

On the bright side those that make a life of wildland firefighting understand the danger of invasive species and set up wash stations for all equipment arriving to the incident.

Tom Abbott
October 8, 2020 7:28 am

From the article: “In contrast, to grass fires, global warming may well increase the risk for forest fires in some areas over the course of the century.”

There is no evidence establishing humans are causing global warming by burning fossil fuels. Assuming there is, is assuming too much. Of course, I can see where you might have been fooled. A lot of people are in that situation.

Cliff is definitely not a human-caused climate change denier, and 350Seattle should lay off of him. 350Seattle! How silly! I wonder how much they get paid to promote the alarmist position? What a monetary bonanza this human-caused climate change fraud has been! I guess that’s why it keeps going and going and going.

October 8, 2020 8:29 am

What was the rain fall during the spring months (March – May) like compared to normal? I live in North Idaho and it seemed like we had a wetter than normal year up to about June… For the Columbia Basin, this is when you would get the most growth out of the grass/brush in the scrub-lands. Extra fuel and then an extremely dry summer sets up the fuel load to burn. Add in some high winds, which seems to be normal for the Inland Northwest whenever we get a change in fronts after a hot August…. Read about the 1910 fires which were pushed and aided by gale force winds from a front change……

Bill Rocks
October 8, 2020 8:34 am

Your analysis and report are appreciated. Thank you.

October 8, 2020 8:49 am

Obviously, the answer is that more CO2 causes wind speed to increase. Don’t believe me, give me a few minutes to write a model to prove it.

October 8, 2020 8:54 am

In rural BC we are waiting for the 15th of Oct when the normal summer burn ban ends. This year there are huge piles waiting because spring burning was curtailed to ‘improve air quality’ because WuFlu. If WA permits trash burning in summer, they probably deserve what they got.

October 8, 2020 9:06 am

Arson is not caused by climate change as far as I know. We had no shortage of arsonists on the west coast for that dry wind event.

October 8, 2020 1:48 pm

NASA confirms that heat waves in California are DECREASING

So much for the brain-f**t that “climate change caused this years fires. 🙂

Chunder Peacheye
October 8, 2020 4:26 pm

“Such false claims not only promote unnecessary fear and concern but work against taking steps that would actually help mitigate future future fires.”

Oh, but the fear is very much necessary. Look what they’re doing with a cold virus.

Jeremiah Puckett
October 8, 2020 8:44 pm

It’s undeniable that the earth HAS BEEN warming. Is it still? Is it because of man? I don’t think so. If it is, can man stop it? Can man reverse it? Is it too late? Is it cheaper to adapt instead of force habit changes across the planet? Will anything the USA and Europe does have any impact at all when China and India promised to continue increasing emissions for at least another decade? So many questions to be answered before we force radical changed upon billions of people.

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