Is climate change the culprit causing California’s wildfires?

“If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen. We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.” — Stephen Pyne, professor at Arizona State University (source: National Geographic).

(1) Those California Wildfires!

“Gov. Jerry Brown surveyed the devastation Saturday in Ventura …calling it ‘the new normal.’ …“This could be something that happens every year or every few years.’” {Source: LAT.}
Climate change is causing more wildfires! Or so we are told. That is a zombie climate myths — repeatedly said, repeatedly debunked by scientists, but too useful to die. When Brown made this claim in 2015 even the LAT said that “Gov. Brown’s link between climate change and wildfires is unsupported, fire experts say.” “{C}limate scientists’ computer models show only that global warming will bring consistently hotter weather in future decades. Their predictions that warming will bring more forest fires — mostly in the Rockies and at other higher elevations, while fires may actually decrease in Southern California — also are for future decades. Even in a warmer world, they say, land management policies will have the greatest effect on the prevalence and intensity of fire. … “‘There is insufficient data,’ said U.S. Forest Service ecologist Matt Jolly. His work shows that over the last 30 years, California has had an average of 18 additional days per year that are conducive to fire. … “Today’s forest fires are indeed larger than those of the past, said National Park Service climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez. At a symposium sponsored by Brown’s administration, Gonzalez presented research attributing that trend to policies of fighting the fires, which create thick underlayers of growth, rather than allowing them to burn. ‘We are living right now with a legacy of unnatural fire suppression of approximately a century,’ Gonzalez told attendees. … “Fire behavior specialist Jeff Shelton, who provided daily forecasts for the Rocky fire and, later, the Jerusalem fire, said he could not attribute their behavior to climate change. He cited the summer’s dry weather, an abundance of fuel created by a lack of previous fires, and steep slopes that allowed the fires to spread quickly. Ecologists said their behavior was typical of natural chaparral fires, which burn infrequently but intensely. … “‘They are more and more common because we have more and more fuels,’ said Joaquin Ramirez of Technosylva, an international fire modeling company based in San Diego. … Bureau of Land Management fire manager Jeff Tunnell {said} ‘One hundred years of fire suppression is building fuel beds,’ Tunnell said. ‘Almost any year can produce a fire like this one.’” See the current wildfire stats compared to recent years. For a detailed debunking see this by Cliff Mass: “Are California Coastal Wildfires Connected With Global Warming: The Evidence Says No.” He is a Professor of Atmospheric Science at U WA. A world on fire

(2) But US wildfires are getting worse! Unprecedented!

(a) See the graph that must not be seen, so journalists never show it.

This myth has repeatedly been debunked, but is too useful to die. David B. South, Emeritus Professor, of Forestry at Auburn U, showed the actual data in his Senate testimony on 3 June 2014 (page 2). Bjorn Lomborg posted an updated version of his graph, using the same sources. Click to enlarge graph. Excerpt… “Fires in California and elsewhere are devastating. But US fires are nowhere near the record. More likely about one-fifth of the records in 1930 and 1931. Reuters (along with many others), tell us the current US fires are historic … “Yet, the official historical data of the United States tells a different story. Look at the Historical Statistics of the United StatesColonial Times to 1970 (p537). There we have statistics for area burnt since 1926 and up to 1970. Reassuringly, the data for 1960-1970 *completely overlap* (that from the National Interagency Fire Center}. This is the same data series. “And when you look at the whole data series, *every year* from 1926-1952 – over a quarter of a century – saw higher, and mostly much higher forest areas burnt than the modern record set in 2015. “This is not (as some have suggested) an artifact of the US gradually being deforested (and hence having less land to burn). The USDA Forest Service in their Historical Overview (p7) finds that the US “forest area has been relatively stable since 1910” – if anything slightly increasing since 1910 (which would help push up the burnt area slightly).”

US acres burned 1926-2017

(b) Incidence of wildfires in North America 1600-2000. Peaked in mid-19th C.

Multiscale perspectives of fire, climate and humans in western North America and the Jemez Mountains, USA” by Thomas W. Swetnam et al. in Phil Trans B, 5 June 2016. Fires peaked in the mid-19th century! Click to enlarge the graph. “The combined record of fire occurrence from more than 800 sites in western North America shows relatively high fire frequency prior to ca 1900, and a high degree of synchrony in both large and small fire years. The 15 largest and smallest fire years are labelled. A pronounced decrease in fire frequency occurred at the time of Euro-American settlement, coinciding approximately with the arrival of railroads, intensive livestock grazing, removal of many Native American populations, and subsequently organized and mechanized fire fighting by government agencies.”

Wildfires in North America 1600-2000

(c) A smaller and more precise record: fires in Yosemite National Park. Peaked in mid-19th C.

Climatic and human influences on fire regimes in mixed conifer forests in Yosemite National Park, USA” by Alan H. Taylor and Andrew E. Scholl in Forest Ecology and Management, 1 March 2012 (gated). Different data, same pattern — a peak in the mid-19th century, followed by a long decline. Click to enlarge. Wildfires in Yosemite National Park: 1600-2000. Wildfires in Yosemite National Park 1600-2000

(3) What about the rest of the world?

The rest of the world never shared our Smokey the Bear obsession about preventing forest fires. This study shows that the total global area burned per year is less today than centuries ago — and the area has declined during the past few decades. See “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world” by Stefan H. Doerr and Cristina Santín in Phil Trans B, 5 June 2016. Red emphasis added. “Wildfire has been an important process affecting the Earth’s surface and atmosphere for over 350 million years and human societies have coexisted with fire since their emergence. Yet many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. “However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago. “Regarding fire severity, limited data are available. For the western USA, they indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement. Direct fatalities from fire and economic losses also show no clear trends over the past three decades. Trends in indirect impacts, such as health problems from smoke or disruption to social functioning, remain insufficiently quantified to be examined. “Global predictions for increased fire under a warming climate highlight the already urgent need for a more sustainable coexistence with fire. The data evaluation presented here aims to contribute to this by reducing misconceptions and facilitating a more informed understanding of the realities of global fire.”

Wildfire occurrence (a) & area burnt (b) in the European Mediterranean region during 1980–2010.

Phil TransB - long-term trend in wildfires

Phil TransB - long-term trend in wildfires

(4) Essential reading to understand the origins of these fires

How Fire, Once a Friend of Forests, Became a Destroyer” by Michelle Nijhuis in National Geographic — “The roots of today’s massive wildfires, says historian and former firefighter Stephen Pyne, lie in the old misconception that all fire is bad.” Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University (see his website), studying the history of wildfire and wildland firefighting in the U.S. and the world. Here are two key points, looking at the results of a century of fire suppression in the US — and looking forward. “There’s a huge cost to removing all fires from landscapes that have grown up accustomed to them. Fuels — dry wood, leaves, other materials — build up in the forest, and the whole ecological integrity of the system unravels. Simply trying to eliminate fire helps to promote conditions in most places that make for more severe fires with larger consequences and damages, making them more uncontrollable. It costs more and more money to try to keep a lid on the situation, so there’s an economic cost. There’s also a cost in lives — civilian lives, and firefighter lives. … “Sustainability is an overused and sloppy term, but this is not a sustainable project. We cannot continue to do this. … “We’re not helpless. We can keep these fires from burning prized assets if we wish. But I think managed wildfire is an acknowledgement that despite our bold talk, we’re not going to get ahead of the problem, and that we have to manage it. The climate, the fuels, the invasive species, the insect outbreaks, and whatever else is coming at us — there’s no way we’re going to get ahead of most of this stuff. We’re only going to do that very selectively.” The LAT discusses how we got here and how to better cope in the future: “California’s deadliest wildfires were decades in the making. ‘We have forgotten what we need to do to prevent it’.” The same debate is taking place in Canada, with fires blamed on climate change, while most scientists disagree. Such as Blair King’s “We Can’t Blame Climate Change For The Fort McMurray Fires” at the HuffPost (he’s an environmental scientist) and “Science not there: global warming not fueling Alberta’s wildfire” by Thomas Richard at the Examiner.

(5) A look at some of the peer-reviewed literature about fires

Red emphasis added. (a) Always start with the IPCC: from Working Group 1 report of AR5, section 6.8.1. This does not support claims of increased fires today, or that we will see large increases in the near future. “Models predict spatially variable responses in fire activity, including strong increases and decreases, due to regional variations in the climate–fire relationship, and anthropogenic interference. Wetter conditions can reduce fire activity, but increased biomass availability can increase fire emissions. Using a land surface model and future climate projections from two GCMs, Kloster et al. (2012) projected fire carbon emissions in 2075–2099 that exceed present-day emissions by 17 to 62% depending on scenario. Future fire activity will also depend on anthropogenic factors especially related to land use change.” (b) Using Fire Return Interval Departure (FRID) Analysis to Map Spatial and Temporal Changes in Fire Frequency on National Forest Lands in California” by Hugh D. Safford and Kip M. Van de Water, US Forest Service research paper, January 2014. A detailed look at the fire history of Northern and Southern California. (c) Examining Historical and Current Mixed-Severity Fire Regimes in Ponderosa Pine and Mixed-Conifer Forests of Western North America” by Dennis C. Odion et al. at PLoS ONE, 14 February 2014 — Abstract. “There is widespread concern that fire exclusion has led to an unprecedented threat of uncharacteristically severe fires in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex. Laws) and mixed-conifer forests of western North America. These extensive montane forests are considered to be adapted to a low/moderate-severity fire regime that maintained stands of relatively old trees. “However, there is increasing recognition from landscape-scale assessments that, prior to any significant effects of fire exclusion, fires and forest structure were more variable in these forests. Biota in these forests are also dependent on the resources made available by higher-severity fire. A better understanding of historical fire regimes in the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America is therefore needed to define reference conditions and help maintain characteristic ecological diversity of these systems. “We compiled landscape-scale evidence of historical fire severity patterns in the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests from published literature sources and stand ages available from the Forest Inventory and Analysis program in the USA. The consensus from this evidence is that the traditional reference conditions of low-severity fire regimes are inaccurate for most forests of western North America. Instead, most forests appear to have been characterized by mixed-severity fire that included ecologically significant amounts of weather-driven, high-severity fire. “Diverse forests in different stages of succession, with a high proportion in relatively young stages, occurred prior to fire exclusion. Over the past century, successional diversity created by fire decreased. Our findings suggest that ecological management goals that incorporate successional diversity created by fire may support characteristic biodiversity, whereas current attempts to “restore” forests to open, low-severity fire conditions may not align with historical reference conditions in most ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of western North America.” (d) Extreme Fire Season in California: A Glimpse Into the Future?” by Jin-Ho Yoon et al. in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, December 2015 — Conclusion: “Our result, based on the CESM1 outputs, indicates that man-made global warming is likely one of the causes that will exacerbate the areal extent and frequency of extreme fire risk, though the influence of internal climate variability on the 2014 and the future fire season is difficult to ascertain.” (e) Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests” by John T. Abatzogloua and A. Park Williams in PNAS, 18 October 2016. “Increased forest fire activity across the western United States in recent decades has contributed to widespread forest mortality, carbon emissions, periods of degraded air quality, and substantial fire suppression expenditures. “Although numerous factors aided the recent rise in fire activity, observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems. We demonstrate that human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984. This analysis suggests that anthropogenic climate change will continue to chronically enhance the potential for western US forest fire activity while fuels are not limiting.” Although this is an outlier in the literature, it is endlessly cited. This study ignores the effect of “suppression and wildland fire use policies, ignitions, land cover (e.g., exurban development), and vegetation changes”, although they “have likely added to the area burned across the western US forests.” (f) Human-started wildfires expand the fire niche across the United States” by Jennifer K. Balcha et al. in PNAS, 14 March 2017. See an interview with the lead author in “Who is starting all those wildfires? We are” by Warren Cornwall in Science, 12 September 2017. Abstract. “The economic and ecological costs of wildfire in the United States have risen substantially in recent decades. Although climate change has likely enabled a portion of the increase in wildfire activity, the direct role of people in increasing wildfire activity has been largely overlooked. We evaluate over 1.5 million government records of wildfires that had to be extinguished or managed by state or federal agencies from 1992 to 2012, and examined geographic and seasonal extents of human-ignited wildfires relative to lightning-ignited wildfires. “Humans have vastly expanded the spatial and seasonal “fire niche” in the coterminous United States, accounting for 84% of all wildfires and 44% of total area burned. During the 21-y time period, the human-caused fire season was three times longer than the lightning-caused fire season and added an average of 40,000 wildfires per year across the United States. Human-started wildfires disproportionally occurred where fuel moisture was higher than lightning-started fires, thereby helping expand the geographic and seasonal niche of wildfire. Human-started wildfires were dominant (>80% of ignitions) in over 5.1 million km2 , the vast majority of the United States, whereas lightning-started fires were dominant in only 0.7 million km2 , primarily in sparsely populated areas of the mountainous western United States. “Ignitions caused by human activities are a substantial driver of overall fire risk to ecosystems and economies. Actions to raise awareness and increase management in regions prone to human-started wildfires should be a focus of United States policy to reduce fire risk and associated hazards.”   This article appeared on the Climate Etc. website at https://judithcurry.com/2017/12/13/is-climate-change-the-culprit-causing-californias-wildfires/]]>

Subscribe to Our Informative Weekly Newsletter Here:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.