South on Wildfires and Climate Change

Pages from south on fire

Thanks to the SAF Linked-In group for this one. Here is a link to a story about Dr. South’s testimony to the Senate Energy Committee.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

Untrue claims about the underlying cause of wildfires can spread like “wildfire.” For example, the false idea that “Wildfires in 2012 burned a record 9.2 million acres in the U.S.” is cited in numerous articles and is found on more than 2,000 web sites across the internet. In truth, many foresters know that in 1930, wildfires burned more than 4 times that amount. Wildfire in 2012 was certainly an issue of concern, but did those who push an agenda really need to make exaggerated claims to fool the public?

Here is a graph showing a decreasing trend in wildfires from 1930 to 1970 and an increasing trend in global carbon emissions. If we “cherry pick” data from 1926 to 1970 we get a negative relationship between area burned and carbon dioxide. However, if we “cherry pick” data from 1985 to 2013 we get a positive relationship. Neither relationship proves anything about the effects of carbon dioxide on wildfires since, during dry seasons, human activity is the overwhelming factor that determines both the number and size of wildfires.

(I (SF) would argue that changes in suppression tactics/capabilities/technology are difficult to separate from other factors over time).

And

Untrue claims about the underlying cause of wildfires can spread like “wildfire.” For example, the false idea that “Wildfires in 2012 burned a record 9.2 million acres in the U.S.” is cited in numerous articles and is found on more than 2,000 web sites across the internet. In truth, many foresters know that in 1930, wildfires burned more than 4 times that amount. Wildfire in 2012 was certainly an issue of concern, but did those who push an agenda really need to make exaggerated claims to fool the public?
Here is a graph showing a decreasing trend in wildfires from 1930 to 1970 and an increasing trend in global carbon emissions. If we “cherry pick” data from 1926 to 1970 we get a negative relationship between area burned and carbon dioxide. However, if we “cherry pick” data from 1985 to 2013 we get a positive relationship. Neither relationship proves anything about the effects of carbon dioxide on wildfires since, during dry seasons, human activity is the overwhelming factor that determines both the number and size of wildfires.

Anyone is welcome to find other quotes of interest.

When I was at work, I often wondered “what difference does it make whether and how much current fires conditions are caused by climate change or not?” (Many climate scientists say it is too late to fix short-term changes). Would it make a difference in the 1) fire resilience planning for communities? 2) strategy for fuel treatments? 3) fire suppression? If so, how?

Note:I’m not picking on Dr. South here, the question has been raised by journalists and others, so a debate needs to happen. My point is: given that all this is extremely complex, what difference would different answers make in practice?

21 Comments

  1. South compares fire occurrence to CO2 levels. Why not compare fire occurrence to temperature? He’s smart enough to know this is a more relevant comparison. I can only assume he was trying to mislead.

    Fires are undeniably related to climate conditions, which vary over cycles that are dacades-long driven by ocean surface temperature patterns. The warming from extra CO2 is an extra forcing that is on top of the natural variability in the climate system.

    The first few decades of the 20th century were warm (due to natural variability caused by ocean circulation) even though there was not as much CO2 back then. Currently, and in the future, the climate will be even warmer than it was during the first part of the 20th Century and will likely continue to warm for several centuries. The likelihood of increased fire occurrence is very high.

    • Oddly enough, it is the global warming alarmists who are convinced that catastrophic wildfires are “natural and beneficial”, too. They also think we need more of them, as well.

      This simple statistic shows why we’re more concerned about the costs, including post-fire costs, as well.

      2005 8.6 million acres burned $690 million dollars
      2006 9.8 million acres burned $1.5 BILLION dollars

      2006 was the year they decided to let more fires burn, turning $5000 lightning fires into $30,000,000 firestorms. Notice the difference?!?!?!? Did we really get over 800 million dollars worth of dubious “resources benefits” by letting fires burn? Ironically, fire managers continue to embrace this idea of “burning up” all of their annual budget dollars, and then some.

      • Larry, I think folks should “pick a lane” (as one of my colleagues used to say), or be consistent. If you believe that climate change has changed conditions (which I do, by the way) then there is no more such thing as “natural” ignitions, and so suppression tactics and strategies should not differ by origin of the ignitions. We are in a kind of bizarre philosophical space right now in which some flip back and forth about humans influencing the environment.

      • It was common, but not so much anymore, to see announced when looking at a current fire situation that the fire was being monitored for “resource benefit”. I do think there is a direct correlation between the “let it burn” philosophy and the increase in acreage burned and the cost of fires.
        And if you have ever worked on a fire salvage timber sale you can not help but be socked and appalled at the destruction and waste that these fires cause.
        As far as global warming goes if you have ever been in a forest that has burned and compare it with a green forests you will find that it is much hotter and drier in the burned forests. Not to mention all the dead trees that are no longer sequestering carbon.

    • 2nd Law… why would you assume that he’s “trying to mislead?” You seem to be saying that climate equals warming equals more fires. But he is looking at CO2 and fires, which is the comparison that some folks claim. That’s the most direct comparison.

      You seem to be saying that warming will lead to more fires in the future, which we won’t be able to see for sure because of the other climate cycles. That goes back to climate models, but “drying out” does not occur everywhere according to our current models.

      But what some folks are saying is that increased (number of, size of, etc.) fires are due to climate change right now.

      And finally you said in the future the likelihood is high of “occurrence”.. I think part of the problem of talking about this is that fire people have specific meanings of specific words and others don’t. So when you say “occurrence” it triggers in my mind “ignitions” which may or may not be higher…depending on what a person thinks (or their models show) about lightning and thunderstorms. In a specific place.

      Anyway, I think the key thing here is that there is a difference between saying “the fire problem in 2014 is due to climate change” and possibly when we see the definite fingerprint of CC in the future, there will be more (ignitions, acreage burned, suitable conditions for, or ?? of wildfires).

    • 2ndLaw

      Re: “I can only assume he was trying to mislead.”
      –> let me give you a reason to assume otherwise and maybe be a little less critical in the future –> The belief of a majority of climatologists is that global warming is the direct result of increased CO2 levels therefore, Dr. South is in effect using temperature since temperature and CO2 are directly related in the opinion of the climatologists. If that is not the case then all of the mankind induced global warming theories are instantly shown to be false since they hang on the premise that mankind is causing increased CO2 and therefore mankind is increasing Global Warming. Without linking temperature to mankind’s use of petrochemicals, mankind can’t be linked to Global Warming and therefore, short of constructing a solar shield around the earth, there is nothing that mankind can do about Global Warming. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

  2. I don’t think that Prof. South is trying to mislead, but correlations with either CO2 levels or temperature alone may be of limited value, because what is missing is a mechanistic link between those global phenomena and fire incidence, extent, or severity (different measures, as Sharon notes). It may make intuitive sense to link those things, but just pairing them on a graph is simplistic. Sharon’s point that “changes in suppression tactics/capabilities/technology are difficult to separate from other factors over time” is very relevant, as is Larry’s point about changes in general suppression philosophy. You could probably hire some sociologist to assign a number value to “enthusiasm for suppression”, then plot that against extent of fires over time, and get a nice inverse correlation, but it would only be part of the picture.

  3. If anyone is interested, here is the CSPAN video of the entire hearing. Dr. South’s testimony begins at approximately the 1 hour, 25 minute mark. There is also some Q/A towards the end of the video.

    Also of potential interest is that Senator Tester was invited to speak on the panel, and I couldn’t help but notice that he appeared, well, a little flustered and testy, even using the word “damn” two times, which seemed a little inappropriate in the context of a this hearing. Tester’s testimony is at about the 20 minute mark.

    Senator Tester, when talking about bark beetles, actually said, “You go south of Flathead Lake, our forests are dead.” What’s curious is that I live in Missoula and do, from time-to-time, go “south of Flathead Lake” and I’ve never actually witnessed that “our forests are dead.” Perhaps I just wasn’t looking hard enough.

  4. Sharon…. I notice no one has answered your question: “Would it make a difference in the 1) fire resilience planning for communities? 2) strategy for fuel treatments? 3) fire suppression?”

    Regarding #1, the more some university-foresters blame wildfires on CO2, the harder it will be for practicing foresters to convince communities of a need to fuel loads. My guess is it will have no effect on #2 and #3.

  5. Hello everyone: Long time, no comment, but this is a topic of particular interest to me and I’m finally catching up on some things that have been taking up most of my time the past few months. I have been citing this discussion and Dr. South’s Congressional testimony quite a bit the past several days due to recent wildfire events and governmental and NGO pronouncements in Oregon and Washington on this topic:

    http://www.ktvz.com/news/forest-service-chief-visits-high-desert/27165542

    http://discussions.seattletimes.com/comments/2024164930

    In addition to Chief Tidwell and The Nature Conservancy drawing the relationship between Global Warming and increased wildfires, even the President is making such unsubstantiated claims:

    http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Obama-attributes-wildfires-to-climate-change-268204872.html

    So it is a lot more than “some university-foresters” promoting this misinformation, and the underlying purpose in these accounts seems to be to raise more money from taxpayers. My PhD was in the study of catastrophic wildfire history in western Oregon over the past 500 years and it exactly supports what Dr. South is saying — this is political propaganda, not science, and the study of actual scientific methodology is becoming tarnished in the process.

    On a related side note, the sharp decline in forest fires following WW II, as shown in the graph, can be largely accounted for by the massive improvements and increases in technology, clearcutting, and roadbuilding that followed the War and were related to the national housing boom and to surplus war equipment and communications systems: firefighting became more efficient with airplanes and cats instead of lookout towers and pulaskis; access to spot fires became much better with new networks of improved logging roads; and large areas of fuels were removed from the forests to make homes, fuels, and paper products.

    The recent uptick in wildfires coincides with the creation of Wilderness areas, ESA “habitat” set-asides, riparian buffers and “let-it-burn” wildfire policies on our federal lands, as discussed many times on this blog. To blame these events on “climate change” (there’s a political nonsense phrase for you — when has the world ever had a “stable,” non-changing climate?) is irresponsible, and has permeated our government and universities and the NGO “science” that is dependent on both. In my opinion.

    In Oregon, as elsewhere, we need rural jobs and improved economies for our mostly-federally-owned forested counties. A return to scientific management of our forest resources would address both needs, as well as better protecting human and wildlife populations and improving our air and waterways and the stability of desired habitat conditions.

    Please note that “returning to scientific management” is not the same thing as “returning to the old ways of doing things,” as Larry has repeatedly pointed out. It means using modern technology and current (“documented”) knowledge to scientifically manage our forests — both of which have dramatically improved in the past 20-40 years. Models could and should be used in this process, but they definitely are only tools, not leaders or oracles, and should be used as such.

    • In some areas, it takes persistence and perseverance to grow an old growth forest. The Indians, here in the Sierra Nevada, spent a lot of effort to “manage” their forests, to serve their needs and standard of living. Oh, and there’s also that survival thing of avoiding crown fires and old growth mortality.

      I notice that the Foresta area in Yosemite is re-burning, yet again. There’s not a lot of fuels to burn anymore but, the flashy fuels are bone dry and fire spreads fast. Yes, we can expect that unsalvaged parts of the Rim Fire, which burned at moderate to high intensities, will become moonscapes when they burn again, just like the Foresta area.

      We might find that we actually have to “cultivate” old growth forests when conifers aren’t growing back. Will it be 5 years from now or 50 years from now that we learn from the last 50 years?

  6. The White House science advisor John Holdren disagrees with my figure above as tells the public that the worst 8 years of wildfires (area burned) “on record” have occurred since the year 2000.
    Here is his 3-minute explanation….

    • What he forgot to say is that this just increases the need for sound forest management to adjust stand density accordingly in order maintain stand vigor at its highest level possible to at least partially compensate for global warming.

    • Of course, Holdren is just plain wrong. Here’s one of many citations that contradicts him: “In fact, the annual area burned by large fires during the pre-Euro-American settlement period is much larger than the annual area burned by large fires today, in some places by an order of magnitude (Arno 1980; Barrett et al. 1997).”

      It goes without saying that Dr. Holdren has no professional expertise in fire ecology; he’s an aeronautics physicist. So, who wrote his talking points? CEQ? EPA? OMB? Lord knows, we must pray that the Forest Service had no role in writing or reviewing this drivel.

      Rhetorical question: “Will the Forest Service issue a public statement respectfully correcting Dr. Holdren?” Any bets?

  7. For those close to Auburn, AL

    SFWS Seminar Series:
    Wildfires In Relation to CO2
    When: October 8, 2014 @ 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
    Where: SWFS Building; Room 1101
    Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Building
    602 Duncan Drive, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849

    Title: Has Extra CO2 Increased the Number of Wildfires?
    Abstract: We are living in an age where just about anything is blamed on the an increase in CO2…(even cold events like the polar vortex). Some journalists (and others) now blame recent wildfires on anthropogenic global warming. Although it is true, that a large number of wildfires in the USA are caused by humans, there is no hard evidence that (independent on fuel loads), CO2 affects wildfires. Some short-term, cherry-picked data, do show a positive correlation while others show a negative correlation. Even so, several politicians claim the number and size of wildfires are a direct result of an increase in CO2. On June 3rd, 2014, Dr. South testified to a Senate subcommittee regarding wildfire trends in the USA. This seminar will cover some of his Senate testimony.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *