Taxpayer Science: Global Warming is Killing our Forests with Fire

More publicly-funded political science, this time from the University of Utah:

Here’s a quote: “It’s not just something that is localized to forest or grasslands or deserts,” said lead study author Phil Dennison, a geographer at the University of Utah. “Every region in the West is experiencing an increase in fire. These fire trends are very consistent with everything we know about how climate change should impact fire in the West,” Dennison told LiveScience.
Actually, this type of taxpayer-funded BS is NOT consistent with everything we know about how climate change should impact fire in the West,” despite Dr. Dennison’s assertions. It’s not even consistent with “anything we know” at all, except that unmanaged forests in the western US will predictably burn in place if they are not actively managed. It is a fuel management problem — as I have pointed out for many years — clear and simple, and I have publicly predicted these fires for more than 20 years for that reason alone.
These fires are predictable and preventable and seem to mostly take place on passively managed public lands. Seasonal weather patterns are an important factor and “climate change” is a paid-for conclusion. Untended fuels are the real problem, and addressing those would put thousands of people to work and billions of dollars into our treasuries. Apparently that is not a good thing. Big Timber doesn’t like competition.
There is a reason that Democrats pay for and swallow this stuff while Republicans remain skeptical. It’s a political issue, not scientific. My principal concern, though, is not the waste of taxpayer dollars promoting a political agenda so much as actual scientific methodology is being publicly degraded in the process. As evidenced by these kinds of statements and conclusions. Maybe there’s a pony in there somewhere.

33 thoughts on “Taxpayer Science: Global Warming is Killing our Forests with Fire”

  1. why is this so contentious Bob? It doesn’t seem that outlandish to say that sustained warmer and drier conditions will lead to more fires. Your point that unmanaged forests are more prone to fire isn’t outlandish either (we may not all agree on all the details, but it certainly isn’t an illogical position). I don’t think it’s all clear and simple though, maybe you’re both right? Regardless of one’s position on why it’s hotter and drier lately, the evidence seems pretty strong that compared to the relatively cool and moist years that you and I grew up in, that honeymoon is over. I mean, damn, it’s only April and I’ve already packed my skis away.

    • Hi Guy:

      This particular issue is one that has bothered me for quite a while. Twenty years ago I was on the cover a national magazine partly because my research was showing that we would be facing much larger and more destructive fires if we didn’t start managing the fuels better. This was in direct response to anti-logging “critical habitat” designations that were supposed to “protect” old-growth and encourage animal species associated with those plants.

      At about the same time I delivered a paper at an international symposium on Global Warming funded by EPA that showed weather patterns had been — and continued to be — fairly stable in the Pacific Northwest for at least 500 years. That report went straight from the printers to a closet shelf somewhere. Then we really started having the predicted wildfires at the turn of the century and suddenly everyone was hopping on the “Global Warming” bandwagon, ignoring the basic management issue and strengthening the anti-CO2 lobby. All at an enormous expense to the public.

      The blanket statements in this article about “predictions” and “cause and effect” strike me as outdated rationales that need to be seriously challenged, not presented as either accurate predictions (which were actually made by me and several others years ago, using entirely different criteria), or as verifying models built with taxpayer money that keep coming up wrong. So I (again) took it personal.

      If you want to go back to similar (or worse) drought conditions, the 1930’s work — and we did have more large fires at that time. The cooler 50’s and 60’s were also periods of massive clear cutting and road building, coupled with new forest management technologies and equipment. From my perspective, the Global Warming speculation has not been justified by actual facts or by experience and shouldn’t be so glibly promoted. I think it’s down the wrong path and has already caused too much human misery, economic waste, dead wildlife, and ruined habitat. We have the tools to make things better, and stuff like this comes across, to me, as feeble — and costly — excuses. Which bothers me (probably too much) and causes me to become contentious when it keeps rearing its ugly head. Where is the alternative hypothesis in this study? Especially one that has proven to be predictable and seemingly accurate? Now I’ll take a deep breath and open a blue oil can Fosters. It is Friday evening, after all.

  2. IMHO there is no single “cause” for the current insect/fire situation in the west. Rather, a combination of interactive factors are in operation. Forest non-management is major contributor to the problem and solutions are known and achievable, if we have the have the political will. Climate change, on the other hand, is a far more significant, and intransigent, while the problem and its solution are far more elusive. Perhaps our immediate focus should be on solving the more readily solvable, while acknowledging and seeking solutions to the larger issue.

    Bob, You’re right that climate change is a political (perhaps, more accurately, a sociological), not a scientific, issue. It would seem that the reality of climate change is now being denied most vigorously by those who think the moon landing was staged on the Arizona desert, teaching evolution is the devil’s work, and the earth is only 7,000 years old. I’m not sure what is meant by labeling climate change a “paid-for conclusion” but I’m placing my bets with the National Academy of Sciences rather than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

    • Hi Mac:

      The “paid for” charge has to do with the vast amount of Global Warming research dollars that has been pumped into our agencies and universities the past 25 years. I think you’re right about the sociological issues, too, but the Democrat/Republican divide on Global Warming is more than just a red flag. Too, I really don’t go for the “science by vote” approach of the NAS anymore than I go for talk radio science. There seems to be way too much promotion and intolerance among too many scientists getting paid to study “climate change,” and a lot of scientific misdirection as a result. Aristotle presented this fallacy in the argumentum ad populum approach of NAS and others; Einstein said it only took “one man” to prove his theories wrong; and Eisenhower warned about government-funded science consensus. I think that is what we are looking at now, in my opinion, and I think it is doing a lot more damage than good.

      I like Michael Crichton’s take on this issue:

      “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

      “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

      “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

  3. There is no evidence to support the assertions that “forests in the western US will predictably burn in place if they are not actively managed” AND wildfires are “predictable and preventable.”

    The evidence seems to indicate that fires are not preventable, that forests will burn whether or not they are “managed.” In fact, managed forests may be more vulnerable to fire spread and canopy damage.

    The evidence also indicates that fires are not predictable, at least not the timing and location and intensity of fires. Analyses of fire probability indicates that for every acre treated to reduce fuels only 1-in-10 or 1-in-100 might actually experience fire before the treatment is rendered ineffective by predictable ingrowth.

    The March 2003 Wildfire Effects Evaluation Project for the Umpqua National Forest clearly documents the disproportionate fire intensity of young managed vs. mature unmanaged stands. (“The young vegetation, including plantations, experienced a disproportionately high amount of stand replacement mortality caused by crown fires as compared to older, unmanaged forests. … Plantations had a tendency to increase the rate of fire spread and increased the overall area of stand replacement fire effects by spreading to neighboring stands.” p 4 “This early seral vegetation pattern, and the types and arrangement of fuels present, increased the fire’s rate of spread and the area of stand replacement fire effects.” p 64.)

    The 2000 National Forest Roadless Area Conservation FEIS (p 3-92 -93) noted the fire hazard associated with regen logging:

    [E]arly successional vegetative growth often forms into dense thickets that create a highly flammable situation. New tree growth, whether from natural regeneration or planted nursery stock, produces needles and twigs that become the fine fuel that contributes to wildland fire spread. … Post-harvest fuel conditions commonly found in some managed forests prompt many scientists to conclude that harvested forests have a higher propensity for large, severe wildland fires than forests that have not been harvested. A recent report by the National Research Council (2000) speaks to the issue of post-harvest fuel management in Pacific Northwest forests.

    “Logging has been proposed as a possible surrogate for fire in reducing fuel accumulation with the added benefit of economic return (Agee 1993), but logging and clearcutting do not necessarily reduce flammable fuels…rapid regeneration of early-successional shrubs and trees can create highly flammable fuel conditions within a few years of cutting. Without adequate treatment of small woody residues, logging may exacerbate fire risk rather than lower it (Agee 1993)…”

    Those who cannot see and understand this need to evaluate the degree to which their prejudices are influencing their ability to think clearly about forests.

    • Yes, you CAN predict where fires will burn hot, and since, in many places, fires WILL burn in the next ecological nano-second, shouldn’t we be doing something about reducing fire sizes and intensities? With a “shortening” of winters, in some areas, fire suppression resources will continue to be scarce, causing more fires to be monitored, instead of being fought. There are multiple variables that need to be included into any analysis of “climate change” and its effects upon overstocked and unhealthy forests. It does seem to me that climate alarmists are also the ones who favors zero forest mitigation efforts, preferring a “faith-based” restoration scheme.

        • Yes, predicting areas where wildfires are most apt to “burn hot” is so common sense and simple that even Carnac the Magnificent could do it. From a television studio.

        • I base my observations upon 17 seasons directly working in fire-related programs, including salvage logging, firefighting and working as a fire lookout. I’ve worked on many large and destructive wildfires, including the Biscuit. the McNally, Rabbit Creek, the Bitterroot Fires, and the Moonlight Fires. I’ve also worked on 25 different National Forests, in 11 different States, “so, I got THAT going for me”.

      • Your reference to “ecological nanosecond” applies equally to the time period that fuel treatments remain effective, that is, until forest growth erases any benefits in terms of modified fire behavior. In fact, the treatment effectiveness is a fraction of a nano-second compared to the de facto fire return interval for a given site in the western U.S. That is why treatments need to be extremely widespread in order to influence fire at a meaningful scale, and why the ecological effects of such widespread logging are unacceptable.

        • Tree rings in the central Sierra Nevada say that fires burn every 10-15 years. That hasn’t been so, in the last century, having larger and more intense fires, about every 40 years, keeping some conifer forests at bay. We can certainly see the long-term effectiveness of the expert burning techniques of the California Indians. I am confident that doing something, according to site-specific conditions, is much better than doing nothing, and accepting “whatever happens”.

    • 2ndLaw

      I have dedicated my life since age 18 (50+ years) to understanding forestry and I would stack my love for forest ecosystems and my commitment to doing what is right for forest ecosystems and the global good over the long term against just about anyone. Please consider what I have said below and then try to understand that I have very good reasons to see your grasping at a few studies that support your current views as a very narrow and self defeating way to go about saving such a broad and complex entity as our national and global forest ecosystems.

      Those who do not understand the basic principles as explained here and here are doomed to destroy the very thing that they proclaim to want to save.

      Re your quote: “The evidence seems to indicate that fires are not preventable, that forests will burn whether or not they are “managed.” In fact, managed forests may be more vulnerable to fire spread and canopy damage.
      The evidence also indicates that fires are not predictable, at least not the timing and location and intensity of fires. Analyses of fire probability indicates that for every acre treated to reduce fuels only 1-in-10 or 1-in-100 might actually experience fire before the treatment is rendered ineffective by predictable ingrowth.”
      –> What is your source for the “evidence” you proclaim? I see conjecture / wishful thinking / unproven hypotheses when I see the word “may” in statements like “managed forests may be more vulnerable” especially when contrasted with the established science noted here.
      –> Which is it “1-in-10 or 1-in-100” or is this just more conjecture? Again, where is the hard science in “might”
      –> Yes, ingrowth can defeat a one time fuel reduction treatment. BUT, that isn’t sound forest management. Sound forest management requires a combination of multiple treatments by using non-revenue generating treatments such as control burns or other treatments at site specific appropriate intervals in between thinnings and regeneration harvests that pay for themselves by providing revenue while at the same time maintaining a healthy landscape level forest ecosystem for all of the endangered and non-endangered species.

      Why do you accept such damning conclusions from a single study in the Umpqua NF when you ignore the time proven preponderance of evidence to the contrary as noted here? Did you even consider that there may be confounding factors particular to management or other exogenous variables on the Umpqua that might negate such broad conclusions as you draw from this study?

      Have you compared the annual % acres destroyed by fires on National Forests versus that on soundly managed industrial forests? Have you considered that Uncle Sam only owns 113 million acres of timberland and has tremendously huge losses every year i.e. the RIM fire while the other 401 million US acres of timberland has relatively miniscule losses even in the worst of years? See Table 884 here for the breakout of timberland acreage by owner – See the daily news during fire season to see whose land is burning – Can’t you see the preponderance of evidence that is stacked up against your viewpoint? Climate change is real for everyone, it doesn’t just occur on Federal timberlands. The increased risk of wildfire from global warming only makes sound forest management even more important in order to mitigate that increase in risk.

      Re your quote: “The 2000 National Forest Roadless Area Conservation FEIS (p 3-92 -93) noted the fire hazard associated with regen logging” and “rapid regeneration of early-successional shrubs and trees can create highly flammable fuel conditions within a few years of cutting. Without adequate treatment of small woody residues, logging may exacerbate fire risk rather than lower it (Agee 1993)… ”
      –> Yes, it “can create highly flammable fuel conditions within a few years of cutting” but if this occurs to any significant degree then we are not talking about sound forest management which would have assessed the site prior to any harvest and tailored a logging and regeneration plan to minimize such occurrences in order to minimize the risk of damage to the landscape level forest ecosystem. Such a plan could include a higher residual basal area shelterwood system which would lead to reduced regeneration and a two storied stand where ignition of the understory would not have any ladders to climb into the overstory.

  4. 2nd Law:

    If these fires are not predictable, then how have I and others been able to predict them? Here is a quote from an interview I did with Evergreen Magazine in 1994 (p. 22):

    Evergreen: What do you think will happen in the region’s forests if the President’s plan is implemented as proposed?

    Zybach: I share the concerns of Dr. Oliver and other forest scientists who fear catastrophic wildfire. There is a tremendous amount of dead and dying material in our forests today, a partial result of the long ago made decision to put out wildfires. If these forests are not thinned, you will see wildfires reminiscent of the Tillamook burn, the 1910 fires, and the Yellowstone fire. I don’t think the public is willing to accept the loss of life and the loss of forests associated with fires this big, and it will not matter to most people that the government’s scientists think these fires are “good” because they are “natural.”

    Here is a link to two articles I wrote predicting Oregon’s 2012 wildfires (“Oregon’s 2012 Wildfires: Predictable and Preventable”), one before fire season, where I mapped out the most likely locations of wildfires that year, and then another one after the wildfire season, which closely matched my documented predictions:

    By “preventable” I don’t mean that all wildfires can be prevented, because of course they can’t, only that their size and intensity can be modified by better distribution of fuels across the landscape, for which Gil has provided a number of supporting documents. Global Warming isn’t a factor in these predictions, but land management actions are critical. And I am including the decision to do nothing as an “action.”

    So far as the Umpqua Fire you mention, it seems to be an anomaly, in which burn patterns did not match most other wildfires in the region, before or since. We can discuss why this may have been so, but it was hardly a common pattern. One (major) reason it has been discussed so much. How about the Rainbow and Boze fires in the same basin several years later, or this year’s Whiskey fire? They are far more typical, occurred in the same subbasin of the South Umpqua, and crowned out, killing everything, including lots of old-growth. Predictably.

    I’d take that last sentence of yours to the mirror, Mr. Law — it seems to more closely match your own biases than it does my own personal observations and research findings.

  5. By the way, the underlying point of Bob’s post, that human causes climate change is “BS” is even more laughable than the fire and fuel science questions that this post has stimulated. It is another prime example of some people being unable to logically evaluate evidence or clearly see reality through the dense jungle of their own mind’s biases.

    “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” Tolstoy

    The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” JFK

    “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” — Mark Twain

    “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” Saul Bellow

    “How hard it is, sometimes, to trust the evidence of one’s senses! How reluctantly the mind consents to reality.” – Norman Douglas

    • 2nd Law:

      Your snide inferences are exactly the type of trolling I try to avoid by not engaging with people in public forums that are too cowardly to use their own names. I’d mirror those quotes, too, and maybe do a little introspection before continuing to insult people from the safety of a phony persona.

      “People who know everything typically know nothing else.” Something like that.

  6. So 2nd law is saying there is nothing to be gained by harvesting trees in the hope of lessening the impact of fire. I am wondering what he would think about putting the fires out when they start. Most of the large fires could of been if the agencies in charge would of had the resources and will to put them out. A lot of old growth would still be alive today. Every time I drive up the north umpqua I am reminded of all the old growth we have lost under our current management policies.

    • BobS

      What 2ndLaw is saying is that only he knows what literature is appropriate and that he doesn’t even need an appropriate education to know what is best as opposed to those with decades of knowledge studying, applying and validating the appropriate sciences. I guess that’s because he’s a lawyer or appears to claim that he is. Sounds like he ought to get into politics where he and all of the rest of the lawyers can get things straightened out. Oh, yea, I forgot, they are the ones who have messed things up in congress along with the most thoroughly documented lawyer liar in the white house since Tricky Dick.

      • Yep, almost half of Congress is populated by lawyers. Who knew that lawyers would be so very bad at making laws? Since we cannot vote the people out who need to go, we desperately need term limits. Just say no to career politicians!

  7. How can someone get a grant and paid for something so obvious?

    Okay, let’s pretend climate change is a fact and we are going to have a different evaporative curve, even if the amount of water dropped is the same.
    Let’s say that evaporation loss before the water hits the dirt goes up 40 percent (which doesn’t take that much from a zero-point of O Celsius). A 90 degree day moves considerably less water than a 100 degree day.
    So, instead of 100 water units a year per stick, which each stick needs to grow and become holy old growth, we have 60 units net to the rootwad. What’s the response if you KNOW that’s gonna happen? Either get your fuel down to where each stick gets 100 units, or it all goes to heck because all your sticks are already dead tinder.
    But that’s too simple.

    • LarryK

      Don’t know if your cryptic comment is in agreement with what I saw in your Excellent Link: Forest Management is needed as these quotes reveal: – “Northern forests lack age-class diversity and will uniformly grow old without management interventions or natural disturbances”
      – “A low propensity or low capacity for forest management reduces options for addressing perceived problems such as low forest diversity, invasive species, and other insects or disease problems”

  8. The scale of carbon emissions associated with industrial activity and land clearing is leading to a rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) at a rate unprecedented in the Cainozoic record, excepting events triggered by global volcanic eruptions, large asteroid impacts and methane release. Such an evidence is leading to attempts at classification of a new geological era—the Anthropocene. The era has been defined in terms of the onset of the modern industrial age and its acceleration since about 1950. On one hand, it could be from the onset of Neolithic agriculture and gradual rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) since ∼6000 years ago and methane since ∼4000 years ago. On the other hand, it may be an amalgamation of factors in an era referred to as the Palaeoanthropocene. This paper suggests the defining point leading to the Anthropocene and subsequently the 6th mass extinction of species hinges on the mastery of fire and thereby the magnification of energy output and entropy in nature over which, in the long term, the species has no control. The discoveries of ignition of fire and its transfer have rendered Homo a unique genus from the minimum age of >1.8 million years (Ma) ago, regarded as a turning point in biological evolution and termed here Early Anthropocene. The onset of the Neolithic, allowed by stabilization of the Holocene climate, is referred to as the Middle Anthropocene, while the onset of the industrial age since about 1750 AD is referred to as the Late Anthropocene.

  9. 22 April 2014 – On International Mother Earth Day, the United Nations is urging greater efforts to promote sustainable development and use of renewable energy sources, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealing for worldwide changes in attitude and practice to curb the negative impact of human activity on the planet. To generate ambitious action on the ground and raise momentum for a new climate treaty in 2015, Mr. Ban is convening a climate summit in New York on 23 September this year. As the world confronted today’s unique sustainable development challenges, stakeholders’ understanding of the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations must be rooted in the most up-to-date scientific information.

  10. “the onset of the industrial age since about 1750 AD is referred to as the Late Anthropocene”

    Doesn’t ‘late’ kind of sound like “the end is near?”

    The philosophical discussion of how to manage for and with fire has generated a lot of CO2 (aka hot air) on this site. I’d just like to put in a plug for putting the same renewable energy into discussing what is the best available scientific information, and what are the management tradeoffs, for particular parts of particular national forests as part of their forest plan revision process.

    • Jon:

      We have had discussions on the “best available scientific information” on this blog several times. The principal effort has been how to determine such a condition rather that the self-proclaimed attribute used by some government scientists. My opinion is that Alan Moghissi has done the best work on this topic, and in such a way as to directly challenge governmental regulatory uses of this phrase.

      Gil has listed several good studies that have looked at forest fuels management, including prescribed burning. Most of my own work has been practical (about 18,000 acres of successful broadcast burning projects in forested environments), or has focused on historical precontact practices used by American Indians in the western US. I think the “trade-offs” for “particular parts of particular national forests” are likely fairly subjective and, in any instance, a massive consideration that can’t be reasonably addressed in a single blog. I do think such considerations are critically needed in all of the forest plans, however. In my opinion.

    • John

      Several of us are very willing to do this and have tried repeatedly to get such a point by point discussion. Unfortunately, many here don’t want to deal with this on a point by point basis and resort to one of three options when we try to point out the science that opposes their point of view: Either they drop the subject, change the subject and set up a straw man to attack rather than a specific point or we get insulting platitudes like this Link.

  11. I also don’t understand why you find the findings of this paper so controversial. They are in line with numerous other studies that have found similar results. Several studies have shown through analysis of fire scars and historical weather data that there is a correlation between the most severe wildfire years and above normal temperatures in both the spring and summer (Heyerdahl et al., 2008; Heyerdahl, Brubaker, & Agee, 2002). The most current climate models predict that the PNW will see an increase in temperate and decrease in moisture in the spring and summer (Mote & Salathe Jr, 2010) and that this will lead to earlier snow melt and an increased length of the fire season (Westerling, Hidalgo, Cayan, & Swetnam, 2006). A longer wildfire season will increase the likelihood of an ignition occurring under 95%+ percentile weather conditions where suppression activities are not effective and therefore increasing the likelihood of large high severity wildfire events. It’s my opinion that the changing climate will have major impacts on future fire disturbance patterns as discussed in the Dennison paper. Fuels play a major part in fire behavior but without weather conditions that allow for them to be available to burn, they won’t.

    Heyerdahl, E. K., McKenzie, D., Daniels, L. D., Hessl, A. E., Littell, J. S., & Mantua, N. J. (2008). Climate drivers of regionally synchronous fires in the inland Northwest (1651–1900). International Journal of Wildland Fire, 17(1), 40–49.

    Heyerdahl, E. K., Brubaker, L. B., & Agee, J. K. (2002). Annual and decadal climate forcing of historical fire regimes in the interior Pacific Northwest, USA. The Holocene, 12(5), 597–604.

    Mote, P. W., & Salathe Jr, E. P. (2010). Future climate in the Pacific Northwest. Climatic Change, 102(1-2), 29–50.

    Westerling, A. L., Hidalgo, H. G., Cayan, D. R., & Swetnam, T. W. (2006). Warming and earlier spring increase western US forest wildfire activity. Science, 313(5789), 940–943.


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