Why Some Things Some People Say Sometimes About Wildfires Are Wrong: Michael Shellenberger in Forbes

In a small gesture for accuracy in media, I took the liberty of retitling Shellenberger’s November 4 Forbes piece for our TSW post. Here’s the link.

Let’s look at this article in light of what we discussed yesterday. Climate and wildfires both have their own sets of experts and a variety of disciplines, each of which having different approaches, values and priorities. I’m not saying that studying the results of climate modelling is entirely a Science Fad, but listen to Keeley here:

I asked Keeley if the media’s focus on climate change frustrated him.

“Oh, yes, very much,” he said, laughing. “Climate captures attention. I can even see it in the scientific literature. Some of our most high-profile journals will publish papers that I think are marginal. But because they find climate to be an important driver of some change, they give preference to them. It captures attention.

And the marginal ones are funded because.. climate change is cool (at least to “high-profile” journals, which have their own ideas of coolness). And who funds it? The US Government. Me, I would give bucks to folks for, say, physical models of fire behavior,(something that will help suppression folks today)rather than attempting to parse out the unknowable interlinkages of the past. But that’s just me, and the way the Science Biz currently operates, neither I nor you get a vote.

Note that the scientists quoted, (Keeley, North, and Safford) in this piece are all government scientists. Keeley and North are research scientists while Safford appears to be a Regional Ecologist (funded by the National Forests), so if we went by the paycheck method (are they funded by R&D?) Safford would have to get permission from public affairs, while Keeley and North would not. On the other hand, Safford has published peer-reviewed papers, so perhaps he should not have to ask permission? Even with permission requirements, though, they seem able to provide their expertise to the press.

Keeley talks about the fact that shrubland and forest fires are different beasts, and sometimes get lumped together in coverage. Below is an interesting excerpt on the climate question.

Keeley published a paper last year that found that all ignition sources of fires had declined except for powerlines.
“Since the year 2000 there’ve been a half-million acres burned due to powerline-ignited fires, which is five times more than we saw in the previous 20 years,” he said.
“Some people would say, ‘Well, that’s associated with climate change.’ But there’s no relationship between climate and these big fire events.”
What then is driving the increase in fires?
“If you recognize that 100% of these [shrubland] fires are started by people, and you add 6 million people [since 2000], that’s a good explanation for why we’re getting more and more of these fires,” said Keeley.
What about the Sierras?
“If you look at the period from 1910 – 1960,” said Keeley, “precipitation is the climate parameter most tied to fires. But since 1960, precipitation has been replaced by temperature, so in the last 50 years, spring and summer and temperatures will explain 50% of the variation from one year to the next. So temperature is important.”
Isn’t that also during the period when the wood fuel was allowed to build due to suppression of forest fires?
“Exactly,” said Keeley. “Fuel is one of the confounding factors. It’s the problem in some of the reports done by climatologists who understand climate but don’t necessarily understand the subtleties related to fires.”
So, would we have such hot fires in the Sierras had we not allowed fuel to build-up over the last century?
“That’s a very good question,” said Keeley. “Maybe you wouldn’t.”
He said it was something he might look at. “We have some selected watersheds in the Sierra Nevadas where there have been regular fires. Maybe the next paper we’ll pull out the watersheds that have not had fuel accumulation and look at the climate fire relationship and see if it changes.”
I asked Keeley what he thought of the Twitter spat between Gov. Newsom and President Trump.

Sharon’s note: I don’t know Keeley, but I thought he handled this very well, considering it’s not really a question about his research. The above italics are mine.

“I don’t think the president is wrong about the need to better manage,” said Keeley. “I don’t know if you want to call it ‘mismanaged’ but they’ve been managed in a way that has allowed the fire problem to get worse.”
What’s true of California fires appears true for fires in the rest of the US. In 2017, Keeley and a team of scientists modeled 37 different regions across the US and found “humans may not only influence fire regimes but their presence can actually override, or swamp out, the effects of climate.” Of the 10 variables, the scientists explored, “none were as significantly significant… as the anthropogenic variables.”

It’s encouraging to think that research shows that fire suppression has an big impact on fires. Otherwise, we’d have to give it up because fire suppression isn’t “based on science” 😉

24 thoughts on “Why Some Things Some People Say Sometimes About Wildfires Are Wrong: Michael Shellenberger in Forbes”

  1. Unlike the dramatic – and somewhat scary – image that was part of the original post, here are some actual photos of the current wildfires burning in California over the past 10 days or so.

    These photos should give people a sense of the type of landscapes (and vegetation) that’s currently burning in California (at least from the Bay Area southward). Remember, last week the fires were fanned by winds officially measured at 70 to 93 mph.

    I agree that we shouldn’t look at every single wildfire through the lens of climate change and blame any “bad” wildfires on climate change per se. I also don’t know any experienced forest activist who’s deeply invested in public lands issues who says that “climate matters most” when it comes to wildfires. Sure, maybe some politicians or actors have said that, but has the John Muir Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater, Conservation Congress, WildEarth Guardians, WildWest Institute, Friends of the Bitterroot, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, Center For Biological Diversity, Dogwood Alliance, Swan View Coalition or Friends of the Wild Swan ever said that? Nope.

    However, I also believe that scientists, researchers and meteorologists are very capable of measuring things like precipitation, temperature, wind speed and humidity. And they can compare those readings to previous years going back nearly 150 years.

    Having said that, I think plenty of scientists can also measure – and back up with plenty of data – that the wildfire season has gotten longer in many parts of the country. Add to that, the fact that we have way too many people building way too many homes in the wildland-urban interface (often with little to no, to sub-standard zoning) and it’s really not that difficult to see why we have the currently situation. Add to all those factors a bunch of human-caused wildfires (whether it’s arson, accidents, negligence or malfeasance by mega power companies that skimp on basic power line maintenance while doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives) and we have our current situation in a nutshell. I will say that at some point (immediately, would be nice) we need to take our totally outdated and antiquated electrical energy grid and put it in the ground. Seems like lots of jobs could be had with that and it would save tremendous money, pain, suffering and lives over the long-term.

    Anyway, here’s what’s been burning from the Bay Area southward the past few weeks.

    USFS photo via inciweb

    USFS photo via inciweb

  2. Last year I listened to an employee of the Nebraska Forestry Department state that California’s wild fire issue is due to excessive regulation by the State before people are allowed to clear brush and trees from areas. Too much paper work, so people are turned off from cutting down trees even near cities and towns. Would someone care to respond to that?

  3. When Ryan Zinke was Secretary of Interior and blamed wildfires in California on “environmental terrorist groups” was he thinking of Pacific Gas and Electric?

    PG&E gets court OK for $235 million in bonuses amid wildfire woes, bankruptcy

    Pacific Gas & Electric Co. managers earned bigger bonuses after shifting resources away from rural tree safety efforts before the deadly Butte fire, an NBC Bay Area investigation has found.

    October 1, 2019: As the most dangerous part of California’s wildfire season continues, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says it has finished only about 31% of the aggressive tree-trimming work it planned this year to prevent vegetation from falling on power lines and starting more deadly infernos.

    Judge: PG&E Paid Out Stock Dividends Instead of Trimming Trees

  4. “humans may not only influence fire regimes but their presence can actually override, or swamp out, the effects of climate.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of missing the forest for the trees. Ian Welsh is certainly no scientist, but he sees the forest a lot more clearly than Mr. Keeley:

    And as a modeler, Keeley seems to ironically occupy the precise space you speak to in your Modeling I post. Of course climate change is swamped by people. And they have a name: neoliberal financial capitalists.

    • Great find, Eric. Thanks for posting.

      As early as 1990, years before worsening drought and higher temperatures began pushing wildfire season into apocalyptic overdrive, PG&E was facing criminal charges for failing to trim the trees growing alongside its power lines as required by state law. In 1997, the utility was convicted of no fewer than 739 counts of criminal negligence for a fire that burned 500 acres and leveled 12 homes in the High Sierra town of Rough and Ready. State regulators later charged PG&E with more than 500,000 instances, between 1994 and 1998, of failing to trim trees near their electric lines.

    • Eric, using Occam’s razor here, wouldn’t the fact that PG&E has screwed up while other utilities haven’t, mean that one company has screwed up, not that all investor owned utilities are bad?

        • I think it is really easy to demonize the utility companies as a singular reason why there has been devastating wildfire in California. There is never going to be “0 Risk” from powerline fires. That risk could be mitigated but Californians will have to be okay with paying 10x more on their power bills to pay for the hoards of crews that are needed to manage the vegetation (within 100 ft+ based on tree height / productivity) of all power lines. That is going to require the public also being ok with huge swaths of clear cuts and herbicide usage.

          Or CA utility customers will need to be ok with paying 25-50x more for their current power usage to pay for moving all lines underground (which isn’t without its own problems).

          I am not familiar with operations of all the utility companies in CA but SDGE has been exceptional in their investment and usage of the best available science to manage their risk. They have a team of meteorologists, fire modelers, and electrical engineers monitoring wind events in real time and have the ability to shut off only the most at risk due to their investments in smart grids. They also have a small service area compared to PGE and don’t have the same vegetation management issues.

  5. No one seems to want to talk about tree densities, flammable species compositions and ignition sources. Man-enhanced drought does include preserving all those flammable trees, all sucking up groundwater, putting entire forests at risk. No one is talking about the hundred million existing dead trees, waiting for that next inevitable human spark. Additionally, people don’t mention the wet winter we had last year, reducing higher elevation fire danger.

    Yes, we will have more winters that fall short of ‘normal’ precipitation, and we’ll see more Forest Service firestorms, eliminating rare habitats and having major human impacts. Don’t pretend that everything is fine, and “perfectly normal”. It isn’t, and it won’t be, in the next 20 years.

  6. Objection, Larry. Relevance. See many trees in those pics Matt posted? Forests?

    And Sharon, that’s a straw man. Did I say all investor owned utilities are bad. I see no evidence in my argument. What I said was, and here, I’ll quote so it’s plain “ … climate change is swamped by people. And they have a name: neoliberal financial capitalists.”

    And not only are they driving utility caused starts, they’re driving climate change through the ever incessant pursuit of profit (looking at you Exxon). And they’re driving fire starts through incessant housing starts into WUI while they throw up lobbying barriers to common sense zoning. I could go on.
    Oh, wait, I did. Right here:

    • Yes, I AM talking about forests which remain at ultra-high risk of complete incineration. The concerns about California’s dying forests should still be addressed. That problem won’t be going away, anytime soon. We currently have an eco-community that sometimes lies about the danger that California residents all currently suffer. The same group of people also want to squelch any plans to reduce impacts and danger. They try to say “Oh, that’s natural, don’t worry”. If this situation was ‘normal’, then are power shut-offs also ‘normal’, now. Be sure to not blame people for where they are living, too. Remember, we have had massive wildfires burning in National Forests in all of the last drought years.

    • Really, “neocapitalists” are driving “incessant housing in the WUI”? Where I live, housing in the WUI is driven by the fact that people move further out because they can’t afford housing any closer to town. I used to look at these developments as blots on the prairie landscape, until I realized that my fellow students about to go into the poorly paid but vitally important ministry sector, could afford a nice place to live out in the former prairie.

      I guess one person’s “greed” is another person’s survival or ability to make a decent life.

  7. Sharon, we’ve been down this road. And the research I’ve studied in pursuit of my M.S. in bioregional planning and community design is unequivocal. Take Missoula for example. Majority support exists for zoning restrictions on the incessant parceling of the WUI. But the local lawmakers get pressured by, guess who? Professional banking association. Professional builder associations. Professional realtor associations. Why? Because they know there is green in them thar’ hills and it ain’t the trees. Small groups exerting financial pressure to attain their goals at the expense of, and against the will of the majority.

    And as to the expense of urban living: This is an easily solved problem through initiatives supporting low income housing and infill development. But why doesn’t it happen? Because of the same financial power lobbying elected officials I describe above. Greed and the power of the dollar to speak louder than the average citizen.

    Again, Sharon. What’s my M.S. degree? You see the trees. I’m looking at the entire forest.

    And this is precisely why I take large hiatuses from this blog … the, often, disingenuousness of the arguments that get made.

    Is it true? Is it fair? Is it nice?
    The third follows from the first and second because when people make logically fallacious arguments, those who recognize the falsity and unfairness of those arguments see red. The little winks you often append to your posts are direct evidence of this fact. Gotcha arguments.

    • Eric, I think that your experience and mine are different but neither one of us are right or wrong.
      Colorado is not Montana is not Utah is not California.

      You have a degree in planning. I was on El Paso County Planning Commission for the last two years. I voted against several projects.. long story.

      From my experience: I don’t think low income housing is “easily solved.” People don’t want LIH around them in the city. Or getting rid of residential zoning so people with more money can build apartments in the formerly single family zoned areas. And using rentals for Air BnB’s for tourism keeps out renters. Colorado Springs is grappling with this and it doesn’t seem to be easily solved.

      Exactly who is the “average citizen”? People who don’t want increased density in their formerly single family zoned areas? People renting apartments from the more well off of them? People renting their homes as AirBNBs? People who want some space around them (or prefer a cheap open area to being surround by other people) and buy those homes in the WUI?

      I can safely say that most people who live out here don’t want to be in tiny places that they can afford in the city, let alone designed low income housing with a possible concentration of people who are not well behaved. Certainly we have criminally minded people out this way, but they are spread out. I think that there’s lots of psychology that either urban planners miss or discount in all of this.

  8. Good thing PG&E isn’t a non-profit forest protection group who tried to make sure the federal government followed the law, sued to stop a timber sale and then a wildfire ignited directly a result of the lawsuit, eh?

    PG&E renews push to avoid strict liability for 2017, 2018 fires

    One year after a high-voltage Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power line malfunctioned in Butte County and started California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, survivors of the disaster still don’t know exactly how much they will be paid by the embattled utility.

    PG&E is not disputing that its equipment started the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and leveled most of the town of Paradise after it ignited on Nov. 8, 2018. But lawyers for PG&E, which has been in bankruptcy protection for more than nine months, are still trying to contain the company’s fire costs as much as possible.

  9. This is a disappointing article. It’s basically an attempt by a generally conservative financial publication to cast additional doubt on the impact of climate change. There is no question that there’s a climate signal with these fires. The science is pretty clear on this (least of which is the obvious drying of habitat, leading to more flammable conditions).

    To attribute it all to population growth ignores the fact that most of the recent large fires were caused by aging electrical lines built decades ago (impacted by strong winds), not because there are too many people on the landscape. The fact that such an obvious variable was never even discussed says to me that there was a significant amount of confirmation bias involved by the journalist.

    • But Matthew K always insists one of the main issues is too many people. He happily announces this fact and his own personal choices.
      Further, if climate is in fact a a driver, besides armoring homes, shouldn’t we do something about the “obvious drying of habitat, leading to more flammable conditions” so we do not have fire running through subdivisions and homes on the edge of communities? As in, vegetation treatment and management? Perhaps it’s best to use multiple lines of defense?
      Or we do we need to not have those people living there, and instead force everyone into high rise complexes within the city, and do away with personal single family style houses in nice suburban settings? Perhaps if you are a multi-millionaire you can at least have a townhouse and garage?

      • Huh?? My first comment in this comment thread pretty much sums up my opinion. You can “happily” pick and chose, or ignore, any of it, anonymous.


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