Arson, Bob Zybach, Cal Fire, Controlled Burns, Dust Bowl, Fire Suppression, Forest Fires, Forest Management, Grazing, High Pressure System, Logging, Megafires, Mendocino Complex Fire, Thomas Fire, Wildfires
The geographic extent of this summer’s forest fires won’t come close to the aggregate record for the U.S. Far from it. Yes, there are some terrible fires now burning in California, Oregon, and elsewhere, and the total burnt area this summer in the U.S. is likely to exceed the 2017 total. But as the chart above shows, the burnt area in 2017 was less than 20% of the record set way back in 1930. The same is true of the global burnt area, which has declined over many decades. In fact, this 2006 paper reported the following:
“Analysis of charcoal records in sediments  and isotope-ratio records in ice cores  suggest that global biomass burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years. Although the magnitude of the actual differences between pre-industrial and current biomass burning rates may not be as pronounced as suggested by those studies , modelling approaches agree with a general decrease of global fire activity at least in past centuries . In spite of this, fire is often quoted as an increasing issue around the globe [11,26–29].”
People have a tendency to exaggerate the significance of current events. Perhaps the youthful can be forgiven for thinking hot summers are a new phenomenon. Incredibly, more “seasoned” folks are often subject to the same fallacies. The fires in California have so impressed climate alarmists that many of them truly believe global warming is the cause of forest fires in recent years, including the confused bureaucrats at Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. Of course, the fires have given fresh fuel to self-interested climate activists and pressure groups, an opportunity for greater exaggeration of an ongoing scare story.
This year, however, and not for the first time, a high-pressure system has been parked over the West, bringing southern winds up the coast along with warmer waters from the south, keeping things warm and dry inland. It’s just weather, though a few arsonists and careless individuals always seem to contribute to the conflagrations. Beyond all that, the impact of a warmer climate on the tendency for biomass to burn is considered ambiguous for realistic climate scenarios.
And what of the “mega-fires” burning in the West, like the huge Mendocino Complex Fire and last year’s Thomas Fire? Unfortunately, many decades of fire suppression measures — prohibitions on logging, grazing, and controlled burns — have left the forests with too much dead wood and debris, especially on public lands. From the last link:
“Oregon, like much of the western U.S., was ravaged by massive wildfires in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl drought. Megafires were largely contained due to logging and policies to actively manage forests, but there’s been an increasing trend since the 1980s of larger fires.
Active management of the forests and logging kept fires at bay for decades, but that largely ended in the 1980s over concerns too many old growth trees and the northern spotted owl. Lawsuits from environmental groups hamstrung logging and government planners cut back on thinning trees and road maintenance.
[Bob] Zybach [a forester] said Native Americans used controlled burns to manage the landscape in Oregon, Washington and northern California for thousands of years. Tribes would burn up to 1 million acres a year on the west coast to prime the land for hunting and grazing, Zybach’s research has shown.
‘The Indians had lots of big fires, but they were controlled,’ Zybach said. ‘It’s the lack of Indian burning, the lack of grazing’ and other active management techniques that caused fires to become more destructive in the 19th and early 20th centuries before logging operations and forest management techniques got fires under control in the mid-20th Century.”
The annual burnt area from wildfires has declined over the past ninety years both in the U.S. and globally. Even this year’s wildfires are unlikely to come close to the average burn extent of the 1930s. The large wildfires this year are due to a combination of decades of poor forest management along with a weather pattern that has trapped warm, dry air over the West. The contention that global warming has played a causal role in the pattern is balderdash, but apparently that explanation seems plausible to the uninformed, and it is typical of the propaganda put forward by climate change interests.
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