Climate change alarmists burned by studies showing destructive wildfires in decline

Global burned area dropped by about 25 percent over the previous 18 years, study shows
 – The Washington Times
A Cal Fire firefighter waters down a back burn on Cloverdale Rd., near the town of Igo, Calif., Saturday, July 28, 2018. The back burn kept the fire from jumping towards Igo, Calif. Scorching heat, winds and dry conditions complicated firefighting efforts. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

Scenes of Californians fleeing their homes and Greeks swimming out to sea have fueled alarm about climate change fueling deadly wildfires, but recent studies show that such destructive blazes are on the decline worldwide.

A September 2017 report in the journal Science found that global burned area dropped by about 25 percent over the previous 18 years, a finding consistent with a May 2016 paper published by the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

“[G]lobal 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,” said the study by British researchers at Swansea University.

Even in California, which for years has wrestled with fire devastation, a study in the International Journal of Wildland Fire found that the number of wildfires burning more than 300 acres per year has been tailing off since a peak in 1980.

“The claim commonly made in research papers and the media that fire activity is increasing throughout the western USA is certainly an over-statement,” the authors, Jon E. Keeley and Alexandra D. Syphard, said in The Orange County Register.

Mr. Keeley is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Ms. Syphard is with the Conservation Biology Institute.

Such findings appear to fly in the face of widespread reports that human-caused global warming is increasing the severity and frequency of wildfires by fueling drought and higher temperatures.

“Extreme heat and wildfires made worse by climate change, say scientists,” an Associated Press article proclaimed this week on NBC News.

“We now have very strong evidence that global warming has already put a thumb on the scales, upping the odds of extremes like severe heat and heavy rainfall,” Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh told the AP.

Yale Environment 360 declared in an Oct. 2 article, “Stark Evidence: A Warmer World Is Sparking More and Bigger Wildfires,” and concluded that “the fires being seen today … are man-made, or at least man-worsened.”

This year’s U.S. wildfire season was forecast to be worse than average, and so far it has kept with predictions, with 98 wildfires blackening 4.6 million acres as of Monday, more than the 10-year average of 3.7 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

California has been hit hardest, but firefighters made progress Monday. They lifted some evacuation orders on the Carr fire in Shasta County about 150 miles north of Sacramento, the deadliest and most destructive of the blazes, and reached 30 percent containment on the Ferguson fire near Yosemite National Park.

Six people have been killed so far in the California wildfires, including two firefighters, a great-grandmother and two of her great-grandchildren. About 410,000 acres have burned across the state amid unpredictable winds and high temperatures.

The death toll in Greece rose to 91 on Sunday as wildfires swept through seaside communities, at one point sending dozens of people out to sea to escape the flames engulfing the resort town of Mati, as shown on a dramatic video.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, cited global warming last week as a factor in his proposal to reduce the legal liability of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility company whose equipment was found to have sparked 15 of the state’s 2017 wildfires.

Mr. Brown and legislative leaders announced amended legislation July 2 to heighten California’s wildfire response, saying the effort “will help prepare the state to deal with the increasingly extreme weather and natural disasters caused by climate change.”

In a May report, “Indicators of Climate Change in California,” state Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matthew Rodriguez said extreme weather events like wildfires are “not isolated incidents.”

“They are suggestive of the significant and increasingly discernible impacts of climate change in California,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “The most dramatic impacts include wildfires that are larger and more frequent, and the most severe drought since recordkeeping began.”

Others have argued that news coverage of fire disasters has contributed to the perception that wildfires driven by increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are raging out of control, despite evidence to the contrary.

“[M]any consider wildfire an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses,” said the Royal Society paper. “However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived trends.”

In the Western United States, the study found that the limited data on fire severity “indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement.”

What’s responsible for the drop-off? The Science article pointed to an expansion of agriculture production in savannas and grasslands, resulting in a roughly 25 percent decrease in global burned area “despite the influence of climate.”

The discrepancy was not lost on climate skeptics such as Australia’s JoNova, who concluded Monday, “Global warming means a global fall in wildfires.”

Anthony Watts, who runs the Watts Up With That website, added: “Remember when we were told that wildfires would increase due to global warming? Never mind.”

University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Clifford Mass said a host of factors may have contributed to this year’s California wildfires, including a modest temperature increase over the past several decades.

Add to that the drought, an increase of non-native invasive species, a huge influx of homeowners in fire-prone areas and aggressive fire suppression in the first half of the 20th century that left some forests overgrown and ripe for ignition.

“So there is a lot of talk of climate change ‘supercharging’ fires, but really no proof of it,” Mr. Mass said in an email. “And some fires are clearly NOT associated with climate change, like the wine country fires of last October.”

His conclusion? “I suspect climate change is a minor element in the CA wildfires, while fire suppression and human population growth into the wildlands are the dominant elements.”

July 31, 2018 | 3 Comments »

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  1. n the Western United States, the study found that the limited data on fire severity “indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement.”

    What does he mean by “high severity?” How does he define this concept? Was the total percentage forested areas burned every year greater in pre-Columbian times than today? And how could we possibly know how much land was burned annually in pre-European-settlement times, when the “data” about this period is so “limited.” In fact, how could we have any data on this matter at all for the period before written records of forest fires were being kept?

    The truth is that rightists are denying the overwhelming evidence of global warming and human contributions to this trend for business and co mmercial , not scientific, reasons. The scientific evidence for both trends is overwhelming. By trying to deny scientific facts, the right is discrediting itself in the eyes of the public just when it badly needs to increase its public credibility concerning other issues where the facts are on the right’s side, such as the Islam-Israel and Islam-West conflicts.

  2. The Science article pointed to an expansion of agriculture production in savannas and grasslands, resulting in a roughly 25 percent decrease in global burned area “despite the influence of climate.”

    Note the word “despite.” It is obvious that areas of the earth’s surface used for agriculture as well as other human development, (residential , commercial, industrial),since these areas have have less vegetation than forested areas, and are more closely supervised by humans with an interest in putting out fires. Has there been any decrease in the percentage of forested land burning each year? Has there been any decrease in the percentage of forested land “cleared” each year? These figures would be more significant than the total burned areas, because forested areas are the primary absorbers of carbon dioxide on the earth, which human-developed areas are the primary generators of caron dioxide.

  3. As you were saying . . .

    The common thread in California’s wildfires: heat like the state has never seen
    By Rong-Gong Lin II and Ruben Vives
    Firefighters are battling 17 wildfires across the state, which have consumed more than 200,000 acres combined in terrain stretching from Southern California to the Oregon border
    The northern Sacramento Valley was well on its way to recording the hottest July on record when the Carr fire swept into town Thursday.

    It was 113 degrees, and months of above-average temperatures had left the land bone-dry and ready to explode. Within a few hours, hundreds of structures were lost and six people killed.

    The destruction adds to California’s worst wildfire year on record — dozens dead since October, with more than 10,000 structures lost from San Diego to Redding.

    There are many reasons for the grim totals, but experts say one common denominator connects the disastrous fires: California is facing extreme heat, the likes of which it has never seen in the modern historical record.

    Paid Post What Is This?
    “The temperatures have just been almost inexorably warmer all the time,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, and fires “burn more intensely if the fuels are extremely dry.”

    (Priya Krishnakumar / L.A. Times Graphics)
    In the past, there has been some reluctance among scientists to cite climate change as a major factor in California’s worsening wildfires. Human-caused ignitions and homes being built ever closer to forests have played a large role. But the connection between rising temperatures in California and tinder-dry vegetation is becoming impossible to ignore, according to experts who study climate and wildfires.

    “The regional temperatures in the western U.S. have increased by 2 degrees since the 1970s,” said Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “You’re seeing the effect of climate change.”

    Neil Lareau, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, said unusual warmth is now routine, and that heat “leads to drying things out quicker.”

    Vegetation can have various degrees of dryness — a wet log in the woods could smolder before puttering out, while tinder-dry chaparral on a 110-degree day could explode when ignited, Swain said. Extremely flammable vegetation can create a particularly intense fire with the potential to grow much faster — leaving less time for firefighters to get a handle on a blaze and for people to escape.

    “What that means is the fire has to do less work to ignite the vegetation right next to it. And it can spread faster, and it releases energy more quickly,” Lareau said.

    The Carr fire is the most destructive of 17 major blazes burning amid the current hot conditions. Fires in Mendocino County, in the San Jacinto Mountains and near Yosemite National Park exploded in the last few days, eating through dry wildlands. Authorities said they hope to gain more control over the Carr fire as temperatures gradually cool this week.

    (Priya Krishnakumar / L.A. Times Graphics)
    Swain said California is seeing more fires spreading much faster than what was customary. “It’s just that much easier for fires to escape initial control,” he said.

    According to Swain, an ominous warning sign before each of the major fires of the last year — including last fall’s catastrophic Santa Rosa blaze — was alerts about record or near-record dryness in the vegetation.

    The effect of temperature — and how dry the vegetation is — can matter more than how much rain or snow fell the previous winter.

    Northern California saw its wettest winter on record in 2016-17, followed by its warmest summer. That led to extremely dry vegetation by the fall — just before the devastating Santa Rosa fire hit, Swain said.

    “Temperature can clearly out-influence the precipitation,” he said.

    Hot, dry conditions and aridity of vegetation are translating to increased wildfire risk worldwide, said John Abatzoglou, associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho.

    Abatzoglou was the lead author of a recent study that concluded human-caused climate change was responsible for more than half of the increase in dry vegetation in the western United States since the 1970s — which doubled the area of forest charred since 1984. The influence of human-caused climate change on the extreme dryness of vegetation “is projected to increasingly promote wildfire potential across western U.S. forests in the coming decades, and pose threats to ecosystems, the carbon budget, human health and fire suppression budgets,” Abatzoglou wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Making matters worse, nighttime temperatures generally are not dropping as low as they once did, meaning the chance of a blaze weakening overnight is reduced. California’s average summer minimum temperature was at a record high last year at 61.9 degrees, up from 56.5 degrees from the first year on record in 1895.

    “Some of these fires burn into the overnight hours — that’s typically the time of day fires calm down and firefighters get a better handle on these things,” Abatzoglou said.

    By many measures, literally and figuratively, California has been burning up.

    As the Carr fire rapidly expanded, the Redding area was experiencing record-tying temperatures. In Southern California in October and November — in the middle of a punishing spate of wildfires — the average temperature was the hottest in more than 120 years of record keeping. San Francisco hit its all-time heat record in September, with a downtown reading of 106; in July, all-time temperature records shattered throughout Southern California, with Burbank hitting 114 and Van Nuys 117.

    Redding’s temperature of 113 on Thursday wasn’t unheard of for that time of year, but Swain said it was the accumulation of intense heat over the previous weeks and months that added to the problem.

    The resulting dry vegetation was a key factor in the Carr fire, Swain said. There was no wind preceding the blaze in Redding — no Santa Anas or Diablos whipping it up. Instead, the exceptionally dry vegetation produced intense heat that shot hot air up to 39,000 feet into the sky at speeds of up to 130 mph, Lareau said. That air was replaced by air moving in at the base of the fire, in a movement that appeared like a tornado.

    “This fire vortex, this pretty terrifying tornado-like feature, and I don’t say that lightly … was made possible by the extreme heat produced by this fire,” Swain said. “To see that in the brush- and mixed-forest region immediately adjacent to a city of 100,000 people in California was pretty extraordinary.”

    Such “fire whirls,” also known as plume-dominated fires, are particularly dangerous because the direction of the blaze is far more difficult to predict and embers can spread far away. It’s believed to be a factor in the number of lives lost in the fire, including firefighters. The Carr fire jumped the Sacramento River, which in a typical blaze would be seen as a natural barrier.

    “The fire has much more of a mind of its own when it has more of these dynamics,” Lareau said.

    It’s virtually unheard of for a fire whirl to last as long as the one in Redding did — it started about 7 p.m. Thursday and lasted for about an hour and a half. “It’s remarkable in size, strength, duration and depth,” he said.

    The fire whirl was so intense that it appeared to blow down large trees and strip tiles off roofs in areas that were untouched by fire damage.

    According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state’s wildfire season is now 78 days longer than it was more than a generation ago.

    “You don’t get a record hot July by accident right now. It’s just the whole background state of the climate is hotter. The entire Earth is hotter than it used to be,” Lareau said.

    Lin reported from San Francisco, Vives from Redding.

    Rong-Gong Lin II
    Rong-Gong Lin II is a metro reporter for the Los Angeles Times, specializing in covering statewide earthquake safety issues and Northern California. He won the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.’s Freedom of Information Award and the University of Florida’s Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award. He was a finalist for the Ursula and Gilbert Farfel Prize for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and the Knight Award for Public Service. A San Francisco area native, he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2004.

    Ruben Vives
    Ruben Vives is a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. A native of Guatemala, he got his start in journalism by writing for The Times’ Homicide Report in 2007. He helped uncover the financial corruption in the city of Bell that led to criminal charges against eight city officials. The 2010 investigative series won the Pulitzer Prize for public service and other prestigious awards.