Are Western Wildfires Driven by Global Warming—Manmade or Otherwise?

In Climate Change, Environment, Science, The Big Picture by E. Calvin Beisner0 Comments

The news media have made the number and intensity of wildfires in western states this summer a household topic: as of August 14, there were hundreds of them, and of major ones, 17 were burning in Alaska, 11 in Arizona, 10 each in Oregon and Colorado, and 9 in California. The media and many environmentalists blame them on global warming.

The numbers sound bad to people not studied in the field, but in actuality they’re not unusual. In fact, the number of fires has been decreasing since the 1970s. But the total acreage burned has been increasing over that period. But an even longer view shows an entirely different picture, according to data kept by the National Interagency Fire Center show in this graph:

Clearly, both the number of fires and the number of acres burned were far higher from the late 1920s through the 1940s than since 2000.

Nonetheless, global warming alarmists and their media lapdogs get it wrong.

“The effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many of our forests into kindling during wildfire season,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Associated Press claims “Science Says: Hotter weather turbocharges US West wildfires.”

The Chicago Sun Times handles it this way:

As human-caused climate change has warmed the world over the past 35 years, the land consumed by flames has more than doubled.

Experts say the way global warming worsens wildfires comes down to the basic dynamics of fire. Fires need ignition, oxygen and fuel. And what’s really changed is fuel — the trees, brush and other plants that go up in flames.

“Hotter drier weather means our fuels are drier so it’s easier for fires to start and spread and burn more intensely,” said University of Alberta fire scientist Mike Flannigan.

But University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Cliff Mass pointed out in a recent interview with the Daily Caller:

Correlation is not causation. Temperatures are warming, that is true. Wildfire area is increasing in parts of the west, also true. But one does not necessarily cause another. Wildfire area could well be increasing because of previous fire suppression, mismanagement of our forests, and a huge influx of people into the west, lightning fires and providing lots of fuel for them.

Likewise, University of Alabama-Huntsville’s Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science John Christy says human mismanagement is the more important cause of the huge fires:

If you don’t let the low-intensity fires burn, that fuel builds up year after year. Now once a fire gets going and it gets going enough, it has so much fuel that we can’t put it out. In that sense, you could say that fires today are more intense, but it’s because of human management practices, not because mother nature has done something.

Yes, what’s really changed is fuel—not how dry it is because of rising temperature or declining precipitation (neither of which has a trend sufficient to make much difference in combustibility), but how much of it there is.

Driven largely by environmentalists who insisted that human management of nature is somehow bad, the western states, and the federal government, generally adopted policies of suppressing fires and not removing undergrowth from forests. Yet fires are a natural phenomenon essential to long-term forest health. Preventing and suppressing them results in denser undergrowth, which means more fuel. Fires then burn hotter and move faster, accounting for the fact that acres burned have generally increased (though not greatly) since the 1970s, while the number of fires has not.

Originally published on the Stewards Blog.

Featured Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash.

 

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”

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