Global Warming, Forest Fires, and SOS Forests

by Mike Dubrasich, Exec. Dir. W.I.S.E.

2010 the warmest year on record!

Or so the Warmistas claim. The drumbeat started back at least as far as last May [here]. And again in July [here]. And in September [here]. And in October [here]. And not surprisingly, this month [here, here, here, etc.] even though all year record cold waves pounded the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia.

Let’s accept that premise for the moment. Boy, was it ever hot! Somewhere, not here, but somewhere.

Another premise that has gained huge air play is that forest fires are linked to global warming. It’s a no-brainer, right? It has been so hot that the woods catch fire and burn like there’s no tomorrow.

Or say the pundits. One paper that made a big splash and is cited in every USFS fire study, and every USFWS endangered species lawsuit, and has been anointed as canonical theology by all the High Priests of Ecology is:

A. L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, and T. W. Swetnam (2006) Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity. Science 18 August 2006:
Vol. 313 no. 5789 pp. 940-943 [here]

The authors state:

Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

That’s the theology. What are the facts? Here are the data acquired from the National Interagency Fire Center:

Fig 1. Total acres burned per year by wildfires in the U.S. from 1960 through 2010.

Fig 2. Number of wildfires per year in the U.S. from 1960 through 2010.

Fig 3. Annual average acres per wildfire in the U.S. from 1960 through 2010.

Total acres burned per year peaked in 2006 at nearly 10 million acres and has been dropping ever since, to a reported 3,377,250 acres this year, the smallest total since 1998. One-third of this year’s wildfire acreage was in Alaska, by the way.

The number of wildfires peaked in 1981 (there were 249,370 wildfires reported that year) and has been dropping ever since, to 68,430 this year, the lowest annual count on record.

Average wildfire size peaked in 2005 at 113 acres, dropping to 49 acres this year, the smallest average size since 2001.

So what can we infer from these numbers? If 2010 was the warmest year on record, dating back to the 1880’s at a minimum, then total wildfire acres, number of wildfires, and average wildfire size were MANIFESTLY NOT CORRELATED with global warming, at least not in 2010.

Warming went up, but wildfires went down. That FALSIFIES the ordained theology.

Let’s look at the temperature record as promulgated by one of the outfits linked above, The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fig 4. Total acres burned per year by wildfires vs. Summer (Jun-Aug) temperatures in the U.S. from 1960 through 2010. Data from NIFC and NCDC. Click for larger image.

There appears to be some correlation. In 33 of the 51 years greater than average total acres burned were coincident with higher than average summer temperatures, and less than average total acres burned were coincident with lower than average summer temperatures. But in 18 of 51 years they were not; in those years either temps were high and acres low or vice versa.

[A caveat: NCDC's temperature record is highly questionable due to station drop out, station homogenization, manipulation of historical data, and Urban Heat Island effect. But that's the data we have.]

Is two-thirds a meaningful correlation? Without going into esoteric Bayesian statistics, the short answer is no. Not in this case. Summer temperatures may have been a minor factor but not a dominant factor. In too many years, such as 2010, acres burned and summer temperatures were not correlated.

It is obvious that the number of wildfires per year and average fire size have been even less correlated with temperatures.

We could look at prior spring temperatures, and I have, but the correlation is worse. We could look at regional temperatures and regional fires, and I have, but the data get sparse and again, the correlations are very weak.

We could also look at precipitation in summer and the prior spring, and I have, but the correlations are again very weak (not significant in statistical parlance). Indeed, precipitation isn’t correlated with temperature either, which is interesting. But our concerns are with temperature.

[Note: I am not posting all the graphs I made because it would make this essay too busy, but I might someday, if asked very nicely and recompensed appropriately.]

There is no question that fire acreage, count, and average size are driven in part by weather. Dry lightning followed by big winds is bad news for forests. In Northern California a dry lightning storm swept across the state on June 21, 2007, setting ~2,000 fires, some of which burned until the following fall with over a million acres incinerated.

But weather is not the only factor. Some credit (or blame) has to go to fuels, i.e. biomass. Biomass is the stuff that burns in forest fires. Biomass accumulation and continuity across the landscape are important (highly significant) determinants of fire intensity and areal extent.

Plants grow every year, and biomass accumulates every year. The trend is unwaveringly upward. Biomass loadings in our forests today are 5 to 10 times what they were 200 years ago.

Note that fire acreage, count, and average size do not trend unwaveringly upward, though. The correlations with fuel load and continuity across the landscape are not perfect.

Some other factor(s) — besides temperature, precipitation, weather events, and fuels — is important in controlling fire acreage, count, and average size.

That factor is fire suppression. People and our actions are an important part of the equation. $Billions are spent on fire suppression every year. Those efforts are not (entirely) wasted — response times and response efforts are major determinants of acres burned, average fire size, and number of fires, too, since people start a goodly percentage of wildfires.

People also can (and sometimes in some places do) control biomass accumulation and continuity. We can’t control the weather (or the climate), but we can do something about the fuels, if and when we choose to.

One trend in fire suppression over the last ~20 years has been the rise and fall of “wildfire use”. Beginning in 1988, Federal land management agencies adopted a policy of Let It Burn on many fires. That policy has led to numerous catastrophic megafires. If you let it burn, it will, and has.

The “wildfire use” policy is not quite gone yet, but it is confused (to put it nicely). In May 2009 the Wildland Fire Leadership Council changed the terminology [here].

There are only two types of wildland fires: wildfires and prescribed fires. The terms “fire use fires,” “resource benefit fires,” or “suppression fires” will not be used. The agency reports activity on only these two types of fire. Manage natural ignitions to achieve desired Land and Resource Management Plan objectives when risk is within acceptable limits. A wildfire may be concurrently managed for more than one objective.

The National Interagency Fire Center used to report “wildfire use” acres burned each year, but have dropped that category. The new terminology suggested by the WFLC, “natural ignitions to achieve desired objectives” (NIADO’s), has not been granted statistical status yet and is not reported either.

Neither the WFLC nor the NIFC want the public to know how many acres they are burning via Let It Burn each year.

The reason they don’t is that the public is not on board with the policy. Some of the public at any rate, and hopefully without appearing too proud, in particular SOS Forests.

Regular readers know how vociferous we have been in fighting Let It Burn. We have tracked, essayed, and condemned unregulated, unprepared, unexamined, unlawful incineration of America’s priceless heritage forests since inception of this blog in 2005. We have given no quarter. We have pestered the Powers That Be with legal arguments, pleas, analysis, derision, and every wrench in the tool box.

We have squeaked that wheel in a very public way, and the Powers That Be have heard us, although they have not and probably never will acknowledge it.

Changing fire suppression policy away from Let It Burn and back toward a more rational, less destructive set of fire suppression actions has been a slow and arduous task. We have dragged them kicking and screaming up the learning curve as best we can, and we are the first to admit that it has been with more failures than successes.

But we have had some effect. In 2010, the warmest year on record according to some, a mere 3,377,250 acres burned, the smallest total since 1998, with one-third of this year’s U.S. wildfire acreage in Alaska.

It wasn’t global cooling, or a lack of fire weather, or a sudden effort to control fuels. The reason that 2010 was a mild fire year was because the Federal fire apparatus put the fires out rather than letting them burn (in most cases, with notable exceptions such as the braindead Twitchell Canyon Fire).

One of our efforts has been to analyze the economic damages inflicted by forest fires [here]. Roughly, the cost-plus-loss associated with wildfires today is in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per acre, if all the direct, indirect, and long-term on-site and off-site damages are considered.

In 2010 the total area burned could have easily been 10 million acres. Instead it was closer to 4 million acres. The difference, 6 million acres, represents a cost-plus-loss savings of $30 to $60 billion (with a “b”). That’s how much economic (and environmental) damage was averted.

Here at SOS Forests we don’t wish to take full credit for saving America $30 to $60 billion in 2010 alone. We are not that proud of ourselves.

But we take some credit. Without our expert analysis and vociferousness, like a pit bull latched onto their leg, who knows how many acres would have burned and how much damage would have been inflicted?

If you have been a part of our efforts here, and you know who you are, please take this moment to pat yourself on the back. You have accomplished something great. You have saved America an incalculable number of $billions. You have prevented the catastrophic destruction of millions of acres of priceless forests, public and private.

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. If nobody else realizes what an enormous contribution you have made to this Nation, the well-being of Americans, and to the protection and stewardship of our forests, I do. Words cannot express my gratitude.

We are not finished with this battle. More effort is needed. That effort will probably be mostly thankless. You certainly aren’t going to get a cash reward for saving the country $billions. But don’t give up, either. We are making headway. Semper fi.

3 Jan 2011, 8:58am
by N. Pence

Part of the problem is the Forest Service lost the expertise to suppress wildfires when they purged foresters and engineers from the agency during the Clinton/Gore Administration.

Employes now have the ability to refuse fire assignments and many do. In the agency that I knew you could not refuse a fire assignment. Forest Supervisors also have the ability to declare a fire unsafe to suppress and initate a point protection suppression strategy. It is now common for the agency to run out of the expertise to suppress fires especially when dry lightning storms occur with numerous fire starts. There have been changes in the agency that add to the problem. Fire behavior depends on weather, fuel and topography but the best strategy is to keep them small to start with. The 10am policy initated in 1941 was successful in keeping them small but it added to the fuel problem without active management to manage the fuel. There is nothing that can be done about weather and topography.

Thank you for helping to set the record straight.

4 Jan 2011, 7:57pm
by bear bait

Thank YOU, Mike. YOU have been the brave, tireless one man band. Again, thank YOU…

Reply: I appreciate the thought, but without the able support of folks like yourself, I would be spinning my gears, going nowhere. To the extent we have made any gains at all, it has been through a team effort.



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