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Fueling their anger

24 Apr 2019 | Science Notes

If it isn’t polar bears disappearing, it’s forest fires rampaging. Canada’s environment minister keeps citing a fictitious increase in them as proof of man-made global warming. On Earth Day the Prime Minister said “Floods, fires, heat waves, tornadoes – extreme weather phenomena are becoming more intense and more frequent, threatening communities across the country.” And Neil Young, who lost his home last summer to a California wildfire, blamed climate change… of course. Blasting “our so-called president” for fingering poor forest management, Young posted “Firefighters have never seen anything like this in their lives.” But experts now point to faulty forest management practices as the problem, and California is finally changing them. That it took a deadly inferno to get Governor Brown to finally overrule environmentalist naivete ought to be the real target of Young’s ire.

The faulty forest management rules were implemented in 2012, leading critics to predict increased fire hazards. California has always had droughts—what it hasn’t always had are regulations preventing fuel load reductions through forest thinning. (Not to mention a recent study saying that over the past half-million years forest fires were worse in humid periods because there was, of all things, more wood to burn. Or the fact that California’s droughts, which no less an authority than Leonardo DiCaprio said would never end, have given way to such abundant rainfall that the wildflower “Superbloom” was visible from space.)

Pushing such petty concerns aside, the New York Times of course agreed with Young last fall, saying “while California’s climate has always been fire prone, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable.” Yet the last IPCC report concluded “There is low agreement on whether climate change will cause fires to become more or less frequent in individual locations.” But the Times found an expert to offer a meaningless tautology. “'Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,' Dr. Williams [“Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory”] said. That dries out vegetation even more, making it more likely to burn.” (Er, NASA estimates a global temperature increase since 1880 by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit; where did the other 1.6 come from?)

The Times did say “California’s fire record dates back to 1932; of the 10 largest fires since then, nine have occurred since 2000, five since 2010 and two this year alone, including the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in state history.” But surely this points to something other than drought as the cause. The most severe drought conditions in the Americas occurred in the 1930s and 1950s, not the past 10 years. What has changed in the past 10 years is the regulatory situation that makes it harder for landowners and forest managers to reduce fuel loads in forests. And the Times goes on to admit that most of these fires were human-caused, including by downed power lines.

On that point, ecologist Jim Steele offers some important additional insight. He spent 25 years working at a university research station inside the Tahoe Forest and learned the dynamics of fires close up. He has written an insightful essay debunking the claim that climate change caused the Camp Fire in Paradise California. Human ignition starts 85-95% of fires. During the windy season in California, high winds bring down power lines and fan the fires at the same time. Public safety would be served by reducing the kindling load on forest floors and creating defensible spaces (i.e. manicured lawns) around buildings and communities. This is the sort of practical advice that could save lives. Not as satisfying perhaps has fulminating about climate change and Donald Trump, but presumably the point is to protect people and their homes.

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