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Unprecedented unprecedentedness

16 Sep 2020 | News Roundup

Fresh from the unprecedented arrival of two hurricanes on the American Gulf Coast that had actually happened many times before, the vultures have swooped on the wildfires in California, declaring them “unprecedented” in some unprecedented way, the revenge of Gaia and so forth. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee called them “climate fires” not wildfires. Joe Biden said “The science is clear, and deadly signs like these [fires] are unmistakeable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life”. But as with the hurricanes, the fires are not unprecedented. Nor does the US get less (or more) rain than it used to. Bad land management and bad weather have started forest fires, as the former has always done and the latter can be counted on to do. As the vultures can be counted on to swoop in, then swoop out without explaining why if climate change set Canada on fire in 2016 and the Amazon in 2019 it left both alone in 2020.

The usual suspects are out in ghoulish force. The reliably unreliable New York Times gotchas us over climate with “A Climate Reckoning in Fire-Stricken California/ If climate change was a somewhat abstract notion a decade ago, today it is all too real for Californians fleeing wildfires and smothered in a blanket of smoke, the worst year of fires on record.” And the Times’ John Schwartz throws caution to the hot winds, saying “The links between climate change and some extreme weather phenomena can be hard to distinguish from natural weather variability without extensive attribution analysis, but the links between wildfires and a warming planet, especially in California are ‘straightforward,’ said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.” Should California have a quiet fire season next year, be advised that the link between wildfires and a warming climate will again become complex and tenuous.

Not now. NBC says “California has never before seen a fire as large as the one burning now on federal land north of Sacramento. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, on Thursday put the August Complex Fire in Mendocino National Forest atop its list of the largest wildfires in the state. Six of the 20 largest fires have taken place this year. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has blamed climate change for the current crop of fires, said Thursday that 2.6 million acres have burned in California this year. Cal Fire officials updated the number to 3.1 million Thursday afternoon.” Well, he would, wouldn’t he, since the alternative is to accept responsibility for terrible forest management practices combined with loony energy policy on, uh, his watch. But hang on.

What happened in California in the 16th century, or during the prolonged megadrought of the late 13th century, or the two-century monster from the 9th to the 12th centuries? As Anthony Watts noted about the hurricanes, there is a special arrogance in thinking nothing major happened before you were born and it isn’t much better thinking nothing major happened before people kept the detailed records available to you. And these folks have it in abundance.

NBC had earlier reported that “Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said that in the last 24 hours, the state had “experienced unprecedented fire with significant damage and devastating consequences.” “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” she said at a news conference.” Well yes. If your state’s history starts in 1849. But what if it doesn’t? What if there were trees there for hundreds of millions of years, and people for tens of thousands? What if there is considerable evidence that in North America “‘modern’ (1984–2009) annual area burned was only 14% of that burned annually prior to European settlement (approx. 1500–1850)” and that for more recent periods “the general perception of increasing fire around the world is not supported by the data available to date”? And that in fact in the United States big megafires “were 4-times more common before 1940” which isn’t exactly ancient history even by shallow modern standards?

Jim Steele also suggests the politicians exploiting the fires are peddling scientific ignorance about everything from actual past burn patterns to causes of the current ones, including that “About 70% of California’s 2020 burnt areas have been in grasslands and dead grass is so dry by the end of California’s annual summer drought that dead grasses are totally insensitive to any added warmth from climate change…. Furthermore, the century trends in local temperatures where California’s biggest fires have occurred reveal no connection to climate change. In most cases the local maximum temperatures have been cooler now than during the 1930s.”

Finally, what if fires are now getting worse because humans first suppressed fires and then suppressed fire management, permitting massive fuel loads to build up in California as they also did in, oh, say, Australia last year? Why then you’d get huge fires that were effectively your fault, and blame them all on your enemies.

Even if, as the local news story that quoted Gov. Inslee did acknowledge, “While large fires on the west side of the state are less common than on the east side, the west side has seen huge record setting fires in the past.” So what’s happening now is unprecedented on one side of your state, but the other had worse fires in 2017. And 2015, due to an unusually dry winter whereas 2017 had an unusually dry summer, which local experts said “isn’t unprecedented” and is “not necessarily linked to human activity”, not least because 1917 was also very dry.

Oh, one more thing. Wildfires in Western Canada a few years back were widely blamed on climate change. But apparently this year “it has been a quieter-than-usual wildfire season in western Canada that can be attributed to the mixed blessings of rainy weather and isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic”. Got that? Global warming hammered Alberta in 2016 while sparing California which is on another globe. Then it pummeled the Amazon and Australia in 2019. Then in 2020 it walloped California and Oregon but gave BC a pass. See, if it’s bad it’s climate and if it’s good it’s just weather.

3 comments on “Unprecedented unprecedentedness”

  1. A number of tree species rely on fire to clear competing vegetation and germinate their seeds, and Redwoods on the west coast grow so tall, and live so long, because their bark resists fire. Same applies to Australian ecalypts, which have volatile oils that vaporise in a fire, and literally explode along the fire front, again clearing competing species.

  2. Great article. Just the right level of facetious mocking of the unserious people who dominate the media and politics.
    From 1996 to 2004 I lived in western Washington. The forests there are impressive, in fact awe-inspiring is a better term for the view of someone who had grown up in the dry and high northern rockies among the puny lodgepole. One of the local businesses had posted on its wall newspaper accounts and photographs of the great fire of September 1951 on the Olympic peninsula. That fire burned some 38,000 acres in less than a day. The summer of 1951 was extremely dry, with rainfal in the summer months less than 15% of normal. The fire began around 3 am with easterly winds and exceptionally low humidity. I'd never heard of this fire before. There must be thousands of "great fires" in the past century from Wisconsin to Washington, Arizona to Alaska that are utterly forgotten now -- precendents of unprecedentedness.

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