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Shouting fire in a crowded continent

14 Jun 2023 | Science Notes

For those who have never been near a forest fire, which includes most city folk, the orange haze of the smoke will seem like a dystopian wasteland. So when northerly winds carried a smoke plume from this month’s outbreak of forest fires in Ontario and Quebec down the eastern seaboard, giving residents of Toronto, New York, Boston, Washington and many other cities a very rare whiff of fire season in their own backyards, the response was of course to declare that end of the world and the climate apocalypse was upon us. Suddenly everybody was an expert on the links between climate change and forest fires, everybody knew that we’re having more and more of the nasty things and they’re bigger than they’ve ever been. Roger Pielke Jr. on his Substack channel, wrote an entry on forest fires in his series on What the Media Won’t Tell You which, needless to say, the media didn’t tell you about, which surveyed what the experts actually had to say.

He begins with the observation that fires are integral to forest ecosystem health and have been a major feature of the landscape as long as there have been forests. Forest fires are normal--what’s abnormal is the way we have suppressed them over the past hundred years. But the very act of suppressing them causes the fuel to build up which makes the fires worse when they do break out.

Despite the fact that some recent fire activity around the world has been exceptional, the IPCC has not chosen to do the usual told-you-so act and blame it on greenhouse gases. Pielke Jr. notes that while the IPCC says climate change may make weather conditions in some places more conducive to fires, “The IPCC has not detected or attributed fire occurrence or area burned to human-caused climate change.” Moreover they don’t even expect fire conditions to get worse in most places around the world. And even if they plug the RCP8.5 jet pack into their models they don’t foresee any likelihood that they will be able to detect a connection between forest fires and climate change.

Pielke Jr. then looks at some data showing declining global forest fire trends. (We’ve also presented such data, for instance here and here.) And he takes a close look at Canada’s forest fire data, where no evidence of long term upward trends are evident. Although there is evidence of human causation: arson-related fires have risen.

Pielke Jr. then provides a deranged quote from a “prominent climate scientist” by the name of, you guessed it, Michael Mann, who claimed on MSNBC that the only way to deal with forest fires is to decarbonize our economy as quickly as possible. What a help that would be, until a wildfire breaks out and you want to evacuate a city, dispatch fire crews and their heavy equipment, and send the water bombers over, all without using any fuel. It’s another case of common sense going up in smoke.

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