Other factors include natural multi-decadal climate variation connected with the El Nino weather patterns and a greater willingness by land managers such as the National Park Service to allow wildfire activity as they came to better understand the natural importance of fire. Yet even with the increases over recent decades, current fire amounts are still well below what they should be. One recent estimate indicated that western forests need approximately five times as much fire as they are now experiencing.
People who try to portray recent fire increases as evidence of an unnatural excess of fire often do so by using a misleading baseline. Beyond shifting baselines, another misleading way to try to make current fires appear excessive is to substitute some other metric in lieu of the actual fire amount—such as emphasizing that the fire season has been made longer by climate change.
Forests do indeed exist in world affected by anthropogenic climate change due to greenhouse gas pollution, which has various effects including making the fire season longer. However, the fire season is simply the timeframe when fires might occur, whereas what ultimately matters for forest ecosystems is how much fire actually occurs. And the inconvenient truth often avoided by logging proponents is that much less fire is occurring in western forests now compared to what naturally happened a century or more ago, so those forests need significantly more fire than current levels.
Another pivot is to focus on projected fire amount in the future. For example, some models suggest that anthropogenic climate change could double the current amount of wildfire in California by the end of this century. Yet it is important to put these projections in the context of the current fire shortage. If those forests need five times more fire than they have now, even if fire doubles by the end of the century, at that point the forests would still only be experiencing less than half as much fire as they naturally should. All the while, those forests would continue to be harmed by the on-going shortfall of fire depriving them of essential ecosystem processes.
The anthropogenic fire shortage thus results in a messaging conundrum for climate activists who seek to use forest fire to illustrate problems created by global warming. For climate activists to remain being reliable sources for the best available science, we need to be careful to acknowledge the overall shortage of forest fire compared to natural levels or else we risk giving the false impression that recent increases in fire amount mean that there is now too much fire.
Yet after fire is put in proper context, it becomes a puzzling messaging choice for climate activists to seek to highlight the effects of climate change on wildfire amount at a time when more fire is actually needed for the ecological recovery of western forests. There are many clear and scientifically accurate examples of problems created by global warming that climate activists can draw upon, but the erroneous notion that climate change has caused an unnatural excess of fire in western forests is not one of them.
In contrast, the claim that forest fires are getting hotter is simply incorrect. A frequent reference used to try to support this claim is a study of fire season length by Anthony Westerling and his colleagues. In California, the other main citations used to claim that forest fire severity is increasing have been two studies published by Forest Service employee Jay Miller and his colleagues [v]. However, when independent scientists reviewed these studies, they found that the Miller and his colleagues had not used much of the available data.
When all the available data was analyzed, it showed that there was not a trend of increasing fire severity. The myth of increasing fire severity has depended on omitting this scientific research. For example, Forest Service documents have frequently cited the Miller publications while avoiding discussion of the numerous other studies that refute Miller. Climate activists who care about scientific integrity should be careful not to repeat this deceptive practice of omission.
Climate activists should also be cognizant of erroneous claims that forest fires would only burn at low-severity in the past. There is a substantial body of historical evidence showing that fires in western forests naturally burn with a mixture of severities, including high-severity. Likewise, efforts to suppress the high-severity components of mixed-severity fire are harmful to forests and wildlife by depriving them of this important ecosystem process. When climate activists adopt their messaging, they inadvertently provide cover for efforts to increase logging and reduce forest protections for some of our most diverse and vibrant forest areas.
Even now we can see attempts by the Trump administration and Congress to use wildfire as a bogeyman in their effects roll back environmental protections for public lands.
Western Water Threatened by Wildfire
Climate activists may not mean to aid these efforts, but that is the net effect from using negative messaging on western forest fires. Not only does this approach harm forests, it is also detrimental to the climate by promoting logging policies that release forest carbon.
Forest ecosystems are an incredible source of natural carbon sequestration and storage. Unfortunately, more than a century of industrial logging has caused the loss of much forest carbon. Thanks to increased protection in recent decades, forests are starting to grow back and recover.
They cite the number of trees in the forest, but that number includes many small trees in the recovering forest. It gives the false impression that there is too much forest in terms of actual amount, i. Small trees hold little carbon, so the overall volume of life and stored carbon is actually less than it naturally should be. The current efforts to increase logging portray it as being done to reduce fire amount and severity, even though those goals do not comport with the best available science.
As discussed above, our forests need more fire, not less. Forest fires are burning with a mixture of low-, moderate-, and high-severity effects, as they have always done, and fire severity is not increasing.
See a Problem?
However, logging proponents try to portray their attempts to prevent mixed-severity fire through more cutting as being beneficial for forest carbon storage by downplaying the ways that logging releases forest carbon and ignoring the ways that mixed-severity fire facilitates carbon storage. Mixed-severity fires are beneficial for forest carbon because, in addition to creating great habitat for wildlife, these fires stimulate forest nutrient cycling.
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The result is that while mixed-severity fire creates some tree mortality, the many remaining living trees experience a pulse of growth and carbon uptake soon thereafter, and the nutrient enhancement from fire also stimulates growth of new plants and tree seedlings. Moreover, the standing dead trees created by intense fires provide continuing carbon storage for decades or centuries, while they are also providing important wildlife habitat.
And when they ultimately decay, they become soil and contribute to the vitality of the next generation of trees sequestering carbon. In contrast, these carbon benefits are lost when logging is done ostensibly to reduce fire severity. Logging cuts trees down into smaller pieces that readily release greenhouse gases, and it removes the material from the forest ecosystem so that material no longer contributes to the nutrient cycling and fertility of the next generation of trees that would absorb more carbon. Approximately percent of wood cut during logging very soon ends up as carbon dioxide emissions as the logging and milling process breaks the trees down into smaller pieces, and carbon is also released from soils disturbed by the logging machinery.
The greenhouse gas emissions from logging done under fire-related pretexts are even worse when the cut material is used to fuel biomass-burning power facilities. Unlike solar and wind, biomass power is carbon-burning form of electricity production. It is also remarkably inefficient, producing more CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated than natural gas or even coal. In addition to emitting CO2, biomass facilities are also economically inefficient, relying on extensive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies to remain in business.
That means that biomass facilities try to take the limited government funding for alternatives to fossil fuels, instead of those funds going to genuine climate solutions such as roof-top solar. In California, misinformation about forest fires was recent deployed to enact legislation mandating higher levels of biomass power usage. Utilities are now being forced to buy more electricity from biomass facilities even when it would be less costly for them to increase their use of solar energy and doing so would also avoid the carbon emissions from the biomass facilities.
There are also other ways that misinformation about wildfire is being used to steer climate-related resources into subsidizing logging.
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For example, in California, state funding intended for climate adaptation is being channeled into the subsidies to cut trees under the guise of addressing fire. And the timber industry is seeking to claim eligibility for climate-related funding and other incentives by portraying logging as a form of fire reduction— even though fire severity is actually higher in areas where logging occurs than in protected areas.
Forests are a natural source of large-scale carbon sequestration, so forest protection is an important component of an overall strategy to stop the climate crisis. Fire keeps material circulating within the forest ecosystems, and thus provides the basis for the long-term vitality and carbon storage capacity of the forest. In that regard, restoring a more natural forest fire regime—i. Misinformation about fire is counterproductive to those climate goals. Deceptively negative claims about fire are used to try to fund ongoing intensive fire suppression that deprives forests of a needed ecosystem process.
Moreover, these efforts are inevitably linked to logging and biomass power proposals that release forest carbon into the atmosphere rapidly and take nutrients out of the forest ecosystem. One key challenge is that these logging schemes are increasing being repackaged to appear climate-friendly in misleading ways that are often built upon negative messaging about forest fires.
How can climate activists help the public avoid being misled by these duplicitous claims? First and foremost, we should be wary of any proposal that uses fire as a pretext for logging. Rather than endorsing new excuses to take trees out of forests, we should focus on finding ways to keep carbon circulating within the forest ecosystem as part of the solution to the climate crisis.
Second, we should help the public learn to be cautious of statements that only portray fire in negative terms and do not mention the ecological benefits of mixed-severity fire in terms of wildlife habitat creation and nutrient cycling.
Backfire: How misinformation about wildfire harms climate activism (commentary)
We should also be alert to statements that do not acknowledge the overall shortage of mixed-severity fire in western forests compared to natural levels, and instead use misleading shifting baselines to compare current fire amounts only to recent decades during the period of intensive fire suppression. Finally, another key challenge we face is that the timber industry, Forest Service, and their allies have stoked misunderstanding of fire among homeowners who live near forests in order to promote more logging.
Climate activists can play a vital role in helping to address this problem. In particular, it is important that we remind communities near fire-dependent forests that, even though we now live in a climate-altered world, large wildfires have been a natural part of those ecosystems since long before anthropogenic climate change, so those communities need to take proper steps to safely coexist with fire. Long-time Colorado firefighter Mike Sugaski used to consider 4, hectare fires big. Now he fights fires 10 times that size and more.
The number of U. From to , the United States had less than 26, square kilometers burned each fire season. Since then, there have been 10 years in which more than 26, square kilometers have burned. The largest burns took place in , and The wildfires in each of those years burned more than 38, square kilometers.
The Simple Reason That Humans Can’t Control Wildfires
Some people who reject climate science point to data that seems to show far more land burned in the s and s. But Eardley said data before is not dependable. Nationally, more than 23, square kilometers have burned this year.
That is already 28 percent more than the year average and fire season continues. Scientists generally avoid blaming global warming for any given extreme event without extensive research.
But fire and weather scientists have done those extensive examinations of wildfires. John Abatzgolou of the University of Idaho looked at forest fires and dry conditions in the western United States. The data covered from the years to He compared that data to computer-based models of what would be expected with no human-caused climate change.
He concluded that global warming was partly to blame for an extra 42, square kilometers of forests burning since The Alaska fire season is the second biggest on record. A similar comparison with a computer-based model found that human-based climate change increased the fire risk by 34 to 60 percent. One study said worldwide fire seasons are about Another study that year said climate change is increasing extreme wildfire risk in California, where wildfires already are year-round.
Backfire: How misinformation about wildfire harms climate activism (commentary)
Also, insects and a lack of water have killed million trees in California since , creating more fuel. Seth Borenstein reported this story for the Associated Press. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. What do think governments can or should do to prevent the spread of wildfires?
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