Wednesday, May 21, 2014

WUWT misleads deniers: downplays climate change affecting wildfires

Sou | 6:07 PM Go to the first of 6 comments. Add a comment

Larry Hamlin is an occasional guest denier at WUWT. He's just another WUWT nutter, though his articles hide that fact behind his smooth words. He suits WUWT because he tells the pack what they want to hear. This time he's downplaying the fact that wildfires will become a worse risk as the world heats up (archived here), under a headline:
AP misleads the public, again, saying man made global warming worsens wildfires.

Larry appeals to the scaredy cats

Larry doesn't like it when he gets scared. He knows the denialiti don't like being scared either. That's how he's framed his disinformation.  He even opens his article with the words:
The climate fear media ...
He uses the word "alarmist" five times - making out that there's really nothing to worry about in regard to wildfires. He uses the word "fear" four times. His closing paragraph he continues his "scaredy cat" framing writing:
The climate fear propaganda media have again misled the public with unwarranted alarmist headlines alleging claims which do not reflect what this study of large western U.S. wildfires actually presented. The alarmist media twisted and misrepresented the studies information in an effort to  try and frighten the public into supporting its scientifically unsupported climate fear political ideology

What Larry is disputing this time, for a change, is not the scientific research - though he arguably misrepresents that as well. No, it's an article written by Seth Borenstein about the research into wildfires in the USA. The article itself was based largely on the US National Climate Assessment as well as three recent papers. In a departure from the norm at WUWT, Larry links to one of the papers and writes about it as if it's the only one. Seth Borenstein wrote:
In the past three months, at least three different studies and reports have warned that wildfires are getting bigger, that man-made climate change is to blame, and it's only going to get worse with more fires starting earlier in the year. While scientists are reluctant to blame global warming for any specific fire, they have been warning for years about how it will lead to more fires and earlier fire seasons.

Larry doesn't agree and writes:
While the climate alarmist press loudly proclaim that “man made climate change is to blame” for these findings the actual study is much more circumspect about what the contributors are that could be impacting the results.
Even in the abstract to this study other factors are identified that the authors believe contribute to these results including the impacts of invasive species and consequences of past fire management practices in addition to changes in climate and in particular increasing drought severity. 

Yes, there are other factors that contribute to wildfires as Larry points out, not just climate change. Nevertheless, one of the main factors that's most concerning as global warming kicks in is higher temperatures combined with drier vegetation.  Here is the abstract to the paper to which Larry refers:
Over the western U.S. and in a majority of ecoregions, we found significant, increasing trends in the number of large fires and/or total large fire area per year. Trends were most significant for southern and mountain ecoregions, coinciding with trends toward increased drought severity. For all ecoregions combined, the number of large fires increased at a rate of seven fires per year, while total fire area increased at a rate of 355 km2 per year. Continuing changes in climate, invasive species, and consequences of past fire management, added to the impacts of larger, more frequent fires, will drive further disruptions to fire regimes of the western U.S. and other fire-prone regions of the world.

One of the factors cited is "continuing changes in climate". It's not the only factor by a long shot, but it will become increasingly important as time goes by.

Dumb deniers

Sometimes you are reminded of just how dumb deniers can be. Many of them would never have been exposed to wildfire. Most would live in cities and all they'd see is smoke when it blows their way. What do they think happens when lightning or an arsonist strikes, or when sparks from an angle grinder, train or powerline ignite vegetation? Do they think that even on days where there are catastrophic fire conditions, there won't be any greater risk from fire than the same thing happening when it's cooler and wetter?

Here is an excerpt from a recent paper on wildfire in the USA. It is from scientists with the US Forest Service and the University of California, Jay D. Miller and Hugh Safford:
Our results suggest that the positive trend in percentage of high severity in YPMC in our study area is due to two factors: 1) an increase in the percentage of high severity in large fires, and 2) the absence of years without any large fires after 1993. The second factor is important because we found that large fires had a significantly greater percentage of high severity in YPMC forests than did small fires. More years with large fires and increasing areas of high severity over the 1984 to 2010 period are consistent with observed increases in the number of large fires across the western US that have increasing percentages of high severity with increasing annual areas burned, and predictions of more large fires due to climate change (Westerling et al. 2006, Lenihan et al. 2008, Westerling and Bryant 2008, Littell et al. 2009, Lutz et al. 2009).

I'm not sure what they mean by their first point, which reads as if the cause causes the cause. However their work suggests that there is an increasing trend in high severity fires in some regions, which is consistent with what is expected as global warming kicks in.

Fires in south eastern Australia

There are some parallels between south-eastern Australia and California. Both would be considered among the regions most at risk of devastating wildfires. In a 2007 paper looking at fire danger in south eastern Australia as climate change progresses, scientists found that:
The number of ‘extreme’ fire danger days generally increases 5-25% by 2020 for the low scenarios and 15-65% for the high scenarios (Table E1). By 2050, the increases are generally 10-50% for the low scenarios and 100-300% for the high scenarios.

The authors also looked at "very extreme" and "catastrophic" fire danger days and found that under high scenarios, by 2050 there'll be a four to five-fold increase in frequency at many sites. In regard to "catastrophic" fire danger days, the authors found that "Only 12 of the 26 sites have recorded ‘catastrophic’ fire danger days since 1973." By 2050, some sites will have "catastrophic" days every three years or less.

I'd say the 2003 Canberra fires and definitely the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria were both "catastrophic" conditions.

Even more worrying (if the scaredy cat deniers paid it any attention), the authors warned that the fire season is going to get longer:
Taken together, the model results suggest that fire seasons will start earlier and end slightly later, while being generally more intense throughout their length. This effect is most pronounced by 2050, although it should be apparent by 2020. 

This is what happens when there are too many fires all at the same time and resources are stretched too thinly. Local firefighters were fighting a fire two valleys away and couldn't get back in time to contain this one.

Are high severity fires getting worse in the Sierra Nevada?

In contrast to the above two studies, there is this paper by Chad T. Hanson,C and Dennis C. Odion that suggests that there has not been an increase in "proportion, area or patch size" of high severity fire in the Sierra Nevada conifer eco-region.  These findings don't necessarily conflict with the paper by Miller and Safford, which found differences between the occurrence of high severity fires in different regions and different mixes of vegetation. My reading is that one of the main points being made by Hanson and Odion is that fire can affect ecosystems in a bad way. Another is about fire management. Some extracts:
A better understanding of spatiotemporal patterns in fire regimes is needed to predict future fire regimes and their biological effects. Mechanisms underlying the lack of an expected climate- and time since fire-related trend in high-severity fire need to be identified to help calibrate projections of future fire. The effects of climate change on high-severity fire extent may remain small compared with fire suppression. Management could shift from a focus on reducing extent or severity of fire in wildlands to protecting human communities from fire.
And from their conclusion, in which they refer to incorrect predictions of "plenty of suitable habitat" and biodiversity:
Finally, our results suggest that predictions that there will be ample, or excessive, high-severity fire, and plenty of suitable habitat for biota dependent on natural early-successional conditions created by fire (Stephens and Ruth 2005), or a diversity of vegetation age classes created by high-severity fire, may be incorrect. Post-fire early-successional habitat appears to be an important conservation priority, but it is not protected as such (Hanson and North 2008; Hutto 2006, 2008). Moreover, many natural forests have been replaced by even-aged, single species tree plantations or modified by silvicultural activities so that they will not function as post-burn habitat for some species (Hutto 2008). Increased recognition of the relative scarcity and ecological importance of burned forest habitats can improve protection of b diversity (Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002; Lindenmayer et al. 2004; Swanson et al. 2011). 

It's complicated

Like with most things, there are different factors that contribute to fire severity and area burnt, as well as to post-fire "recovery". For example, in my home state of Victoria, priority is given to protecting towns and buildings (and commercial forests). That means that when fires burn in national parks they can be left to burn not just because they are in such inaccessible terrain but because native forests are not currently valued (by the powers that be) as highly as privately-owned property. The effort is put into containing the fires so they don't spread to areas inhabited by people - with greater or no success depending often on the fire conditions. (Catastrophic conditions make it virtually impossible to contain wildfires.) The scars on our native forest landscape devastated by very severe fires in the past decade bear testament.

Here is a paper by Gill, Stephens and Cary that discusses some of the problems and policy implications of wildfire management. It covers issues such as prescribed burning (fuel management), property protection, as well as the impact of fires and wildfire management on air and water quality, biodiversity, social and economic assets and more.

From the WUWT comments

Not many WUWT readers are interested in wildfires. Like I suggested, probably few of them have experienced any up close and personal.  Here are some of the comments to Larry's "scaredy cat" article.

Joel O'Bryan says:
May 19, 2014 at 10:53 pm
Grant proposals to study natural climate variability impacts on western wildfire potentials won’t get a high panel score with John Holdren whispering into the NSF’s ear. Grant proposals to study Western Wildfire potentials as a response to projected Climate Change are much more likely to get a better score. If you were a academic researcher needing tenure and a grant, which would you chose? The incentives are obvious with the current political climate.
Time for ^climate change.

Leigh says:
May 19, 2014 at 11:40 pm
Funny that.
We’re getting the same BS studys here in Australia.
The warmies are just changing places and dates on their studys.
Otherwise its word for word on the studys done here.
Some wag earlier this year had a thought bubble that there was this giant invisible cloud of CO/2. That works its around the world increasing the ferocity of bushfires where ever it settles over.
Seems like its moved from Australia to America.
I heard it had turned up in Italy not long ago or was that Greece.
It really is becoming quite tedious.
Lets talk about the global warming that froze America…..

aussiepete says:
May 20, 2014 at 4:40 am
What are the trends in deliberately/accidentally lit fires, numbers of campers and miles of power lines over the last few years? Vandalism generally and graffiti in particular has exploded in recent years, therefore, is it not reasonable to assume that it would be the same with arson ? I do not have a degree so i guess i’m not qualified to ask these questions or even have these thoughts.Nonetheless my instincts tell me that an increase of 0.8 of a degree will not lead to spontaneous combustion.
Aussiepete might be interested in reading about fires that get started in haystacks!

MattS doesn't know much about the climate and vegetation differences across the USA and says:
May 20, 2014 at 6:33 am
Why is this such a big problem in the western states and not the rest of the US?
Because the federal government owns and manages most of the land in the western states, but has relatively little land in the mid-west and eastern states.

elmer reverts to an "algore is fat" type comment and says:
May 20, 2014 at 10:17 am
The fact that these fires were set on purpose and that the doomsayers use these fires to push their global warming propaganda kinda makes me wonder, where was Al Gore when these fires were set?

LogosWrench says something unintelligible:
May 20, 2014 at 10:28 am
The wildfires are man made and I believe they a few people in custody but it aint for CO2.

Chad Wozniak says that all forests should be razed and covered in concrete, or similar:
May 20, 2014 at 11:03 am
The increase in wildfires is attributable very specifically to environmentalist extremism, which has interfered with prudent forest management practices (such as thinning underbrush and removing dead trees) and with natural fire cycles which are much less destructive than the fires resulting from environmentalist practices.

Dennison, P. E., S. C. Brewer, J. D. Arnold, and M. A. Moritz (2014), Large wildfire trends in the western United States, 1984–2011, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41, 2928–2933, doi:10.1002/2014GL059576.

Miller, Jay D., and Hugh Safford. "Trends in wildfire severity: 1984 to 2010 in the Sierra Nevada, Modoc Plateau, and southern Cascades, California, USA." Fire Ecology 8, no. 3 (2012). doi: 10.4996/fireecology.0803041

Bushfire weather in Southeast Australia: recent trends and projected climate change impacts. Melbourne, Australia: Bushfire CRC, 2007.

Hanson, Chad T., and Dennis C. Odion. "Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA?." International Journal of Wildland Fire (2013). http://www.californiachaparral.org/images/Hanson_and_Odion_Fire_Severity_in_Sierra_Nev_2014.pdf

Gill, A. Malcolm, Scott L. Stephens, and Geoffrey J. Cary. "The worldwide “wildfire” problem." Ecological applications 23, no. 2 (2013): 438-454. http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/stephens-lab/Publications/Gill%20et%20al.%202013.pdf


  1. Looks like it could be a long, hot and rather smoky summer for California wildfire deniers...


    The dreaded gubbingmen look like they are after raising Anthony's taxes.

  2. That is an excellent, disturbing series of photos, Sou. Brings back some unpleasant memories though.

    1. Yes, Frank, this was in the 2006 fires - instead of being contained to a couple of hectares, that "small" fire quickly ended up burning more than 33,000 hectares. It raced *down* the hill in a very short space of time. (Fires usually race up hills not down them.)

      In total in our region, the fires that season burnt more than 1.2 million hectares. That was only a couple of years after the 2003 fires, which also burnt around 1.3 million hectares and were fought, largely by volunteers, for 59 days. And before the devastating killer fires of 2009, which were worst north of Melbourne, but took hold (and killed people) in my region too (Beechworth to Mudgegonga to Rosewhite).

      In the first few years of this century, we've probably almost caught up to the entire twentieth century combined, despite now having miles better communication, coordination and fire-fighting tools.

  3. Hi Sou - I was wondering where you were in Australia! I recently tracked down a great-great-uncle who moved to Australia in 1910 - it looks like he settled in Toora and then Welshpool (was postmaster for a while), way south in Victoria. Do you know that area at all? I guess it's not all that close. But I probably have some distant cousins around there somewhere...

    1. I've traveled by there, Arthur. Those are in a scenic part of the state, down in South Gippsland near Wilson's Prom (promontary), which is a well-known national park here.

      Your great-great-uncle would have arrived about the same time as my maternal grandfather. Maybe even on the same boat :) (My maternal grandmother came out the following year.)

  4. This is what happens when there are too many fires all at the same time and resources are stretched too thinly.

    And of course, as deniers are ideologically opposed to Big Government they're staunchly opposed to paying the bills for having a firefighting force available.

    That is, until their houses are torched. Then it's "damned government failed us again."

    Tough times to be a civil servant. Lots of folks in the cafe want to eat but refuse to pay the tab or even leave a tip.


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