Wild fires: Is everything a single variable problem?

With wild fires out of control in west coast states, the new meme is to blame all of them on climate change. If only we controlled the climate, there would be no more fires.

A couple of weeks ago, Gov Newsom of California acknowledged there are multiple factors, but as fires worsened in California and Oregon, he switched to a full throttle message blaming the “climate emergency”.

As if the fires are a single variable problem and there are no other factors.

Let’s assume the fires are due to climate change. What steps would you take to control the climate that would reduce fires in 12 months? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? What steps would you have taken 4 years ago to have prevented the fires in 2020?

Realistically, there is no climate control knob you can adjust now to reduce the fire threat in the next several decades.

What you can control is how you choose to manage forests, cut fire breaks, use controlled burns, establish fire resistant building codes, limit future construction, and possibly remove ignition sources like overhead power lines through forest corridors. These are some of the additional variables that define fire threats. Yes, you can also work on climate change but those efforts will not have any impacts for decades.

The above steps can be implemented rapidly and would have immediate effects in reducing danger.

News reporters frequently view this as a single variable “climate change” problem. I just read a news report from a month ago about California fires which exclusively quotes a climate scientist who sees fires solely as a climate issue. Yet in the following quotes we see numerous forestry scientists pointing to forestry practices as the culprit. This points to the need for multi-disciplinary approaches to problem solving. It also points to the need for reporters to have greater knowledge of the subjects they report on – in the above article, the reporter’s background suggests he views everything as a climate problem. This biased reporting, in turn, skews the public to pursue solutions that fail to solve immediate problems.

Wildfires have not burned in these areas for many decades, according to fire authorities, leaving heavy layers of fuels on the ground that firefighters must work through to secure the area, which they say is a very laborious and time-consuming process.

https://www.kptv.com/news/wildfire-near-warm-springs-grows-to-138-718-acres-crews-continue-work-on-containment-lines/article_b721d502-f5f9-11ea-b5b7-2bc280a60f0e.html

“Throughout the Pacific Northwest, there’s been a slowdown in active land management, and that’s what’s allowed a lot of these fuels to accumulate,” John Bailey, a professor at Oregon State University said. “Hindsight is 20/20, and we can look at what we could’ve done and should’ve done, and that kind of thing.”

https://katu.com/news/on-your-side/lack-of-forest-management-allowed-fuels-to-accumulate-expert-says

“All of us on the paper were suggesting that if you are going to try to reduce that mass fire problem in the future [in the Sierra-Nevada], you really need to start putting prescribed fire into these stands to start whittling away at those bigger fuels,” said Forest Service research ecologist Malcolm North, one of Stephens’ eight co-authors.

….

“They were just getting started [with controlled burns],” said Adam Hernandez, who oversaw prescribed fire and fuels management for the Sierra forest before leaving the U.S. Forest Service last year to teach wildland fire technology at Reedley College, southeast of Fresno.

But those big goals are decades late, say fire ecologists. They have long pointed to the mid-elevation pine and mixed-conifer belt of the Sierra Nevada as a place desperately in need of the frequent, low-intensity burns that shaped the forest before settlers and a century of government fire suppression policies snuffed them out.

The elimination of indigenous fire practices, logging of the biggest and most fire-resistant trees and fire suppression produced an overgrown forest vulnerable to bark beetle attacks during the severe California drought of 2012-16.

Some areas have 500 to 800 trees per acre, compared with 60 to 100 pre-settlement. 

….

“How many of these fire seasons do we need before we do the things we need to do?” Thomas wondered. “Every fire scientist I know has been saying it for 30 years.”

https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/150-million-dead-trees-could-fuel-unprecedented-15563742.php

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden [D-OR] called for a significant and coordinated federal response to prevent catastrophic forest fires from continuing to ravage Oregon and other states in the future, saying the suffocating smoke blanketing the West is “debt coming due” on decades of poor forest management.

https://www.oregonlive.com/politics/2020/09/wyden-smoke-suffocating-the-west-coast-is-debt-coming-due-on-lousy-forest-management.html

Raymond [forest ecologist at the UW] also recognized that there are more factors than just climate change that contribute to the wildfire risk in our region, including how we manage forests and vegetation, development in the wild and urban interface, and human caused ignitions.

“We also know that the relevance of these different factors varies depending on what region of the state we are in,  … therefore the solutions that we look at need to be tailored to the specific area, and the role that fire plays in that area,” she said.

“But we know that all these factors, including climate change, are part of the equation,” she added. “And that the situation is not getting better until we address climate change directly, as the governor has said.”

https://mynorthwest.com/2165015/gov-inslee-climate-change-induced-fires/

Dr Judith Curry, formerly chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at Georgia Tech, now CEO of a weather forecasting business

The mantra from global warming activists that manmade global warming is causing the fires, and therefore fossil fuels must be eliminated,  is rather tiresome, not to mention misses the most important factors.  More importantly, even if global warming is having some fractional impact on the wildfires, reducing fossil fuels would fractionally impact the fires but only a time scale of many decades hence.

https://judithcurry.com/2020/09/15/fire/

She notes “The saga of Oregon politics surrounding fire reinforces that a broad range of stakeholders need to be involved in policy development and decision making.” Exactly. It is a multi-variable problem and those telling you it is a single variable – climate – are science deniers.

But one of the clearest conclusions, as experts have been saying for years, is that California must begin to work with fires, not just fight them. That means reversing a century of US fire suppression policies and relying far more on deliberate, prescribed burns to clear out the vegetation that builds up into giant piles of fuel.

MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/09/17/1008473/wildfires-california-prescribed-burns-climate-change-forests/

Oddly enough, much of the media reported on this complex topic, correctly. See the links here for much more. The Oregonian notes that while some fires were caused by earlier lightning storms, most were caused by direct human activities.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s other U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says the science is wrong but fails to identify any control knobs to reduce the fire danger. Merkley appears to be a science denier.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Sunday that President Trump blaming “forest management” for wildfires is “just a big and devastating lie.”

Merkley told ABC’s “This Week” that he disagreed with the president’s comments Saturday night attributing the fires to being primarily “about forest management.”

“The president has said it’s all about raking the forest,” the senator said. “It’s just a — a big and devastating lie.” 

“The Cascade snowpacks have gotten smaller,” he added. “Our forests have gotten drier. Our ocean has gotten warmer and more acidic. And this has been happening steadily over the last several decades.”

Politicians wish to deflect blame to climate change – rather than measures they could have taken to address fire danger now. But highlighting concrete steps draws attention to leadership failures – thus, they will strive to blame everything other than their failed policies – climate change is a great target for blame. Furthermore, they hope to ride the climate change meme to push other actions – with Trump it is perhaps less regulation, and with Democrats its a top-down-centrally planned solution; the UK’s Extinction Rebellion marched through London with a large banner proclaiming “Socialism or Extinction” indicating that for some, the climate change ideology is a primarily to be used as a means to socialism.

Politicians who deflect will get the public focused on activities and resource expenditure that will not reduce the fire threat during the likely remainder of my life (several decades yet). Worse, some steps focused on “climate” (broadly defined) could make immediate threats worse.

To address fire threats, politicians must must focus on what they can control now, not what they do not actually control. But they will not do that and the fire threats will remain for a long time to come, albeit, perhaps self limiting as fuel loads are reduced considerably by existing fires. (It is acknowledged that aggressive fire suppression during the past 70 years has created high fuel loads in many – not all – forests. High fuel loads combined with traditional western droughts and a larger population with more human activities within fire zones creates high fire danger.)

Ask yourself, what climate control knob can be adjusted right now that will reduce fire threats next year, ten years from now, twenty years from now?

No such control knob exists.

Note – It’s not like I am not doing what I can. I live in a solar PV powered house. Last year, we replaced the old insulation in our attic with R-49. My heating comes from locally sourced wood pellets. The UN (and NASA) say wood heating is carbon neutral; technically, that’s an exaggeration as carbon-based fuels are used to gather, process and distribute the pellets but that is also true for other heating sources. The wood pellet materials come from mill waste and, in some cases, forestry management cleanup of downed trees and branches. I do not have an EV at this time because having a coal-powered electric vehicle does not make sense (70% of our local utility grid power comes from fossil fuels, almost all of which is coal). You can read more about the choices one can make to reduce carbon emissions – the answers may surprise you if you have not given this much thought. Our family’s carbon emissions are about 1/4th the level of the typical family according to several online carbon calculators. Regarding EVs, there are EV side effects – for example, they typically weigh 50% more for the same sized vehicle, which may increase wear and tear on roadways. There are also questions about the sourcing of battery materials and future recycling or disposal (but these issues, in different form, also apply to ICE vehicles). EVs also have many benefits – more efficient in city traffic, the ability to regenerate electricity on downhill runs and during braking, and simpler, presumably lower cost maintenance.

Update 0: The political messaging on western wildfires is predictable and nonsensical as Joe Biden proclaims:

“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires? How many suburbs will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in superstorms?”

And the answer is – exactly the same number regardless of who is voted in to office. There is no near term climate control knob that will do a damn thing in the next several decades.

Meanwhile, buffoon Trump who has blamed lack of “forest floor raking” (what?) accidentally got it right by mentioning forest management. Just because he accidentally stumbled into it does not mean it is wrong – nor does it mean he is not a buffoon. Further, he is in a position to drive Federal forest management policies – but has he done so? There is plenty of blame to go around – between states and the Federal government and the general incompetence of political leadership on both the left and the right.

Update 1: The LA Times notes, correctly, that both of the above are correct – climate change likely played a role – and poor forestry management played a role. Yet each candidate believes this is a single variable problem!

Update 2: Shortly after name calling Trump a “climate arsonist”, candidate Joe Biden issued a photo showing himself boarding his private jet – because he cares about stopping forest fires – or something? This is beyond parody.

Update 3: Property owners say a governor and a vice presidential candidate trespassed on their private property, burned in a California wild fire – to score some political points. While the elite were permitted to trespass, the family is still prohibited by evacuation orders from visiting their own property. After trespassing, neither contacted the family to, say, offer help for their losses. The politicians both said the fires are due (solely) to climate change and they will end the fires by adjusting an unspecified climate control knob.

Update 4: Trump opened his mouth in California and out dribbled his usual verbal diarrhea.

Update 5: My wife observed that the U.S. no longer has leaders, we have politicians. The two terms are not equivalent. It is apparent from the above that all of the candidates are morons stuck on stupid.

Update 6: The more I read about this, the more it seems creating conditions for conflagrations has been intentional. These massive fires occur nearly exclusively in CA, OR and WA. There are political motivations and political incentives to intentionally create conditions for massive firestorms.

One thought on “Wild fires: Is everything a single variable problem?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *