Robert Morton • 29 Aug, 2020 • 5 Min Read
Global Warming Alarmists have a habit of blaming everything on global warming. They even pivoted to the term “climate change” so they weren’t hemmed in by catastrophes that might be the result of global cooling. So, naturally, global warming is the reason for both the existence of wildfires (primarily but not entirely in California) as well as their number, frequency, and severity.
The “argument,” such as it is, goes something like this: global warming makes the air warmer, which more efficiently dries out flammable vegetation, making it easier to set ablaze.
Like most nonsense arguments, it fails to account for all the other factors that are involved in wildfires. The oversimplification and lack of intellectual and scientific rigor is a hallmark of Leftist “thought,” and this scenario is no different.
We can dispense with the claim that the number of fires has been increasing. The National Interagency Fire Center shows that there is no obvious trend whatsoever, with an average of 41,617 fires per year and a standard deviation of 5,283 – meaning there’s a wide variance, as well.
There’s more. The area of forest land that has been burned in the US – even in years where consumption was greatest — is far below both the average and peak years from 1926 to 1950.
Remember, the peak period of fires occurred prior to the years of alleged man-made global warming. The reduction in fire isn’t because of deforestation, either. The USDA Forest Service reports that forest area “has been relatively stable since 1910.” Yes, dry fuel feeds and maintains fires. Northeasterly winds kick up and spread the fires. Some spark, such as lightning strikes or arson or public utility incompetence, lights the proverbial match.
Yet none of this is the result of global warming. California is dry in the summer because the Pacific Ocean doesn’t throw off thunderstorms. It’s cooler than the Atlantic. The jet stream also shifts further north in summer. Thus, by the time “fire season” rolls around, all the fuel lying around for fires is going to be naturally dried out. Even if they weren’t dried out, the winds that kick up during fires would dry them out anyway.
All of this is to say that “global warming” doesn’t matter. California is dry, period. Fuel is added to the inevitable fire during the winter rains, as more grass and plant life grows. When summer rolls around, all of this life still dries out, adding to the undergrowth.
Does global warming contribute to higher rainfall in California, thereby contributing to more vegetation growth, and therefore more fuel? Nope. The National Climate Assessment demonstrates that rainfall from December to March has no discernible pattern.
This leaves the question of the winds. Almost every wildfire in California is accompanied by the famous Santa Ana winds. These winds are generated in the intermountain west by high pressure at the surface that builds up. Once it crests at the level of the terrain, known as “ridging,” the winds start to blow.
Is global warming responsible for increased ridging? The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratories suggest that there is not.
There are other factors that contribute to the wildfire situation. If one insists on attaching human involvement in wildfires, it isn’t global warming that’s the culprit.
A major contributor to wildfires is fire suppression itself. While there is an obvious need to protect homes and property, there is a natural inclination to just knock down fires wherever they spring up. Yet doing so creates thick underlayers of growth that merely provide more fuel for the next fire.
Nature has a purpose, and fire serves a purpose. We refer to wildfires as “devastating” but any biologist will tell you that fires burn overgrowth, effectively “re-booting” nature in any given area. When chaparral and other growth become thick and prevalent, most wildlife moves on and is replaced by scavengers and bottom-feeders. New life emerges when areas burn naturally, and burn out naturally.
Then there’s the environmental movement itself, in which preservation of land seems to be almost sacred in comparison to permitting timber activity of any kind. That creates more fuel. Almost half of California is federal land and political battles have restricted the timber industry, as well as livestock grazing.
Not only that, the importance of controlled burns – “prescribed fires” — to reduce fuel is undisputed. The National Forest Service says:
Prescribed fire is one of the most important tools used to manage fire today. A scientific prescription for each fire, prepared in advance, describes its objectives, fuels, size, the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn, and conditions under which it may be suppressed. The fire may be designed to create a mosaic of diverse habitats for plants and animals, to help endangered species recover, or to reduce fuels and thereby prevent a destructive fire.
However, a host of problems have kept this tool in check in California. The sad state of affairs in California is that global warming isn’t the problem.
Seven months after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed much of Paradise, and with another potentially catastrophic wildfire season getting underway, a growing body of experts say California is neglecting a major tool in its battle against mega-fires: the practice of fighting fire with fire.
These experts say state and federal firefighting agencies should allow more fires that don’t threaten the public to run their natural course. What’s more, they say fire agencies should conduct more “prescribed” burns — fires that are deliberately set, under carefully controlled conditions, to reduce the fuels that can feed a disaster.
In California, the debate over prescribed burns is complicated by a deadly history with wildfires that have grown quickly out of control, the state’s stringent environmental regulations, fear of liability lawsuits and infringement on property rights, and the huge swaths of federal forestland with their own management rules and oversight.
There are several other problematic policies that set communities up for wildfires. Almost one in twelve homes in California are located in wildfire zones. The lunacy of permitting high-risk wildfire areas to be zoned for residential housing can be laid at the feet of the state and federal governments. While multiple parties stand to benefit from the creation of housing – home builders, the construction lobby, large businesses that seek new population zones to open stores in – it is the state and local government that stand to benefit the most. Property taxes aren’t as lucrative on undeveloped land, after all.
New neighborhoods bring people, which bring families, which bring children, who need to go to school. Schools require teachers and unions, and more government services and regulations, and of course, more income taxes. The wealthier the community, the higher the taxes that get collected.
Insurance companies are hip to these poor decisions, however. They have become increasingly restrictive in writing and maintaining policies in wildland – urban fire zones. Naturally, California state government tried but failed (this time) to force them to insure those zones where homeowners engaged in mitigation, known as “home hardening.”
The bottom line is that global warming does not cause or contribute to wildfires in California. Foolish and short-sighted policies are to blame.Robert Morton is a veteran public policy researcher, analyst, and consultant who has worked on a variety of issues across economics, the sciences, and education.