Wildfire is on all of our minds these days, and rightfully so. My own home and those of many of my friends burned in the August Complex fire. It is awfully easy to blame climate change for such a horrifying event. But, are we talking about climate change or weather change? Yes, we are experiencing a drought in the West and we are faced with a number of fires but this is not the first time that this has happened.
The problem is that many people are asserting that wildfire is evidence of climate change. The media hypes it every time there is a significant fire and the politicians never miss an opportunity to add it to their repertoire of things from which they will save us. Those who are using these fires as evidence to advance their agenda that the climate is changing (warming) as a result of the combustion of hydrocarbons have either not researched wildfire history or chose to ignore it.
The facts: Although the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were bad years for wildfires, from the early ‘80s until 2020 (the latest data that I have) the number of forest fires in the United States was stable at an average of about 75 thousand per year. (NIFC 1960-2020)
Of course, climate change is a global event and what occurs in the United States does not necessarily reflect that which is going on in the rest of the world. Research shows that acreage burned worldwide has decreased from around 4.9 million square km in 1900 to about 3.6 million square km in early 2000. (Spectral and Temporal Patterns of Global Burned area in Response to Anthropological and Environmental Factors, Jia Yang et al.)
There are, no doubt, a number of reasons for the decline in acreage burned, however it is well known that the increase in CO2 has caused a significant greening of the earth and green vegetation is somewhat less prone to combustion. Comparing today’s fires to those in the past, James Johnson, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires, says “I think it is important to take the long view of wildfire. In the context of the last couple hundreds of years, the Bootleg fire (Southern Oregon) is not large. One of the things my lab group does is reconstruct historical fires, and fires that were burning in that area in the 1600s and 1700s were just as big as the Bootleg fire or bigger.”
So, while there is no doubt that weather changes can have an effect on the number and intensity of wildfires, there is no evidence to date that climate change is having any effect of significance. History tells us that at least in the West, wildfires are business as usual.
Globally, the number of acres burned is decreasing. The bottom line is that the zealots who are trying to frighten you into buying into their agenda are simply lying to you when they tell you that wildfires are worsening because you are not turning down the furnace and have not yet bought a Prius.