WITH massive wildfires raging in California and other western states, it has not taken long for climate change to get the blame. The Los Angeles Times calls it California’s climate apocalypse, while the state’s Governor Gavin Newsom and other Democrat politicians have no doubt that climate change is to blame.
Renowned environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, however, disagrees. Writing in Forbes, he says that wildfires used to be much worse prior to European settlement. So far this year, he explains, 2million acres has burned in California, but the best available science suggests that between 4.4million and 12million acres burned annually there before the arrival of Europeans.
‘California was a very smoky place historically,’ says Malcolm North of the US Forest Survey. ‘Even though we’re seeing area burned that is off-the-charts, it’s still probably less than what used to be burned before Europeans arrived.’
When we hear claims about ‘record-breaking fires’, we need to remember that this relates only to ‘the modern period’ which began in 1950. Prior to that time, wildfire acreage across the US was many times greater than anything seen in recent years. And the reason for such a drastic reduction is very simple – fire suppression.
The era of fire suppression really dates back to Teddy Roosevelt’s days in the White House at the beginning of the 20th century. Several massive blazes, such as the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire, persuaded him to expand federal control over forests in order to suppress fires, ironically over fears of timber scarcity.
The turning point was probably the Big Burn in 1910, just after Roosevelt’s departure. Over just two days in August, it burned 3million acres in Idaho, Montana, Washington and British Columbia. To put this into perspective, across the whole of the US so far this year 6.7million acres has been affected by fire.
The Big Burn made Congress take fire suppression seriously, and a policy of immediate action was instituted, with the use of water and firebreaks. Over the years, this policy was stepped up as more people moved into fire-prone areas. The introduction of mechanisation and aircraft allowed for much more effective suppression after the Second World War.
By the 1960s, however, scientists began to realise that attempting fire suppression was a huge mistake, as it allowed the build-up of undergrowth and deadwood, the ideal fuel for spreading intense fires. Jon Keeley of the US Geological Survey comments: ‘By the 1960s when we realised it was a problem, vast amount of fuels had accumulated for 50 or more years. The fires became far bigger than could easily be handled.’
It is estimated that there is now five times more wood fuel debris in California’s forests than existed before Europeans arrived.
Over the last fifty years, the US Forest Service has only gradually introduced controlled burning, where small fires are deliberately set to clear tracts of overgrown forest. Ironically, this was exactly the same thing that Native Americans had been doing for centuries, both to protect their lands but also to encourage a much more diverse habitat in the forests.
Progress with controlled burning has been painfully slow, however, thanks to community resistance due to fears of smoke pollution and fires running out of control. (The latter factor is why ‘controlled fires’ are now called ‘prescription burning’.)
Indeed, one of the big problems is population growth. It has been estimated that the population living in wildfire prone areas has increased by 720 per cent since the 1960s.
This raises several issues. Not only is there more resistance to controlled burning, but migration necessitates greater suppression of fires because of the danger to those living in their path. In earlier days the fires could have been allowed to burn themselves out without any real threat to human life.
Increasing population also brings another problem, that of ignition of fires. It is reckoned that 90 per cent of wildfires in the US are now caused by humans, whether accidentally or deliberately.
Other obstacles have been put in the way of proper forest management. In the 1980s, the Northern Spotted Owl was placed on the Endangered Species Act, resulting in a reduction of timber harvests. This was followed up by the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted by Bill Clinton. As a direct consequence of these and other related actions, the amount of timber removed from federal lands plummeted.
Governor Newsom may blame climate change, but it has actually not been an unusually hot summer or dry summer in California this year, nor was last month’s heatwave out of the ordinary. Last year’s wildfire acreage was extremely low. Looking further back, over the last thousand years California has gone through several ‘megadroughts’ far more widespread, intense and longer lasting than anything seen recently, so the idea that California’s climate nowadays is somehow unprecedented is utterly absurd.
The vast majority of forestry experts and scientists are fully aware of all of the issues outlined above, and agree that proper forest management is the key. As Shellenberger puts it: ‘Climate change or no climate change, scientists say somewhere between 500,000 and 4million acres of forest land needs to burn annually in California. Accepting that reality, and managing it in a practical and more nuanced way, requires moving beyond the kind of environmental alarmism that got us into this mess in the first place.’
Whether climate change is exacerbating wildfires is, in any event, irrelevant. There is nothing realistically that can be done to alter the climate in the short or medium term. There is, however, an awful lot which can and should be done now to manage the risk. Put simply, arm-waving and blaming climate change is a disgraceful dereliction of responsibility.