Life in the WUI

As previously noted, the Antiplanner recently moved to Central Oregon. In fact, I moved into what the Forest Service calls the WUI (pronounced woo-eee) for wildland-urban interface. In other words, I live within a few hundred feet of public forest land that is likely to burn any year now.

So I naturally take note when a big lightning storm two nights ago was followed yesterday by helicopters carrying giant buckets of water to local wildfires. And since it is fire season, we are now inundated with the inevitable myths about wildfire.

First, National Geographic presents a video promoting bigger Forest Service budgets. “Fires today are hotter than ever,” says the video, because past decades of fire suppression have led to more fuels in the forest. Second, on a related topic, Reuters reports that climate change is threatening Alaska’s forests.

Click to see a larger chart.

The drought chart above, which is based on data from the National Climatic Data Center, shows why I call both these stories myths. Forest Service and other firefighting officials who say that today’s fires are hotter than any in memory are not likely to remember anytime back before the 1960s.

Notice from the chart that, starting in 1967, the U.S. entered a period of about 20 years when there were only two serious summer droughts (serious meaning more than 10 percent of the country is experiencing severe or extreme drought). Since 1988, however, 12 out of 20 years have had serious droughts. Similarly, 12 out of the 20 years before 1967 also had serious droughts.

As I show elsewhere, there is a strong correlation between this measure of drought and the number of acres burned each year. What this means is that firefighters and agency officials who remember a “golden age” when fires burned cool and did not cover many acres are remembering those cool, wet decades. Today’s hot fires are hot because of drought, not more fuels.

The chart also shows that wet and dry periods tend to be cyclical, and there is little evidence that the current drought is due to global climate change. In fact, the droughts of the 1930s and early 1950s were actually worse than today’s.

This may be small comfort if a national forest fire burns down my home. But any policies that assume that today’s fires are due to past fire suppression or that today’s fires are evidence of global warming are likely to be misguided.

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7 thoughts on “Life in the WUI

  1. D4P

    What this means is that firefighters and agency officials who remember a “golden age” when fires burned cool and did not cover many acres are remembering those cool, wet decades. Today’s hot fires are hot because of drought, not more fuels.

    Where is it written that “drought” and “more fuels” are mutually exclusive, such that if we demonstrate that one exists, the other is automatically ruled out?

    The chart also shows that wet and dry periods tend to be cyclical, and there is little evidence that the current drought is due to global climate change.

    In theory, what would such evidence look like?

    PS: Your link to the Reuters report doesn’t work.

  2. NPWeditor

    “But any policies that assume that today’s fires are due to past fire suppression…are misguided.”

    Today’s fires are due (caused) primarily by lightning strikes. The intensity of today’s fires is the result of a variety of factors, one of which is fuel load.

    It’s hard to make blanket statements whether or not fuel load is a factor of previous fire suppression. For lodgepole pine forests as well as subalpine and Pacific Northwest coastal forests, previous fire suppression has had fewer effects than in giant sequoia groves, ponderosa pine forests (which the fire record for various locations show burned every 3 to 15 years), or other mixed conifer forests. As a former wildland firefighter, I can tell you with certainty that fires ARE more intense in areas that haven’t burned for 50 or more years than in areas that have burned in the last 5 or 10 years.

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  4. Dan

    The chart also shows that wet and dry periods tend to be cyclical, and there is little evidence that the current drought is due to global climate change.

    Shucky darns!* Randal wrong again. Sheesh, even Reason mag is wondering what to do about man-made climate change.

    Today’s hot fires are hot because of drought, not more fuels.

    Randal presses on with the erroneous opinion regardless.

    DS

    * “Barnett and his team used computer models to study water flow in Western rivers over the past 50 years.

    The researchers found that the changes currently affecting the U.S. West have less than a one percent chance of being due to natural variability, Barnett told National Geographic News.

    His team verified that by running a variety of control tests under pre-industrial conditions that mimicked known natural cycles.

    (Related: “Ancient “Megadroughts” Struck U.S. West, Could Happen Again, Study Suggests” [May 24, 2007].)

    What’s been occurring recently, he said, is different from natural variability and is driven by the buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. ” [emphasis added]

  5. Dan

    The chart also shows that wet and dry periods tend to be cyclical, and there is little evidence that the current drought is due to global climate change.

    More from yesterday:

    Research: Southwest Is Drier Already

    Sunday, August 24, 2008
    By John Fleck
    Journal Staff Writer

    Human-caused climate change is already drying out the Southwest during late winter and early spring, new research by a team of Arizona scientists suggests.

    The work supports one of climate-change science’s key predictions for our region — that the jet stream, which brings our winter storms, will slowly shift to the north as the planet warms.

    University of Arizona researcher Stephanie McAfee looked at rainfall data for the region and found that the climate shift is already under way. Storms that would in the past have blessed the Four Corners region with rain and snow instead get steered to our north.

    Not every year will be dry, McAfee said in a telephone interview. But the shift increases the proportion of years with below-average rain and snow as the jet stream shifts to the north.

    Fewer storms from February through April leads to an earlier start of our dry, windy weather, according to Ed Polasko, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque and one of the state’s leading snowpack experts.

    In some case, that can lead to earlier snowmelt, Polasko said. But the dry winds can also evaporate the snow directly, keeping it out of the state’s rivers entirely.

    The change also leads to an early and more dangerous wildfire season, said Tom Swetnam, a fire-science researcher at the University of Arizona.

    Scientists say the buildup of greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels is changing Earth’s climate. The phenomenon often goes by the name global warming because it appears to be contributing to an overall increase in average global temperatures. But many scientists working on the issue prefer the term “climate change” because the results are not evenly distributed around the planet.

    In particular, scientists say we should expect the large deserts that circle the globe at low latitudes, like those found in Mexico or the Middle East, to expand toward the poles. [emphasis added]

    DS

  6. Dan

    Randal’s off the reservation:

    Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr issued the following statement:

    Former Vice President Al Gore and I have met privately to discuss the issue of global warming, and I was pleased and honored that he invited me to attend the “We” Campaign event. Global warming is a reality as most every organization that has studied the matter has concluded, whether conservative-leaning, liberal oriented or independent. I am, however, also aware that scientists differ on its causes, impact and remedies. I remain firmly committed to free market solutions and innovations to address this issue; not tax-driven policies.

    I commend Mr. Gore for his efforts and leadership in this area, and urge Senators Obama and McCain to join me in studying, debating, and finding solutions to the problem of energy needs, consumption and effects. The American people deserve to hear all of our views and proposals on this issue and others. I am particularly pleased that Mr. Gore agrees that the public debate of this issue should include me so that the American people can make an informed choice after hearing a range of views.

    Surely some readers of this site are suffering paroxysms of cognitive dissonance as their relevance disappears in one fell swoop.

    DS

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