FIRE

Matt Pearce wrote an article for the LA Times in which he makes it sound as though the wildfire situation in the western U.S. is no big deal. He does so by pointing out that most of the area burned in the U.S. this year is in Alaska. I guess according to Matt Pearce, Alaska either isn’t part of the U.S. or it just doesn’t matter.


He even found a “professor” who “downplayed the situation across the West.” “Is it unusual? I don’t think so,” he said. I suggest Matt Pearce should talk to some firefighters. Ask them whether or not it’s unusual.

I suggest Matt Pearce should talk to firefighers in Washington state — certainly not Alaska, do they even matter up there?

I suggest Matt Pearce should look at the latest (not out-of-date) statistics from NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center), including for the last decade or more, so he can compare the average yearly total acres burned in Washington state since 2002 (the data I found), to the acreage from fires burning in Washington state RIGHT NOW:

Washington

Yes, the area scorched by fires burning in Washington state RIGHT NOW is more than their average annual total. Not “so far this year.” Not including what burned this year and they’ve already extinguished. Certainly not the fires that are yet to come (fire season ain’t over yet). RIGHT NOW.

I suggest Matt Pearce should look at the trend in wildfire acres burned per year — you know, the trend that going up and is statistically significant.

I suggest Matt Pearce should read some of the science about the issue. I suggest he start with Westerling et al. The one titled “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity.”

I suggest Matt Pearce should seriously consider the meaning of, and the consequences of, irresponsible journalism.

And while we’re at it, I suggest the LA Times fire Matt Pearce.

23 responses to “FIRE

  1. I hear Fox News is hiring. Matt Pearce should fit in nicely.

  2. No, not fire him. There’s enough fire as it is.

    I’ve read the article and basically what it’s saying is: The whole world might burn, as long as no assets get damaged, there isn’t really a problem. It’s a bit like that Bloodhound Gang song.

    But the article says this too:

    “What happened was, we had a low snow year, followed by a dry spring with a record-breaking warm May and June,” Harrel said.

    and

    Climate change and global warming are threatening to extend the fire season and bring more severe droughts.

    I’m confused. Is everything just hunky dory, or is there more to come?

  3. One might think that tinderbox-dry conditions and severe to record fires from southern California to central Alaska and as far inland as the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (north of Montana and North Dakota) might be noteworthy… about 2 million square kilometers ready to go up in smoke.

    The _same_ reporter, one day later, wrote a story headlined There aren’t enough firefighters to fight all the Western wildfires.

    BTW, the Canadians were bringing in firefighters from the U.S. and Mexico and as far away as Australia and New Zealand, and at one point mobilized their army reserves to help out exhausted professional firefighters.

  4. Reporter Matt Pearce wrote in his piece:

    Wildland blazes have consumed almost 7 million acres since January, the National Interagency Fire Center says. That’s larger than the state of Vermont, and a 50% increase over the last decade’s average of 4.8 million acres burned over the same period from January to August.

    Sounds bad, right? But the truth is more complicated.

    Here’s one reason: More than 5 million of those acres were in Alaska, often far from civilization.

    Tamino, when you state:

    I suggest Matt Pearce should talk to firefighters in Washington state — certainly not Alaska, do they even matter up there?

    … you are neglecting to consider that most of the forest fires that are taking place in Washington State are far from civilization. So clearly Pearce’s point still applies, and failing to locate major cities in the middle of forests (let alone forest fires), logically, you must concede his point will still apply — no matter the turn of events. [Sarcasm intended.]

    • David B. Benson

      Not that far. Yesterday was a poor air quality warning day and I’m as far from the fires as possible and still be in Washington state.

      • Rattus Norvegicus

        Hell, I’m in Montana and the air here is rated as “very unhealthy” 2 days in a row now because of the fires in WA and OR. It literally hurts to breath right now, and I’m indoors.

    • Tell the people of Chelan and Methow Valley that they’re far from civilization. Or does Matt Pearce think that because they vote Republican they aren’t civilized.

      Does Mr. Pearce have any data that in prior years the forest and wildfire fires were in downtown Denver, Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or are the fires just as close to civilization as normal?

    • The way I think of it, the argument that the forest fires of Alaska are (for the most part) far away from civilization and therefore do not count is fairly bizarre, because we are speaking of forest fires, after all, and naturally there is some distance between forests and large population centers. But this doesn’t make forests or forest fires irrelevant. It just means that their relevance isn’t that closely tied to being close to cities. In the absence of climate change, it may just be the destruction which forest fires imply, the small communities that are affected, or the economic implications.

      With increased forest fires it may be that they are indicative of increased drought or heatwaves, or that the trend suggests the climate will soon be unable to support the same flora, fauna or agriculture. In the case of the Amazon, the loss of forest will result in a reduction in the amount of rain that makes it further into the continental interior — or to farmland a thousand miles away. In the arctic and sub-arctic, it may result in a loss in albedo that reduces the amount of snow or sea ice, resulting in arctic amplification, rendering permafrost and shallow water methane hydrates more vulnerable.

      Proximity to population is just one criteria. There are others, some of which are arguably more important, particularly when viewed from a less parochial vantagepoint.

  5. Just wait for this summer in Australia.
    El Nino is coming.

  6. LA Times is bad news, and has been since Chandler sold out to Tribune Corp. They led the charge against solar in the desert, too.

    • I used the NOAA climate at a glance site that Mass used to claim that “there is really very little upward trend” in the WA statewide average temperature for May-July. In fact, from 1960-2015 the increase is +0.3°F/decade.

      Predictably, a careful selection of endpoints will give different results. For instance, for 1992-2011 the calculated slope is -0.7°F/decade, and for 1999-2015 +1.5°F/decade. It would be helpful if the NOAA could add an estimate of statistical uncertainty to the trend calculator, as SkS does.

  7. “He does so by pointing out that most of the area burned in the U.S. this year is in Alaska.”

    I am reminded somewhat of the then appeasing British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who, in 1938, when Hitler’s armies were marching into Czechoslovakia, proclaimed, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
    I seem to remember that that fire burnt for some time.

    Or maybe Christopher Marlowe, some centuries earlier, put it more succinctly,
    “Thou has committed –
    Fornication. But that was in another country: and besides, the wench is dead.”

    For me, as a child, I just stuck my head under the blankets and hoped the bogey-man would go away.

    All such techniques work. For a while.

  8. That is not even sarcastic from Matt, at time when even prisoners were deployed. :-/

  9. The professor Matt Pearce references is not a scientist but an economist: Wade Martin, professor and chairman of the economics department at Cal State Long Beach.

    [Response: Hilarious! I see why Matt Pearce didn’t talk to any firefighters — that would have so spoiled his dream-world fantasy.]

  10. O/T request:

    Tamino, a while back, in this post, you charted the IPCC projected trends (FAR, SAR, TAR) against the observed trends (GISS, HadCRUT4, NCDC). I’ve found this chart more useful that you could ever imagine.

    When comparing model projections against observations, almost everyone uses a time series. But this is apparently fraught with problems–IIRC, even the IPCC screwed this up in a draft, and then there’s Spencer’s infamous “95% of models are wrong.” Even when it’s done right, it’s easy for the “skeptics” to fixate on places where the observations happen to be below the projections, ignoring that this is mostly down to short-term variability.

    Your chart was way better. It eliminated the noise problem entirely and focused on what’s really important, i.e., the long-term trends. I’ve found this invaluable on many, many occasions.

    But it’s gotten out of date.

    Is there any chance of updating it? Maybe making it a little easier to understand by splitting the one chart into a separate chart for each of the surface datasets you feel like including?

    If you can, thanks. If not, thanks anyway for all your good work.

  11. We had very good data on the Rocky Fire – weather, fuel loads, topography, and detailed fire perimeter. We put all that into the best fire model, and in 5 hours the fire burned what the model said would take 5 days to burn.

    The days of a Hotshot crew armed with Pulaskis putting out a wildfire are gone.

    Alaska is farther than Canada, and this year Canada has a few wildfires.
    Map at : http://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/interactive-map?zoom=&lon=&lat=&month=08&day=19&year=2015#wb-cont

    And, right across from Alaska is Siberia, and they are also burning more and faster. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=86414

  12. What are you people talking about? I looked out my window and didn’t see *any* wildfires.

  13. David B. Benson

    Bad air quality index is pinned here in eastern Washington. About 3000 have volunteered to join the firefighters, doubling the deployment. They will bring their own heavy equipment.

  14. Fires here in California aren’t as bad so far this year as north of us, but still – as of today, 10% of Trinity county has burned this year. Of the 5 major fire complexes burning in that part of the state right now, one of them has a projected containment date of October 1st (yes, that said October, more than a month from now), and one has no projected containment date at all. One tenth of the entire county has burned, and it’s still burning.

    I’ve lived in California more than a half century, grew up in fire country. I’ve sat and wondered if there’s a house to go back to. But this, the scale of it the last few years, is new to me.