A Big Deal

Remember when Matt Pearce wrote an article printed in the LA Times making it sound as though the wildfire situation in the western U.S. this year is no big deal?

Reports from the National Interagency Fire Center say that this year has the most acres burned year-to-date in the U.S.


But wait — there’s more! Even though this year isn’t over yet (nearly three months remain), we’ve already set a new record:


Those black dots are yearly totals — the red one, circled, is only the year so far. With nearly three months to go, and October a traditionally bad fire month for California … how much worse will it get?

Is this what we can expect on a regular basis? I’m not referring to wildfire years — I mean, no matter what happens, people making it sound like it’s “no big deal”?


27 responses to “A Big Deal

  1. > no matter what happens, people making it sound like it’s “no big deal”?

    Yes, the new denier meme. We’ve been through: it’s not happening, to they’ve fudged the figures and now ‘meh no big deal, we’ll just continue as is’

    Saying that, we’re all complicit in electing politicians who don’t do anything and most of us in huge personal emissions and deniers are really only a small, albeit noisy, minority.. what are the majority doing ?

    I was reminded of the latter while watching a new Kevin Anderson lecture on You tube today

    • T-rev wrote:

      Saying that, we’re all complicit in electing politicians who don’t do anything and most of us in huge personal emissions and deniers are really only a small, albeit noisy, minority.. what are the majority doing ?

      I don’t buy that. Sure, we can try to reduce our emissions, use less electricity, use public transportation instead of an SUV. (I try to turn off the lights, use LEDs instead of CFLs, don’t own a car, ride the bus when necessary, but prefer walking, etc.) All of this is good stuff, but the big changes are going to have to be at the national, corporate and utility level. If the utilities go renewable then it won’t matter a great deal how many lights I have on, will it?

      The biggest, most important step we can take will be a revenue neutral carbon tax, where, for example, whatever decrease in net income after taxes result from the carbon tax are cancelled out by reductions in sales, income or corporate taxes, and where domestic industry doesn’t have to worry about an uneven playing field as a tariff is levied on goods from other countries who have yet implemented equivalent carbon taxes. But this is something that has to be done at the state and national level.

      Politically, I haven’t elected any of the Republican congressmen or senators standing in the way of addressing global warming. Democrats and independents regularly vote for politicians who wish to address climate change but are blocked in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Most Republicans believe that we should be reducing our emissions. They will likely vote for politicians who are in the back pocket of the fossil fuel industry, no doubt, but I don’t believe they understand just how serious global warming has become or will become within the next few decades. To them it is just one concern among several or many, not the overriding concern that it should be. Until recently, the majority of Republicans “thought” global warming was simply part of the “culture wars” they have been taught to believe in. And it is their identity politics (largely the result of a decades long propaganda campaign waged by industrial interests) that will get them to vote demagogues in who will defend fossil fuel interests.

      Then look at the revelation that Exxon knew in the late 1970s and early 1980s that carbon emissions were responsible for global warming and the results would be catastrophic in the decades to come – prior to their funding of propaganda campaign against climate science in the 1990s and 2000s. This is worse than the revelations regarding the Tobacco Industry for which they were subject to RICO and arguably much bigger than Watergate. Yet mainstream media has remained largely silent. How are the majority of our citizens supposed to act in an informed way in the midst of such silence?

      I realize of course that when you state that we are all complicit you do not likely mean to argue that we are all equally complicit. You do not mean to argue that the problem is not the corporations but the consumers who simply need to vote with their dollars by buying greenwashed goods and services. You do not mean to argue that all action should be at the individual level rather than the political, or that a campaign to educate is just as easy as a propaganda campaign to spread disinformation. But you don’t seem to address these points, either, and by arguing that we are all complicit without acknowledging matters of degree you lend yourself to such impressions and are arguably “complicit” in them.

  2. Have you seen this piece from the latest Seattle Weekly? Speaking of no big deal,they published a fawning article on poor oppressed icon of reasonability and probity Cliff Mass. Strikes me more as a trashing exercise on Kevin Trenberth. I find it telling they don’t even mention you or your great posts on him from July and August. Will need to find a time I can stomach rereading this tripe to check it more closely.

  3. Definitely, that’s the MO.

    (By the way, typo alert–“I’m” for “I” in the last sentence.)

    From a psychological perspective, it makes sense; minimization is just denial’s little brother. (“But, baby, she didn’t mean a thing to me!”–and still less savory exemplars.) But no-one said that integrity is easy.

    On the other hand, it does tend to give one much greater control over one’s own destiny, since the potential for recognition of the road actually being traveled is much better.

    By the way–or maybe returning to the point–what does testing of the wildfire data show? Is the trend as robust as it is marked to the eye?

    [Response: Yes.]

  4. “I’m mean, no matter what happens, people making it sound like it’s “no big deal”?”
    If you have to ask, you’ve not spent enough time on the denier sites – I’m looking at you, WUWT – that’s one of their main reasons for being, to point out that it’s been worse, bigger, badder at some point in the past.

    And if a bit of misrepresentation or outright fabrication is needed, well, it’s for a good cause.

    Typo alert – the start of your sentence has “I’m mean” when it should be “I mean”

  5. skeptictmac57

    So they’ve gone from “Drill baby drill!”, to “Burn baby burn!”.

    The trees have burned in the past, and have always been burning, and in a few billion years the sun will turn to a red giant and incinerate the whole planet. You gonna blame that on Co2 too? (satire alert) ;)

  6. Here’s some perspective on the recent wildfire history here in San Diego County.

    In 2003, nearly 740,000 acres burned in Southern California between October 20 and November 5: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/assessments/pdfs/Signed-Wildfire.pdf

    The largest was the Cedar Fire, which burned 273,000 acres in San Diego County. I remember that one clearly. It basically shut down San Diego — the smoke was so thick that the street lights in our condo complex (Ocean Beach/Pt. Loma) came on at 10 in the morning. Air quality was well into the “Beijing on a bad day” range.

    And between October 21 and November 9, 2007, the Witch Fire burned about 198,000 acres and the Harris Fire burned over 90,000 acres.

    We are just getting into worst of the historical fire season for Southern California. We are crossing our fingers and hoping for some early-season El Nino storms.

  7. The ‘it’s been worse in the past’ meme has been a fundamental, right back to the beginnings of denial. It’s a foundation of the basic, ‘climate has always changed’, strawman argument. They’ll probably still be saying it when they’re sitting with their tongues hanging out as wet bulb temperatures pass the point where humans can survive.

  8. I was initially concerned that you might have plotted the year-to-date NIFC acreages on the graph rather than the end-of-year ones, but a quick check shows you didn’t.

    Going by the past 10 years, by early October 93% of the annual total fire area has accumulated by early October. Assuming that ratio holds for this year, the year-end total will be 12.1 million acres, 3.5 standard deviations* above the 1960-2014 average and a remarkable 20% higher than the previous 2006 record of 9.9 million acres. (*Note that the annual burned area does not follow a normal distribution and has a heavy tail on the high area side.)

    So, what are some denier, sorry, ‘skeptic’ points that will be dragged out…
    It’s an El Nino year.
    There’s been a drought, as happens from time to time.
    It’s been hot, as happens in the summer.
    It’s due to fire suppression practices.
    A lot of fires were started by people.
    The trend for burned area from 2004 to 2014 was -400000 acres/year so of course there was material to burn.
    What fires?

    The preceding faint mockery aside, net forest growth during cool wet years is a point to consider when looking at data with such annual variations. A five-year running average or more sophisticated treatment is probably justified.

  9. There’s already some jackass on the amazon forums saying the South Carolina floods really weren’t all that big. He’s also quoting an electrical engineer who says climatologists exaggerate the effect of CO2. Plus ca change…

  10. The South Carolina floods have been described as 1000 year floods. Jeff Masters said:

    “Averaged across the state as a whole, the wettest three calendar months in South Carolina weather history are July 1916 (14.41″), September 1924 (13.16″), and September 1928 (12.70″). All of these were related to tropical cyclones passing through or near the state. The last five days alone have already brought South Carolina close to the wettest month in state history–without a tropical cyclone landfall!”

    Since the thousand year floods include hurrricanes and the recent flood was not a hurricane doesn’t that increase the recurrance interval? If Joaquin had brushed past, as was in some forecasts, it would have been even worse.

  11. Michael, Joaquin didn’t make landfall – very far from it – but it definitely supplied most of the moisture that inundated South Carolina. See the 7 second time lapse animation in the comments thread here:

    • Jim,
      I was unable to locate the comment you indicated so this may be redundant.

      Michael, Joaquin didn’t make landfall – very far from it – but it definitely supplied most of the moisture that inundated South Carolina.

      In the post mortem of that horrific event it seems that the role of Joachin has evolved. It woud appear it had to be a big player and the same for the low pressure system over Georgia but apparently another not mentioned too much in the media was the high in southeastern Canada. Here is a link to Lee Grenci’s blog (via Jeff Masters) where he theorizes on the complex interaction of these events.


      He concludes:
      In the final analysis, I believe that the strong high-pressure system centered over southeastern Canada, which was all but ignored by the media, was a major player in South Carolina’s historic rains. Indeed, the robust high played an integral role in maintaining the deep easterly flow (strong 850-mb Moisture Transport). On the other hand, Hurricane Joaquin was probably only an indirect player at times during the persistent deluge.

      A fascinating discussion of this tragic event.

    • aTTP link National Weather Service 6 second link here:


      or here:

      Anyone who looks at the bigger patterns can see the engines and the cogs.

  12. Max Planck said “Physics advances one funeral at a time.” I am afraid what he said could apply to any human endeavor. I only hope when our own failed generation are all gone that our progeny will still have something left to save.

    • In humanity’s case it’s a matter of evolution advancing one extinction (+ that of 30-70% of biodiversity) at a time. With that “one extinction” being a conscious and wilful suicide.

  13. [Manual formatting… aggh. Reposting.]

    michael sweet: “The South Carolina floods have been described as 1000 year floods.”

    I haven’t seen that from anyone who knew at all what they were talking about. Floods caused by “thousand-year rainfall”, yes, but those aren’t the same thing as thousand-year floods.

    Not surprisingly, Roy Spencer and Roger Pielke Jr. quickly jumped on this issue.

    • How about Marshall Shepherd? Full prof at a major research university, tons of grants, including NASA, et cetera, et cetera.


      His quote isn’t exactly the ‘1,000-year’ phrasing, but…

      The rain event has set records all over the state, flooding entire towns. For some locations, this historic rainfall qualifies as a 1,000-year rain event, meaning in a given year there is a 1 in 1,000 chance of observing rainfall totals of this magnitude.

      “The flooding is unprecedented and historical,” said Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, in an email to the AP.

      In the wake of the disastrous flooding events, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state of South Carolina, ordering federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts.


  14. > thousand year
    For most of that thousand years, South Carolina hadn’t been clearcut. You can’t assume the water-holding capacity of a healthy ecosystem can be compared to the runoff from a degraded landscape.

    • Hank, South Carolina is quite well-forested–#7 in the US for percentage of timberland cover:


      I’m sure that the landscape is somewhat ‘degraded’ compared with, say, the early 18th century. But while I can attest from personal experience that ‘clear cuts happen’, they are not extensive as a proportion of the total forest cover. Perhaps more relevant still for the question of flooding, there are also a *lot* of healthy wetlands, both in the Midland country we frequent and further downstate in the ‘Low Country.’

      Possibly the forested character of much of the state has a bit to do with post-Civil War economic slumber: I’ve read that, adjusting for inflation, the Gross State Product of South Carolina didn’t recover to ante-bellum levels until the 1950s.

  15. Update from https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_main.html:

    “NOTE: Due to a technical reporting error, the Incident Management Situation Report posted Friday morning, October 9, showed the cumulative acres burned in 2015 at 11.2 million acres. This error was quickly caught and corrected, but not before several media outlets picked it up and reported that a record number of acres burned this year. The correct acreage as of October 9 is 9,276,416, making 2015 one of only four years since 1960 to see more than 9 million acres burn, but still short of the 9.8 million acres burned in 2006. Other years topping the 9 million acre mark are 2007, 2012 and 2015.”

    (Still a big deal…)

  16. michael sweet

    The LA Times ran a front page article today http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-pol-ca-brown-wildfires-20151019-story.html claiming that scientists think that AGW has not increased the fire danger. They lead with a quote from Roger Pielke. Perhaps someone qualified shoould write an OP ED article countering this information. They quote a bunch of fire supressors who do not eem to have read Taminos articles.

    • IMHO, that’s an egregiously dumb piece–or maybe its really sly. It utterly fails to make clear the very significant difference between “isn’t related” and “can’t be shown to be related.” As a result, it will mislead many.

      The dumbest bit, though, is this:

      “But climate scientists’ computer models show only that global warming will bring consistently hotter weather in future decades. Their predictions that warming will bring more forest fires — mostly in the Rockies and at other higher elevations, while fires may actually decrease in Southern California — also are for future decades.”

      I refute it thus:


      The past 24 months are evidently the warmest such period on record, ~3.5 F warmer than the century mean. Clearly, the ‘temps of the future’ are California’s present.