The monstrous 2020 fire season is nearing its end.
Politicians and environmentalists continue to rage that climate change is the primary factor. These claims are false and ignore commonsense forest management actions that could actually reduce the risks.
Manmade climate change is a convenient scapegoat, but it cannot be separated from natural climate fluctuations and effects.
Fuel Buildup Behind Fires
The key ingredient in these monstrous, devastating forest fires is fuel. A century of Smokey the Bear fire suppression, coupled with half-century bans on timber harvesting, tree thinning, and even insect control has filled western forests with dense concentrations of brush, fallen branches, needles and leaves, skinny young trees, and huge older trees – many of them dead or dying – ready to be turned into conflagrations under entirely natural hot, dry summer and autumn conditions that prevail most years in California and other western states.
It’s a recipe for disasters like the 1871 Peshtigo Fire, 20 miles north of where I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, on the very same day as the Great Chicago Fire. Blistering flames a mile high moved south at 100 mph, creating “fire tornados” that threw houses and rail cars into the air. Over a million acres of forest were obliterated in two days; up to 2,500 people died, many of them cremated into little piles of ash.
A few days ago, I picked up the latest issue of Wired magazine. Daniel Duane’s article “The fires next time.” In it, Duane made a couple of now-obligatory references to climate change, but for the most part it was one of the most detailed and insightful articles I’ve read on the causes and nature of these horrific wildfires. He vividly explains why we are witnessing a “trend toward fires dramatically more catastrophic” than in the past.
Fuel Management Blocked
The primary reason is fuel buildup. CalFire, he notes, has some 75 aircraft and 700 fire engines, and is very good at extinguishing thousands of wild-land fires annually. But CalFire has virtually no fuel-management authority. It must simply watch the trees and other fuel get “more and more dense,” creating prime conditions for ever-worsening crown fires that US Forest Service scientist Mark Finney says are big because landscapes are full of tinder and long-burning, heavy fuels. Ditto in other states.
More trees also generate more roots competing for the same water, further drying everything out. In California alone, this, the 2011-2016 drought, and a pine bark beetle infestation killed 150 million trees!
Another key ingredient is the simultaneous burning of many small fires, caused by multiple lightning strikes, combusting both light and heavy fuels over a large area alike.
“As that broad area continues to burn with glowing and smoldering embers over many hours, the separate convective columns of all those many little fires begin to join into a single, giant plume,” Duane writes.
As hot air in the plume rises, air at its base is replaced by air “sucked in from all directions. This can create a 360-degree field of wind howling directly into the blaze … oxygenating the fire and pushing temperatures high enough to flip even … giant construction timbers and mature trees into full-blown flaming combustion. Those heavy fuels then pump still more heat into the convective column…. [which] rises ever faster and sucks in more wind, as if the fire has found a way to stoke itself.”
The timbers, branches and entire trees become “firebrands,” often carried high into the air, a mile or more from the primary fire, then dropped into timber stands and homes, igniting still more firestorms.
Smaller blazes can be controlled, even extinguished. But massive firestorms can be impossible to suppress making saving homes virtually hopeless.
Escape Blocked by Environmentalists
The primary order of business with mass fires is getting people out of harm’s way before escape routes are clogged, cars run out of gas, and walls of flame close in.
That means building more escape roads from communities through forests to safety. Yet environmentalists oppose this, fighting road building with lawsuits. Roads are far less intrusive or harmful than conflagrations. Yet radical greens battle these roads, while praising these unnatural conflagrations as “nature’s way.”
People lived in these areas long before pressure groups, politicians and courts made conflagration conditions this horrific.
Need to Manage Fuel Loads
Actions need to be taken now to prevent more deadly fire cataclysms.
This will require removing diseased, dead, and excessive trees and brush. It will take years, decades even, and a lot of effort and money. But failure to halt and reverse the buildup of fuel in our forests is grossly irresponsible and deadly. Apache Indian forestry programs prove sound management saves forests.
Blaming climate change for catastrophic wildfires is equally irresponsible. It means waiting 30-50 years or more, in the hope that reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide actually reduces climate change, droughts, extreme weather, and infernos.
Policymakers, land management agencies and regulators, Native tribes, community associations, industry groups, and less obdurate environmental groups should cooperate on forest management and tree thinning. This is already happening but needs to be expanded greatly.
Above all, those with life-or-death decision-making authority must come to understand that the price of bans on timber harvesting and responsible forest management is too often measured in homes and habitats obliterated, wildlife and humans killed, soil organisms incinerated, soils washed away by rainstorms and snowmelts, and millions of acres denuded for decades.
To expedite forest thinning, the state could require forestry work for welfare checks. Besides saving habitats and lives, such a program would build skills, self-esteem and strong work ethics, improve physical fitness, and replace a sense of entitlement with a sense of accomplishment.
Another source of funds for forest management could be billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who recently gave $791 million to climate activist groups, as part of his commitment to his $10-billion Earth Fund. Certainly, helping to stop these deadly fires – and the incalculable air pollution, soil erosion, and habitat and wildlife destruction they cause – would be one of the boldest and most effective actions anyone could take to protect Earth’s future, including the majestic at-risk forests in his own backyard.
‘If We Don’t Act, Nature Will’
The bottom line is so simple we shouldn’t even have to state it: If we don’t act, nature will.
We have created this massive fuel-for-fires problem. Either we thin out trees, or nature will – with devastating consequences.
Paul Driessen (email@example.com) is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow.