Freaking Out Over A Surreal Summer
A resident of Martinez, California, in the Bay Area, texted a friend of mine last week: “Looks so creepy outside today!! It’s 10 a.m. and ash is all over the car; all the streetlights are still on and every car has headlights on too!” Another friend in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California messaged me days ago: “I’ve been here for over 30 years and never seen so many fires simultaneously on the West coast.”
Surreal skies over California in the summer of 2020 from an unprecedented number of forest fires
Ash from forest fire smoke deposited on a car in the Bay Area
Haze from the hundreds of voracious wildfires has now reached New York City on the opposite side of North America.
Livid liberals blame clueless conservatives, and rabid Republicans blame decadent Democrats for the wildfires now destroying hapless towns, devouring vast areas of forestland in the West, and filling the continent’s skies with ash and smoke.
These political operatives and opportunists know that rule #1 is never let a crisis go to waste to push your underlying, overarching agenda.
- “The fires are the fault of climate change deniers like Trump and other Republicans!” scream the left wingers.
- “The fires are the fault of liberals and tree huggers who won’t allow forests to be thinned and managed!” scold the right wingers.
Biden pins the blame for global warming and the wildfires it allegedly triggers squarely on Trump, while Fox News gleefully mocks the self-indulgent, hypocritical Biden for flying in a private jet to campaign in Florida, spewing out more than 20 times as much carbon as he would have on a commercial flight. Reducing your carbon footprint is for thee but not for me!
Overpopulation? Overlooked! So what else is new?
Yet none of these talking heads running their mouths or politicians foaming at the mouth blame human overpopulation for the unfolding catastrophe. That would mean pointing the finger at the inconvenient truth of there being just too many people – for which we all bear responsibility – and no politician running for office or ratings-and-ads conscious TV news producer has the guts or integrity to do that.
Whether it is ignored or not, rapid population growth in wooded habitats of the American West subject to natural fire regimes is an important contributor to the debacle underway. Just ask Jon Keeley.
A Scientific Look at Wildfires
Dr. Keeley is a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He recently served a year as director of the ecology program for the National Science Foundation and was a professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles for 20 years. His focus is the ecological impacts of wildfires and he has more than 350 publications in national and international scientific journals and books to his credit.
Examining California in particular, the state with the most wildfires and the most impacts from them, Keeley observes that one out of every eight Americans lives in the state. Most are residents of densely packed urban and suburban areas situated side-by-side with fire-prone wildlands. Still others live in the “exurbs” – widely scattered but fast-growing, low-density communities in rural environments – many populated by “refugees” from the increasingly unlivable and ungovernable cities. More and more residents and their homes are encroaching upon chaparral and forest habitats, where fires are a natural part of the ecosystem – and an unavoidable fact of life.
In a March 2020 paper entitled “Nexus Between Wildfire, Climate Change, and Population Growth in California,” in the journal Fremontia, published by the California Native Plant Society, Keeley and co-author Alexandra Syphard point out that in this century California has “experienced a remarkable upsurge in fires.” Even before the devastating 2020 fire season began in earnest, over 12 million acres had been scorched between 2000 and 2020, double the acreage that had burned in the previous 20 years. In other words, the average area burned annually has increased by 100% in this century.
In their paper, Keeley and Syphard distinguish between fuel-dominated and wind-dominated wildland fires. Fuel-dominated fires are those resulting from more than a century of misguided fire suppression efforts on federal forestlands in the West, especially in mountainous regions like the Sierra Nevada, all in a well-intentioned effort to save trees and timber and wildlife from the ostensible scourge of fire.
Yet the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and that hell can consist of unintended consequences.
What this vigorous fire suppression did, with Smokey the Bear urging it on, was allow woody “fuel” – fallen branches and small, densely packed saplings – to accumulate decade after decade. Before human intervention, small amounts of these fuels would have been burned up in periodic, relatively inconsequential ground fires (Figure 1) caused by lightning, which can often be beneficial for forest and soil health. Instead, after a century or more of suppressing every fire, the fuel load increased to the extent that “ladder fuels” could now carry fires from the forest floor up into the forest canopy, where they could cause highly intensive and destructive crown fires.
Figure 1. Example of a low-intensity ground surface fire. 2014 Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park; photo by Jon Keeley, USGS
Tree huggers are not to blame for this; professional forest mismanagement is, as a result of an incomplete understanding of fire ecology in forests. That is, innocence and ignorance are at fault, not malfeasance or environmental extremism.
Wind-dominated wildfires are controlled by external weather events, such as the blazing hot Santa Ana winds that race down from the desert across Southern California and the North or Diablo winds in Northern California. These wind-dominated fires, more common closer to the coast, comprise the great majority of California’s large, catastrophic wildfires and they are not a function of excessive fuel loads or forest mismanagement and fire exclusion.
Almost all of the wind-dominated fires are ignited not by lightning, but rather by human sources, such as sparks from powerlines, flares, campfires, and arson.
Does Climate Change Drive Wildfires?
What of climate’s role in the documented increase in wildfires? The answer is equivocal. According to Keeley and Syphard, it depends on the region and the type of fire.
They conclude that global warming is likely affecting the smaller fuel-dominated fires of the Sierra Nevada, where average summer temperatures have been increasing for decades. Thus, “it is reasonable to assume a causal relationship between increased fire activity and global warming.”
Yet they emphasize that at the same time that temperatures have increased, there has also been a steady increase in the amount of understory fuels in these forests, and they raise the important question of whether or not warmer temperatures alone would have had much impact had it not been for this “anomalous fuel accumulation due to fire suppression.”
In contrast, in the larger wind-dominated coastal fires, “there is limited evidence” that climate change is playing any significant role in driving larger, more frequent, and destructive wildfires at this time.
Homes destroyed by the Beachie Creek Fire near Salem, Oregon
And the Population Factor?
What about population growth’s role? Here the answer is unequivocal. Keeley and Syphard write:
…the real driver of wind-dominated fires is not the extreme wind events per se, but rather untimely human ignitions during such extreme wind events. And, of course, the addition of 300,000 more people every year in the state increases the probability of such an ignition event; moreover, urban sprawl into wildland areas increases the probability of losses of lives and property.
They provide a specific example to drive home their point about population: the Tubbs Fire that rampaged through Santa Rosa, Sonoma County in 2017, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,500 structures.
Fifty years earlier the Hanly Fire had burned through much of the same landscape … yet no one died and only about 100 structures were lost…. The difference in impact of these two fires is likely due to the fact that during this 50-year period Santa Rosa’s population grew from 30,000 to 170,000 people and the urban footprint had expanded ….This urban expansion was accompanied by expansion of the electric power grid, increasing the chances of a powerline failure during North wind events that drove both the Hanly and Tubbs fires.
The combined populations of California, Oregon, and Washington have grown from 31 million in 1980 to 52 million in 2020. The lion's share of this growth was from immigration, especially in California. Yet even in burgeoning Oregon and Washington, many of the Californians fleeing there were often escaping the effects of mass immigration and population growth: relentless traffic congestion, skyrocketing housing prices, increasing gangs and crime, stagnant or plummeting wages from oversaturated labor markets, increasing ethnic and racial tensions, and so forth.
This growth has put tens of millions more people and properties into harm’s way from the wildfires that are mostly caused by human agency, not by nature.
Perhaps a bit of good news is that at least some more neutral observers are beginning to acknowledge the detrimental effect of population growth. “A population boom over the last half century has seen homes and towns proliferate on the ‘wildland-urban interface,’ creating more flammable tinder and putting more people and investment in harm’s way,” writes David Helvarg over at National Geographic.
The upshot is that yes, we have mostly ourselves to blame for this unfolding calamity, though not in the simplistic, bombastic way that Democratic and Republican partisans alike frame the issue.
Population matters. And in ignoring that, we’re literally playing with fire.
LEON KOLANKIEWICZ is the Scientific Director for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Oct 5th 2020 @ 9:25pm EDT