Climate Change and Wildfire

Wildfire Ecology

I’ve been interested in natural vegetation response to wildfire for more than 40 years. Most of my work involves the desert shrublands and woodlands of western North America. From the beginning of my studies, I saw that Asian weeds brought by European sheep and cattle herders had heavily infested native vegetation. It soon became clear that added fuel provided by the weeds was allowing fires to increase in size and number. During the past century and a half, the weeds have replaced vast areas of native shrublands and woodlands that could not contend with the increasing wildfires.

Fire-prone invasive plants fueled fires that converted this formerly diverse Sonoran Desert landscape of small trees and tall Saguaro cactus into an impoverished shrubland.

This is one of the study sites that Jeff Steele and I established in 1974.  Two fires (1974 and 1985), converted this formerly diverse Sonoran Desert landscape of small trees and tall Saguaro cactus into an impoverished shrubland.

Humans with their weeds and livestock led the first devastating wave of wildfire across the arid and semi-arid lands of the world. The next wave will come from human-caused global warming.

The following is from Global Warming Forecasts

[Click this link for my review of the Forecasts.  Below, I’ve include 2050 as an example of the forecasts.]

2050 Wildfires

“2050.  Forest wildfire burn area in the U.S. is projected to increase by over 50% and as much as 175% in some areas by 2050.  “The area of forest burnt by wildfires in the United States is set to increase by over 50% by 2050, according to research by climate scientists. The study [Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States], predicts that the worst affected areas will be the forests in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, where the area of forest destroyed by wildfire is predicted to increase by 78% and 175% respectively.

“The research is based on a conservative temperature increase of 1.6 degrees Celsius over the next 40 years [2010-2050]. Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists also say that the increase in wildfires will lead to significant deterioration of the air quality in the western United States due to greater presence of smoke. . . . This work was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Dr. Dominick Spracklen carried out the research whilst at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in collaboration with Jennifer Logan and Loretta Mickley.” (NASA press release, “Wildfires Set to Increase 50 Percent by 2050,” NASA Earth Observatory, Twitter NASA EO, Greenbelt, Maryland, July 28, 2009 reporting findings in D.V. Spracklen, L.J. Mickley, J.A. Logan, R.C. Hudman, R. Yevich, M.C. Flannigan, and A.L. Westerlin, “Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States,” Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 114, D20301, doi:10.1029/2008JD010966, published October 20, 2009.” Global Warming Forecasts

View Jennifer Logan’s PowerPoint presentation on wildfires.


Northern California National Forests on Fire

Last month’s storms in the North Coast resulted in hundreds of lightning strikes igniting forest fires across the region and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Now a combined total of approximately 102,755 acres are burning on the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. Thousands of fire fighters are on the ground, some in an effort to protect life and property and others are in the wilderness and backcountry. Fire suppression and the military style of firefighting can be more environmentally destructive than wildfire itself. Crews typically construct ridge top fire lines with bulldozers, dump fire retardant, ignite high severity back burns, fell trees and open up decommissioned roads to access and suppress the fires. These damaging efforts are often ineffective, for example yesterday a burning tree fell across a containment line on the Route complex, causing the fire to escape.  Sourced through from:

GR:  The human damage fighting fires and logging burned areas may be more destructive than the fires.

Hundreds Flee California Wildfires as Governor Declares State of Emergency

(LOWER LAKE, Calif.)—Blazes raging in forests and woodlands across California have taken the life of a firefighter and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes as an army of firefighters continue to battle them from the air and the ground.

Twenty-three large fires, many sparked by lightning strikes, were burning across Northern California on Saturday, said state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant. Some 8,000 firefighters were attempting to subdue them, something made incredibly difficult by several years of drought that have dried out California.

“The conditions and fire behavior we’re seeing at 10 in the morning is typically what we’d see in late afternoon in late August and September,” said Nick Schuler, . . . ”  Sourced through from:

Misconceptions about disruption of fire cycles

“I would like to point out a typical bias that I see and hear all the time. The Forest Service often promotes the idea that lodgepole pine stands are “overstocked”. Actually lodgepole and many other species always grow that way after a disturbance. There is frequently a significant amount of natural regeneration that is gradually whittled down by natural thinning agents like beetles or fire.

“It baffles me that the FS tries to prevent beetles from “thinning” the forest when indeed, they believe they are “overstocked”. Beetles, disease and fire will thin them naturally, and these agents are much better at selecting which trees should live and die than any forester.” —George Wuerthner  Sourced through from:

GR:  Many excuses for logging are offered as scientific justifications just as hunting is said to be good wildlife management. This article offers several solid counterpoints to the Forest Service’s effort to justify logging as forest management.  Recommended.