What really causes dangerous wildfires
To the media, any weather at all is evidence of climate change, including wildfires. To governments responsible for ecosystem management, this offers great cover for their own failures.
Reports of damaging wildfires have adorned newspaper front pages, social media feeds and television screens frequently in recent years.
They struck South Africa in April this year, when a devastating fire on the slopes of Table Mountain burned into the heart of Cape Town’s historic university, destroying parts of the Jagger Library, including its African Studies section.
In Europe, summer heatwaves fanned the flames in Greece, Italy and France. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and Algeria burned.
Major wildfires have also raged across numerous states in the western United States, as well as in the Canadian province of British Columbia, where a ‘heat dome’ made weather conditions ideal for large fires.
In recent years, the bushfires in Australia and the Great Fire of Knysna are seared into our memories.
When journalists, and many scientists, get around to ascribing causes, climate change always comes first. This article on The Conversation, by Brian Van Wilgen, a professor at Stellenbosch University and research associate Nicola Van Wilgen-Bredenkamp, for example, first points to ‘global climate change’ as ‘exacerbating the situation’.
They offer a chart which suggests an average local temperature increase of about 1.5°C since 1960, arguing that this leads to drier vegetation and better conditions for fires to spread.
No doubt they’re right. But what, exactly, is the situation that is being ‘exacerbated’, and by how much is it being exacerbated?
Only once the obligatory genuflection to climate change is dispensed with, do the authors consider other factors that contributed to the severity of the fire, such as that natural fynbos at the end of a long, dry summer is exceedingly flammable no matter the weather, that invading plant and tree species increase the severity of fynbos fires, that a lack of regular burns means an overgrowth of fuel for fires, and that human population density is highly correlated with the number of wildfires that occur in a region.
In the end, they conclude that better vegetation management is the most important intervention that could reduce the risk of future runaway fires.
A change in legislation at the end of the 1980s put an end to regular prescribed burns, which not only are necessary to rejuvenate fynbos, but also reduce fuel loads and the associated fire risk. These managed burns were unpopular with the local residents, you see, so now they get unmanaged burns only.
Development has also created ‘fire shadows’, with the result that some areas that once burned frequently haven’t burnt in decades, causing a massive build-up of fuel.
Such observations point to the primacy of ecology management, rather than climate change, in mitigating the severity of wildfires.
There are often tell-tale signs of mistaken climate change attribution.
In Greece, for example, where wildfires earlier this month razed tens of thousands of hectares and hundreds of homes and businesses, the media reporting frequently emphasised the heatwave plaguing the Mediterranean country.
So, to be clear, in 1987, the weather was hotter. In fact, the heat wave alone killed over 1 000 people in that year. This year, the fires killed two.
Or take the hysteria about Australia’s wildfires in 2019/2020, which a prominent local climate journalist wrote was ‘granting the world a graphic and horrifying picture of what climate change could do’.
Catastrophic and deadly though they were, the fires in Australia were not unprecedented. Australia is a hot and dry country, with a long history of large and devastating fires.
As a contemporary editorial in The Australian put it: ‘It is time for a dose of icy water. Climate change did not cause the fires. Drought and even deadlier blazes have been part of Australian life for more than a century.’
The New South Wales Volunteer Fire Fighters Association was even more outspoken: ‘It is high time bureaucrats and politicians stopped blaming climate change for a bushfire crisis that is very much of their own making and is putting lives at risk.’
The organisation lays the blame at misguided environmental management and bureaucracy, not climate change, and rightly so. Although it was a degree or so warmer in Australia in 2020 than it was 60 years earlier, rainfall had slightly increased.
Even during a drought, it is hard to imagine that a single degree hotter or cooler will have much effect on wildfires.
If climate change was causing more or larger wildfires, as the media would have you believe, then it should probably show up in the data. It doesn’t.
The total global acreage burned, as measured by satellites, has declined by a massive 24% between 1998 and 2015. Counter-intuitively, this is bad news, because the greatest decline occurred in savannas and grasslands, where fires are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems and habitat.
Anyone who points to wildfires and yells, ‘climate change!’ is an opportunist with an agenda, and, as they openly admit, that agenda is to overturn the political and economic systems that have created so much health, wealth and happiness for billions of people around the world.
‘This is the new normal,’ wrote Sipho Kings, then environment reporter at The Mail & Guardian, days after the Great Fire of Knysna in 2017, which destroyed a large number of properties and claimed the lives of seven people.
‘The reason for this requires no debate,’ Kings assured us, with the certainty of a zealot.
Here’s what the latest IPCC report has to say about wildfires: ‘Fire weather conditions (compound hot, dry and windy events) have become more probable in some regions (medium confidence).’
Some regions. Medium confidence. Yet Kings said there was no doubt.
The IPCC report goes into more detail on why low-likelihood high-impact events cannot be attributed to climate change with much confidence, since the records to compare recent events against don’t go back far enough.
What Kings failed to point out was that the Knysna Fire happened in mid-winter. It was driven by a gale force wind that accompanied a massive cold front.
He also failed to point out that the proximal cause of the fire was the negligence of the fire chief, who despite having had several weeks’ warning of a smouldering groundfire in the forest to the west of town, and a weather report predicting gale force westerly winds, did nothing to douse what would inevitably turn into a massive conflagration.
As I wrote at the time, the signature of climate change in the conditions that preceded the Knysna Fire was weak. By contrast, the signature of poor ecology management was strong.
Scientists, too, attributed the severity of the fire primarily to the replacement of native fynbos with pine plantations, and the invasion of surrounding land by these pine trees.
Although there had been a severe drought, which helped to create the dry conditions necessary for the fires, the weather conditions were not unusual, and happened on average on one day in every three years.
Noting that droughts are often a precursor to wildfires is a trivial observation. You don’t expect wildfires when it rains every other day.
The IPCC report claims: ‘There is medium confidence that human influence has contributed to increases in agricultural and ecological droughts in the dry season in some regions and has led to an increase in the overall affected land area.’
Some regions, again. Medium confidence, again. What’s worse, this lack of confidence is based on models that years ago were attacked in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, Nature, for being overly simplistic, and detecting an increase in droughts where none exists.
‘By increasing the amount of fuel available to burn, the fires become more intense and more difficult to control,’ explained the aforementioned professor Van Wilgen.
I can highly recommend this 45-minute presentation by former US Forest Service ecologist Jim Steele on understanding wildfires and how we must adapt. Although focused on his 25 years of research and habitat restoration in California’s Sierra Nevada, Steele’s analysis applies equally to other Mediterranean climates in the Western Cape, Australia and, of course, Europe.
He shows how forest management regimes which insisted on fire suppression dramatically reduced the number of acres burned every year, but also increased fuel loads and enabled the spread of fire-prone invasive plant species.
Fire-vulnerable building developments, along with a substantial predominance of human-induced fires as opposed to natural lightning-induced fires, also made the impact of more recent fires much worse than they naturally would have been.
And although climate does play a role in fire frequency and severity, this impact is dominated not by gradual long-term warming, but by multi-decade climate cycles.
Go watch that video. I’ll wait.
Correct attribution is important
Misattributing the causes of destructive wildfires misdirects public resources – away from ecosystem management practices that will reduce the risks, and towards interventions that will not make much practical difference.
It also gives cover to government institutions that are responsible for ecosystem management. Against climate change, they are virtually powerless. How can anyone blame them for its effects?
Yet they are the ones who ill-advisedly suppress regular burns, both natural and controlled, causing dangerous fuel-load build-ups. They are the ones who fail to contain invasive species that make fires more severe. They are responsible for imposing safe building development practices that insulate people and properties from fire risks, and conversely, insulate vegetation from the risks of human-induced fires.
Many journalists, like Kings, demand that governments act urgently (and very expensively, I might add) against climate change, and are willing to blame any natural disaster on climate change in order to motivate climate action.
However, climate action, even if successful, would have a minimal, if any, impact on destructive events such as wildfires. There are many more practical, more effective, and more immediate interventions that can substantially decrease the risks associated with wildfires. That is where public resources and attention ought to be focused.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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