April 26, 2009

Smokey Would Be Proud

As a child growing up in Portland Oregon we would make frequent trips over the coastal range to the Pacific Coast, usually for day outings but occasionally to camp over.

Inevitably we would reach the point in the trip where we would drive through what is known as the Tillamook Burns. Literally miles and miles of hills and mountains swept clear decades before by forest fires. Often time when we would pass through "The Burns" my grandparents would tell the story of the giant fire which burned for days and turned day into a choking night in Portland nearly a hundred miles away and ash like snow falling from the summer sky.

The first Tillamook Burn occurred in 1933, and there were others which became known as the "6 year curse" because of their regular occurrences.

Obviously forest fires are nothing new, the recent terrible ones in Australia brought home both their ferociousness and the possibility of human suffering they can inflict. Like most other tragedies in our current scientific climate, some were making a connection between Australia's recent tragic fires and climate change. While all that was going on, and the link was being made to climate change I thought of "The Burns" which is still considered by many Oregonians to be the worst fire in Oregon history, but it is not.

In fact the 3 fires that make up the "6 year curse" combined do not even equal the largest forest fire in Oregon History which occurred in 1868 when a million acres burned. In fact there are several nineteenth and early twentieth century fires that dwarf "The Burns" fires in Oregon and even larger ones throughout the country.

There are also fires in Australia's history which were far larger than the ones they suffered this past summer. One called Black Friday was enormous and quite destructive.

So that brings me to this article I came across from AP :

Study Links Wildfires in Sierra to Climate Change

So I thought there surely must have been some extensive study done and so they say there was:

A warming climate will fuel larger, more frequent wildfires in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the West, and the fires will contribute to climate change, according to a new study.

More than 20 international scientists, in the report published Friday in the
journal Science, said fire is not only a consequence of climate change but an
important cause.

"Fire also influences the climate system. This is what we call a
feedback," said Jennifer Balch, a fire expert at the University of California,
Santa Barbara

Now the first item I want you to pay attention to in this article is this:

Scientists determined intentional deforestation fires, many set in tropical areas to expand agriculture or ranching, contribute up to a fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas helping to boost global temperatures.

So within this report, which I have not read because they do not even name it, we find that they are also looking at intentionally set fires. Does the story tell us if this part of the report is seperate from what we are led to believe is about forest fires, no it does not. Is the one fifth of human caused CO2 emissions responsible for the feedback they are so worried about just intentional fires set for clearing land or does that include forest fires that are supposedly caused by a warming climate? Who knows, I guess it is explained in the study, but the article is about forest fires isn't it? Makes you wonder what the study is about if they throw intentional burning in with forest fires.

Here comes the obligatory plea to be involved in the IPCC, in other words they want some of that money for their research too:

The researchers called on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to fully integrate fire into its ongoing assessment of climate change.

Fire-climate feedbacks, they said, have been largely absent from
global climate models.

"Extraordinary (fires are) occurring like a rash all over the planet," said David Bowman, a forestry and wildlife expert at the University of Tasmania

Then the normal tug on emotions using an unproven link to anything:

Fire of unprecedented ferocity swept across parts of Australia in February, killing about 200 people.

Similar fire activity can be expected elsewhere as the climate warms, including in the Sierra, where a 2007 blaze at Lake Tahoe destroyed 254 homes, scientists said.

Then they try to connect the dots for us ignorant laymen and show us their authority for doing so:

"We are witnessing an increasing amount of so-called megafires," said Thomas Swetnam, an expert on fire history and forest ecology at the University of Arizona. "Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more large fires in the western United States. The western United States is in a bull's-eye."

Swetnam was involved in a 2006 study that indicated increased fire activity is associated with increasing spring and autumn temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt in western mountains
Now we get to the absolute nonsense of the story and why the oh so authoritive Thomas Swetman and his previous study are not only irrelevent but deceptive so why should we trust him on this. It is also the reason I tell the story of the Burns and ask you to look at the links to historical fires over at Wiki World:

That study found that wildfire frequency spiked to nearly four times the average experienced from 1970 to 1986, with the area burned more than six times previous levels.

The average length of the fire season increased by 78 days between 1987 and 2003 compared with 1970 to 1986, with fires starting earlier and burning later into the season

How can you possibly compare two back to back 16 year periods and, without your fingers crossed, say that proves anything at all? What if he took the sixteen years between 1933 and 1949 and compared them with the years 1987-2003, would the results be different? Might the burn days in that earlier period have been longer than current? How, given the known historical record of forest fires can you make such assumptions over such a short time frame and call it science?

As I said I have read neither of the studies, but the story is so transparently inept. A story puported to be about the risk of increased forest fires is actually about intentional burning and a previous study that can only be called absurd. Based on that type of scientific reasoning in 1970 I weighed about 120, I now weigh around 200 so in another 15 years I'll weigh 240, that's going to cost me some serious carbon credits.


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