Wildfires Were Much Worse In The Past
By Paul Homewood
There was a bit of interesting testimony at the Senate Sub-Committee on Green Jobs and the New Economy in June. Professor David South, one of the top US experts on forestry, trashes claims that AGW is making wildfires worse.
Testimony of David B. South
Retired Emeritus Professor, Auburn University
Subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy
3 June 2014
Human Activity, more so than Climate Change, Affects the Number and Size of Wildfires
I am David B. South, Emeritus Professor of Forestry, Auburn University. In 1999 I was awarded
the Society of American Foresters’ Barrington Moore Award for research in the area of
biological science and the following year I was selected as Auburn University’s “Distinguished
Graduate Lecturer.” In 1993 I received a Fulbright award to conduct tree seedling research at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and in 2002 I was a Canterbury Fellow at the
University of Canterbury in New Zealand. My international travels have allowed me the
opportunity to plant trees on six continents.
It is a privilege for me to provide some data and views on factors that affect forests and wildfires.
Foresters know there are many examples of where human activity affects both the total number and size of wildfires. Policy makers who halt active forest management and kill “green” harvesting jobs in favor of a “hands-off” approach contribute to the buildup of fuels in the forest.
This eventually increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires. To attribute this human-caused
increase in fire risk to carbon dioxide emissions is simply unscientific. However, in today’s
world of climate alarmism, where accuracy doesn’t matter, I am not at all surprised to see many journalists spreading the idea that carbon emissions cause large wildfires.
There is a well-known poem called the “Serenity prayer.” It states “God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Now that I am 63, I realize I can’t change the behavior of the media and I can’t change the weather. Early in my career I gave up trying to get the media to correct mistakes about forest management and to avoid exaggerations. I now concentrate on trying to get my colleagues to do a better job of sticking to facts; I leave guesses about the future to others.
Untrue claims about the underlying cause of wildfires can spread like “wildfire.” For example,
the false idea that “Wildfires in 2012 burned a record 9.2 million acres in the U.S.” is cited in
numerous articles and is found on more than 2,000 web sites across the internet. In truth, many foresters know that in 1930, wildfires burned more than 4 times that amount. Wildfire in 2012 was certainly an issue of concern, but did those who push an agenda really need to make
exaggerated claims to fool the public?
Here is a graph showing a decreasing trend in wildfires from 1930 to 1970 and an increasing
trend in global carbon emissions. If we “cherry pick” data from 1926 to 1970 we get a negative
relationship between area burned and carbon dioxide. However, if we “cherry pick” data from
1985 to 2013 we get a positive relationship. Neither relationship proves anything about the
effects of carbon dioxide on wildfires since, during dry seasons, human activity is the
overwhelming factor that determines both the number and size of wildfires.
In the lower 48 states there have been about ten “extreme megafires,” which I define as burning more than 1 million acres. Eight of these occurred during cooler than average decades. These data suggest that extremely large megafires were 4-times more common before 1940 (back when carbon dioxide concentrations were lower than 310 ppmv). What these graphs suggest is that we cannot reasonably say that anthropogenic global warming causes extremely large wildfires.
Seven years ago, this Committee conducted a hearing about “Examining climate change and the
media” [Senate Hearing 109-1077]. During that hearing, concern was expressed over the
weather, which was mentioned 17 times, hurricanes, which were mentioned 13 times, and
droughts, which were mentioned 4 times. In the 41,000 word text of that hearing, wildfires (that
occur every year) were not mentioned at all. I am pleased to discuss forestry practices because,
unlike hurricanes, droughts, and the polar vortex, we can actually promote forestry practices that will reduce the risk of wildfires. Unfortunately, some of our national forest management policies have, in my view, contributed to increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
In conclusion, I am certain that attempts to legislate a change in the concentration of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere will have no effect on reducing the size of wildfires or the frequency
of droughts. In contrast, allowing active forest management to create economically-lasting
forestry jobs in the private sector might reduce the fuel load of dense forests. In years when
demand for renewable resources is high, increasing the number of thinning and harvesting jobs
might have a real impact in reducing wildfires.
Thank you for this opportunity to address the Subcommittee.