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Wildfires Were Much Worse In The Past

October 4, 2014

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.



  1. Joe Public permalink
    October 4, 2014 11:51 am

    All the firewood exported across the Atlantic to stoke up Drax, must surely help reduce the fuel for wildfires.

  2. October 4, 2014 2:05 pm

    Reblogged this on the WeatherAction News Blog.

  3. John F. Hultquist permalink
    October 4, 2014 4:22 pm

    For the USA, daily numbers are reported here:

    To 10/3/2014 — in acres,
    the 10 year average is 6,757,095.
    this year we have . . . 2,915,948.

  4. David permalink
    October 5, 2014 7:40 am

    Professor South omitted some relevant detail from his testimony:

    Extensive wildfire suppression only became possible following the advent of roads, vehicles, equipment and manpower in remote forest regions from the 1940s onwards. The decline in acreage burned 1940s-1960s reflects improvements in roads infrastructure. Even the roads themselves act as fire-breaks.

    Also, from the 1920s many forest managers allowed fires to burn uncontrolled in order to ‘benefit ecosystems’; a practice that continued into the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1968 that the modern concept of containing forest fires within managed cells became widespread.

    Yes, total acreage burned in the US is much lower now than it was in the 1930s, but that’s only half the story. Modern roads infrastructure and containment strategies date from the 1960s; so comparison with recent wildfires is only valid from then. The current official NICC wildfire data start in 1960.

    • October 5, 2014 10:14 am

      And suppression during those decades has led to the build up of tinderbox conditions, so comparison with the 1960’s is also utterly irrelevant

      • David permalink
        October 5, 2014 10:53 am

        Possibly does complicate things. But if you look at the NOAA annual data for US ‘West’ 1960-2013, practically all the indicators have trended towards greater fire likelihood:

        Mean and max temperature trend is +0.4 F/dec; min temp trend is +0.3 F/dec. Precipitation trend is slightly negative and actually hit a record low in 2013. Cooling degree days are strongly positive and warming degree days are strongly negative, indicating that people are feeling the heat in the real world. All four Palmer drought index variations for the West region also point towards increased occurrence of drought since 1960.

        Climatic conditions, be they natural or man-made or both, have certainly increased the probability of wildfires in the US west since the 1960s.

      • October 5, 2014 11:00 am

        And since the 1930’s?

        The reality is that large wildfires are a perfectly natural event. We spent a few decades trying to fight nature and simply ended up making matters worse.

        This is all thoroughly well researched.

      • David permalink
        October 5, 2014 6:44 pm

        I agree that wildfires are perfectly natural and indeed essential to a healthy forest ecosystem.

        I just think Professor South could have been more explicit about the reasons for the huge difference between acreage burned due to wildfires in the 1930s and that since the 1960s.

        This would have made it immediately apparent to everyone why the two can’t directly be compared.

      • Otter (ClimateOtter on Twitter) permalink
        October 5, 2014 7:52 pm

        Either way it is still quite obvious, david: CO2 levels, and therefore ‘man-made’ global warming, have zilch to do with it.

      • December 24, 2015 6:25 pm

        Wrong. Warmer temperatures, faster evaporation, more insects lead to more fires. The major difference today is that since 1911 or so, fires are fought, or controlled so that they do not become major blazes, and that today fires on private property are fought.

      • December 24, 2015 7:17 pm

        Funny that the experts don’t agree!

        Colorado’s Front Range fire severity not much different than past, say CU study

        Perception that present-day fires Front Range fires significantly worse than past not supported by evidence.

  5. Brian H permalink
    October 6, 2014 3:22 am

    Wildfires are one of Gaia’s techniques for returning CO2 resources to the atmosphere. Humanity is another.

  6. August 10, 2016 3:41 pm

    Reblogged this on Climatism and commented:
    As CO2 has increased, wildfire acreage in the US has dramatically decreased.
    Obama, the UN and the global warming alarmist media fail to tell you this because it completely wrecks their politically motivated climate change agenda.

    What other inconvenient climate facts do they hide from you to protect their reputations and the climate con in general?

  7. Denis Rancourt permalink
    August 10, 2016 7:08 pm

    “Anatomy of the false link between forest fires and anthropogenic CO2” by me.


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