Sunday, December 17, 2017

Forest Fires Burning Bright

As the fires burn in California the Dunning Krugar Prior crowd on Twitter, Curry and other places are featuring a graph showing the number of acres burned in the US

Now Eli has been busy pointing out that this is, as one might say, another example of the Pielke Paradox, you know the one where a certain wanna be sports columnist points out that if you divide hurricane damages by GDP why nothing happened.  Of course this neglects the fact that some of that GDP was invested into weather satellites, large computers for weather prediction, and hardening buildings in hurricane prone places.  

So Eli decided to put some labels on that graph, but before doing so he though that it would be useful to look at a couple of things. First at amount of forest land in the US which turns out to be pretty steady since 1920, about 750 million acres out of a total of 2,261.  If anything the amount of forest has increased from 721 to 766.  Next as a marker of the effort put into forest fire fighting, to look not at the forest area burnt but at the number of acres burnt (sorry you hectare fans) per fire as a mark of forest fire fighting.  

The observant will note the sharp decline at 1933 when out of work folk were given a government job in the Civilian Conservation Corp, a significant part of which was to fight forest fires, plant trees and more.  They also got health care, which turned out to be important when WWII broke out and healthy people were needed to fight Nazis and assorted fascists.

After the pause forest fire fighting became more professionalized with more and better equipment and the decline continues until about 1980.  Of course, everybunny knows that temperature anomalies started to rise at that point so that today the question is not so much whether warming contributed to the rise in the number of acres burnt but how much.  There has been considerable discussion about the how much including sessions at the just ended AGU Fall Meeting.

So what would Eli say about that 2017 one fifth of record on the first graph?  Nonsense would be the nice word, deceptive nonsense a bit more correct, and criminally deceptive bulls hit comes to mind.


Oale said...

Nice of you to post a graph that proves human species can make a difference in the environment. We need this kind of encouragement in these times.

William M. Connolley said...

> the decline continues until about 1980. Of course, everybunny knows that temperature anomalies started to rise at that point so that today the question is not so much whether warming contributed to the rise in the number of acres burnt but how much

Are you sure? I think that people came to think that forest fires were over-managed; that there was too much suppression of even small fires; and that it was good to have some fires.

Also, I'm not at all convinced by your "demolition" of the "fifth of the max" stuff. It doesn't matter *why*, what matters - or a thing, that might matter - is that today's fires, exciting as they seem to us, are actually pretty small compared to what happened regularly in the past.

Nick Stokes said...

I think the validity of the data in the graph is dubious. It does not, AFAIK, come from any scientific publication. It comes from Congressional testimony from one David South, Emeritus Forestry Professor, invited by Republicans. Prof South is indeed a forestry professor, but doesn't publish on fire matters. And he takes a dim view of global warming nonsense. What he has done is to take some numbers from a table on a census site here. But the numbers there are, in 1930's times, dominated (~90%) by fires in "unprotected" areas. And of these the source says
"No field organizations are available to report fires on unprotected areas and the statisticsfor these areas are generally the best estimates available"

Personally I find the numbers unbelievable. 50 million acres, roughly the amount claimed to be burnt in the 1930's each year, is 2.5% of the area of ConUS. It's the size of Nebraska. It is 1/15 the forest area cited by Eli. Burnt each year. Organisations like NIFC do not cite this data.

Nick Stokes said...

Correction link for Prof South Congressional Testimony

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Data before 1960 is speculative enough to be called mythology. Really solid data seems to date only from 1983. See:

"The National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC compiles annual wildland fire statistics for federal and state agencies. This information is provided through Situation Reports, which have been in use for several decades. Prior to 1983, sources of these figures are not known, or cannot be confirmed, and were not derived from the current situation reporting process. As a result the figures above prior to 1983 shouldn’t be compared to later data."

Jeffrey Davis said...

William Connolley,

what matters - or a thing, that might matter - is that today's fires, exciting as they seem to us, are actually pretty small compared to what happened regularly in the past.

I don't know why that would be "what matters". Surely a significant increase in, say, Bubonic plague or TB would matter now, after the advent of antibiotics.

We're looking at a significant increase in fires after the advent of concerted efforts to control them. The reasons for that would seem to matter.

EliRabett said...

Nick, the first graph is traceable to the Historical Statistics of the United States, a copy of which Ms. Rabett gifted to Eli when it was issued on the bicentenial in 1976 where it sits with his treasured copies of Ten Ever Lovin' Blue Eyed Years With Pogo. Unfortunately it has never been digitized although Acrobat files do exist. It's Table L 48-55.

The post 1970 numbers come from theNational Interagency Fire Center

The numbers are what they are but you might get some further insight by looking at this study of the age structure of US and Canadian forests

EliRabett said...

WTF, we've all done this before


There was no CCC in Siberia in 1915, just an expanding gaggle of people with matches spreading out into the boundless taiga forest just opened to selltlement by the new Trans-Siberian railway.

It gas a very dry spring, and by early june, the new arrivals hefforts at slash and burn got out of controll, and thousands of fires began to march along wherever the wind pushed them, for centiries worth of larch needles paved the understory,

The fires continued autumn, until snow extinguished them , by whic time hundreds of millions of acres had burned- the estimates maxed out arond a million square kilometers.
but the world took no notice , having The Great War to worry about

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Davis: "Surely a significant increase in, say, Bubonic plague or TB would matter now, after the advent of antibiotics."

A sidenote: Having been in Madagascar during the recent outbreak of plague, I can assure you that it does matter. WHO was deployed, thousands of doses of antibiotics were sent in, departing travelers were monitored at airports, and the tourism sector--the main source of foreign exchange for the island--is moribund. About 207 dead and nearly 2400 cases reported. The outbreak was contained, in part because it isn't easy to get to or away from Madagascar.

Plague is one of the indicators we have of how the poorest of the poor are doing. It should not kill anyone in this day and age. Fire is one of the indicators of the strain forests are under, so, yes, trends matter.

bjchip said...

Lets remember that a few thousand years ago when the temperatures were similar to what we are only very recently seeing again, there are apparent records of droughts of a century duration and a climate not real healthy for the current crops.

We only just boosted past those conditions, moving fast as hell in terms of temperature increases (on normal geologic timescales). What happens over the next decade? I have to expect a changed pattern for California precipitation. I don't expect it to work out well for Californians.

jgnfld said...

The forest environment was much different in the early years of the 20th Century. In particular, the logging practices simply piled up slashings for square miles. This is how some of the great fires got going and kept going for whole areas of states sometimes. The Hinckley fire of 1894 and the Cloquet fire of 1918 are two examples I know about as my grandparents were in them (my pregnant grandmother carried my father-to-be out of the fire zone in 1918 on a flatcar between crowning fires on both sides of the track).

Several comments above imply that the environment then and now are equivalent. This is just plain false.

Bernard J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernard J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernard J. said...

The early data aside, what is concerning to me is that since the 1980s there's a clear, approximately linear increase in the annual area burnt by fire. And this is occurring in the face of increased technology to detect and fight fire.

As with just about every single other indicator of environmental health, the numbers are going in the wrong direction. And it's not just the environment - the rust-belting/ghost-towning of the US (and many other countries), the ever-increasing disparity between rich and poor, the geopolitical jostling and terrorising... they're all signs of a system in phase shift. Add to that the wheels falling off the antibiotic wagon and leading to superlatively resilient bacteria, along with various resistances in other pests and disease taxa, and we're reaching a criticality to which many seem completely oblivious.

Martin Scheffer has written well on some of these issues from a systems-breakdown point of view. He's well worth reading:

Dano said...

Late to the party, of course, but several comments upthread get at the suspicious numbers early in the record and the study that identified these numbers as suspicious. IIRC A (somewhat distant) colleague of mine participated in the USFS study that corrected the record.

Seeing as how this paper came out a decade ago, those who use this chart are most likely purposely misinforming. On purpose.



EliRabett said...

To summarize, the numbers in the first figure (and the second) come from the Historical Statistics of the United States and the USFS study. The two use the same numbers in the 1960-1970 period. There is a steep decline when the New Deal CCC started fighting fires.

An interesting point is the step rise and increasing variability at ~1982.

It's clear that as far as climate change goes, the period before 1960 does not say much, and the fall off from 1930 is related to how the fires were (or not) fought.

An important issue is that Eastern US and Western US forests are very different beasts and really should not be lumped together.

Alex said...

Some commenters above are saying that the National Interagency Fire Center NIFC doesn't carry the data on the relatively very high amount of US forest fires in the 20s and 30s, much higher than in these last years, but it does, at precisely the URL some of them reference: , only it doesn't do it in graph form but in a cumbersome scroll down table of numbers.

As to unbelievability, well, all stats and data require more disambiguation than one might at first think. Yes we didn't have satellites back then. On the other hand, what reason to over-report the area affected?

And burned forest, given the chance, does regenerate fairly quickly. Potash is a good fertiliser. Farmers burn their fields to leverage this, albeit trees take longer to grow back.

The minister of the interior of Brazil insists that Brazil's legal commitment to preserve 86% of the Amazon that lies within Brazil holds, despite the many fires there. Make of that what you will.

I think the 1200 million people in Africa, set to be 4400 million by end this century, burning all wood and plastic they can get hold of to cook with (were 227 million in 1950, all UN figures) are more of a concern. They need for women: basic health care, education and contraception, and generally sewage management, to dampen that human and environmental disaster. More, many more starving there now, since "Feed The World" and decade after decade of that same approach.

I suspect the US trees will regrow just fine, at the latest when the Sunspot cycle wanes again and not least because nobody's going to convert the land to agriculture.


Alex said...

Well I read the USFS pdf at the link kindly given by Dado (after viruschecking it, pdfs are notorious), in the conclusions it said a few times "outside of historic variation", with the word: "historic" italicised, but not defined, and it seemed to refer to the numbers of invasive species and species change among flora and insect fauna. Absent definition of historic bounds the documents seems more political rather than scientific.

Yes, the wobbly steps up since the 80s are interesting, as EliRabett notes, however, as William Connolley points out, this could be due to management practices.

Also, one glaring elephant in the room seems to be the word: homeostasis, which this glorious planet is considerably endowed with.

The details of Bernard J's links are both behind hefty paywalls. Let's not worry our pretty heads about details, let those that our taxes have already payed for their efforts hold their special wisdom out ahead of us like carrots dangled in front of a donkey. Do I feel condescended to? Yes. They talk of 'tipping points' and give nothing away. Rather shameful in my view.

Have no vested interests, sadly. Just do rather like the truth, if so be it can be known.

Thank you to all contributors.