Claim: “Worsening Wildfires Linked to Temp Rise”

On Tuesday, Oct 11, 2016, the Arizona Daily Star printed a front page, top of the fold story from the Associated Press (AP) with the title claimed above. The Star’s online version (with a different title) can be found here.

The story claims: “Rising temperatures are flatly to blame for recent fearsome fire seasons, leading scientists reported Monday.” It also claims: “The study showed that more than a century of fossil-fuel burning, deforestation and farming has helped push the American West into an explosive new wildfire regime, and the findings suggest far worse could be ahead.”

The AP story never gives a link or even mentions the title of the paper, but I found it through other sources. The paper itself, “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests” is pay-walled, but you can read the abstract here.

I have two problems with this story: one with the research and one with the way AP reported it.

Science first:

The paper abstract says: “We use modeled climate projections to estimate the contribution of anthropogenic climate change to observed increases in eight fuel aridity metrics and forest fire area across the western United States….We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million [hectares] of forest fire area during 1984–2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence.”

I presume these are the same climate models which can’t get their temperature projections even close to reality. From that they conjure a contribution from “Anthropogenic increases in temperature” even though there is no physical evidence to support such an assumption.

I also found it very curious that they chose 1984 as the start point.

The National Interagency Fire Center provides a table listing the number of fires and acres burned from 1960 through 2015 (link). In 1984, they report that there were 20,493 fires that burned 1,148,409 acres. In 2015, they report that there were 68,151 fires that burned 10,125,149 acres. That would seem to support the hypothesis that there are more fires with warming. It says nothing about the alleged anthropogenic cause of warming.

BUT: here is what the researchers and press releases left out. In 1960, there were 103,387 fires that burned 4,478,188 acres. That high number of fires continued into the early 1980s. In 1981 there were 249,370 fires that burned 4,814,206 acres. In 1963, fires burned 7,120,768 acres; in 1969 fires burned 6,689,081 acres. The drastic drop in the number of fires from 1982 to 1983 was followed by a gradual increase in acres burned. That could reflect a change in fire policy rather than a response to warming. Could this paper represent cherry-picking data that fits the hypothesis and while ignoring data that doesn’t?

A large body of research shows that wildfires both increased and decreased with rising temperatures depending on the locality. For the globe as a whole, there is no consistent relationship between temperature and acres burned. See a summary of that research here:

The graph below, based on analysis of charcoal trapped in sediments, shows a longer perspective of cyclical wildfire regimes (source:

Fire western US biomass burned

“The great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” -T. H. Huxley

The AP report:

In describing the research, the unnamed AP writers use the terms “climate pollution” and “greenhouse gas pollution” when referring to carbon dioxide emissions. This indicates to me that the AP writers are ignorant of science, the fact that carbon dioxide is necessary for life on Earth, and that for most of the history of this planet carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been 3- to 10 times higher than the current concentration. Or, is it just that these writers have imbibed deeply the global warming kool-aid? That the Arizona Daily Star continues to print stories like this indicates that they too are ignorant of science and have a political agenda.

See also:

Wildfires and Warming – Relationship not so clear