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Forest Fires Aren’t at Historic Highs in the United States. Not Even Close

Published: September 23, 2020
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Source: fee.org

California wildfires have been in the news in recent weeks. As I noted Thursday, the Golden State is experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory.

Newly updated figures from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection show there have been nearly 8,000 wildfires that have burned more than 3.4 million acres in California. Since August 15, when the state’s fire activity elevated sharply, there have been 25 fatalities and some 5,400 structures destroyed.

Despite widespread news coverage, some have argued many do not appreciate the historic severity of the blazes.

“There are two dozen fires burning right now that singularly would have been the top story on the national news 10 or 20 years ago,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Robinson Meyer.

Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic who covers climate change and technology, says California has already experienced its worst fire season in state history.

In the past few months, one in every 33 acres of California has burned. This year is already the most destructive wildfire season, in terms of acreage affected, in state history. In 2018, during California’s last annus horribilis, I noted that six of the 10 largest wildfires in state history had happened since 2008. That list has since been completely rewritten. Today, six of California’s 10 largest wildfires have happened since 2018—and five of them have happened this year.

Writing at The Week, Damon Linker proclaimed that the fires represent the dawn of an apocalypse. Linker cites Meyers and an unnamed friend in Oregon who said he’s never seen anything like the recent blazes.

“We've always had fires in the West, but never like this. We're choking on smoke and ash. It's happening this year, it happened two years ago, and it happened two years before that. It never once happened before during my lifetime,” Linker’s middle-aged friend says. “This is definitely a new pattern. And I never heard the phrase 'fire season' until a couple of years ago. It certainly wasn't a thing when I was a kid. I never even saw smoke from a wildfire until I was in my 30s."

Annie Lowrey, in an article titled “The U.S. Is on the Path to Destruction,” was even more vivid.

“Fires in California and Oregon are incinerating homes, businesses, schools, power lines, and roads,” Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic’s top story on Friday. “Climate hell is here. We cannot stand it. And we cannot afford it either.”

With all due respect to the Cassandras preaching apocalypse and hell on earth, there are two points worth mentioning.

First, as I explained recently, there is widespread agreement that California’s megafires stem largely from decades-long mismanagement of its forests. As The New York Times explained earlier this month, for more than a century, many firefighting agencies have aggressively focused on extinguishing blazes whenever they occur, a strategy that has often proved counterproductive.

Other parts of the US have shown, the paper said, that less aggressive extinguishing of natural fires and targeted prescribed burning are effective at periodically clearing excess vegetation in forests and grasslands, which essentially serve as the fuel of California’s wildfires.

“The first step is to acknowledge that fire is inevitable, and we have to learn to live with it,” David McWethy, a fire scientist at Montana State University, told the paper.

California has spent decades aggressively preventing fire from doing its natural work, which has made it a virtual tinderbox.

To his credit, Linker at least mentions that “Yes, poor forest management is playing a role” in California’s hot season. But there is a troubling tendency to simply blame the apocalyptic blazes on climate change.

As I pointed out, it’s not unreasonable to assume that both poor land management and California’s high temperatures and arid climate have played a role in the fires. But California is not the only place in America that experiences high temps and dry weather.

Texas actually has more forest and higher temperatures than California, but the Lone Star state rarely struggles with fires, perhaps because 95 percent of its land mass is privately owned and these owners act as responsible stewards of the land.

If climate change was truly the primary culprit of the wildfires, wouldn’t it stand to reason other parts of the US would be suffering similar results? Are there reasons climate change impacts California more than Texas and the Southeast US?

This brings me to my second point. There’s a perception that today’s fires are historically unprecedented.

“Even though the U.S. is only halfway through wildfire season, this year is one of the worst in history,” CNBC reported Friday. “Human-caused climate change has made blazes more frequent and intense, especially during extreme heat waves and drought conditions.”

But, the claim that 2020 is one of the worst in US history is simply not true.

A news story making such a claim might start by telling readers how many acres of land have burned in the record-setting year. CNBC doesn’t. One also sees a second problem: most of its charts don’t include information prior to 1990.

Fortunately, data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) offer some answers. So far in 2020, the US has experienced 42,809 total fires that burned a total of 7,015,956. These numbers are indeed above the ten-year average—45,711 fires and 5,963,782 acres. However, 2020 is unlikely to exceed the number of fires or acreage burned just three years ago in 2017.

Many will argue that 2017 was one of the worst fire seasons in US history, a claim that was reported numerous times during the fires season. But Bjorn Lomborg pointed out these claims were also not true.

“The National Interagency Fire Center curiously – and somewhat conveniently – only shows the annual burnt area back to 1960, when fire suppression indeed was going strong, and hence we had some of the lowest amounts of burnt forests ever,” wrote Lomborg, a Danish author and President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

News agencies and NIFC were simply ignoring all data prior to 1960. When this data is included, one sees 2017’s record setting fires burned about one fifth of the acreage of fires in 1930 and 1931. These were peak years, but they were not exactly anomalies, Lomborg pointed out. The entire data set, a quarter century of figures that comes from the official record of the United States, shows the yearly average between 1926 and 1952 was several times higher than the peaks of today.

California’s wildfires are serious, and steps should be taken to see human lives and infrastructure are spared from them. But the idea that America is witnessing an unprecedented apocalypse of fire is simply not true.

We’ve seen no shortage of crises in 2020, but it’s worth remembering a simple truth: pandemics, riots, and wildfires are nothing new. They have been around as long as humans have.

What’s changing is our response to these phenomena. Each crisis is presented as an opportunity to save humanity, and each requires giving more control to central planners.

Rahm Emmanuel popularized the phrase “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” but it was economist Robert Higgs who showed that crises are the mortal enemy of liberty. His great work Crisis and Leviathan lays bare the state's tradition of claiming new powers during emergencies, powers that rarely are relinquished fully when the crisis ends.

Higgs admitted he was worried about the correlation between liberty and crises, because he understood a basic truth: there will alway be human crises.

“[W]e do know something – at least abstractly – about the future. We know that other great crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurances. Yet in one form of another, great crises will surely come again,” Higgs wrote. “When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs… For those who cherish individual liberty and a free society, the prospect is deeply disheartening.”

Disheartening indeed. But this also serves as a reminder: a crisis is not time to abandon liberty, it’s when liberty matters most.

 
 

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