CA wildfire
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Western wildfires – their principal causes and not just their impacts – have gotten some prime time media attention in recent weeks, including even in the final segment of the September 29 first presidential “debate” between the two major party candidates.

Is it forest management or land management generally that’s the principal cause for sparking the fires that have crumbled hundreds of thousands of western acres into ashes? Or is it climate change? Or is it both?

That’s the focus of independent videographer Peter Sinclair’s new video for Yale Climate Connections. He sets the table using a CBS clip capturing the historical scope of the current fire season’s blazes. And then cuts to Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson telling his vast audience that “all we have is conjecture from a handful of scientists and many politicians” pointing the finger primarily at climate change. “None of whom has reached a definitive conclusion,” he says of those holding that view.

After National Center for Atmospheric Research distinguished scholar Kevin Trenberth and Harvard professor Loretta Mickley pour water on those embers of misinformation, the video shows Carlson quoting words he attributes to UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain appearing to support Carlson’s take on things.

But Swain comes in to say he’s never spoken to Carlson, his staff, or others at Fox on the issue. He thinks that he’s been misrepresented through a cherry-picked paraphrase of his actual position. He points to an article in MIT Technology Review as the likely source for Carlson’s flawed conclusion.

At that point, the headline of the article in question is shown: “Yes, climate change is almost certainly fueling California’s massive fires.” In that article, Swain is reported as saying extreme summer lightening events in coastal parts of Northern California are so infrequent that “it’s hard to assess whether climate change played a role in sparking the fires.”

Important question: What happens after the initial spark?

Swain, in the new video, says, “The reality is that there’s always going to be sparks that can start a fire. The real question is what happens given that spark? All of the evidence points in the direction of strongly suggesting that those fires are becoming larger, more intense, and behaving more extremely because of climate change.”

The Sinclair video reports also that the Fox piece by Carlson omitted “the very next paragraph” from the MIT Technology Review source report: “But so called extreme weather attribution studies have clearly and repeatedly found that climate change exacerbates heat waves, which help create the conditions for wildfires to burn intensely and spread rapidly.”

Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, says the current prolonged western U.S. drought is “not a drought of yore.” Instead, it’s an example of an aridification – the result of Earth’s warming temperatures and the further drying out of already dry regions.

Mickley, of Harvard, points not so much to the specific spark that might lead to a wildfire as to “the extent of the fires, how big the fires grow really depends on the weather.”

Back to Swain. He points to the once-famous “Smokey the Bear” forestry fire public service campaigns well-known to many Americans over a certain age: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” He says the century-long drive to stomp out virtually every fire, regardless of risk posed, led to a “deficit of ‘good fire,'” the kind of planned burns and other controlled fires that helped consume excessive underbrush.

That well intentioned, but perhaps overly zealous, campaign resulted in a “buildup of unusually dense vegetation, which unfortunately has become a buildup of unusually dense fuel for wildfires over the past few decades.” Overpeck agrees, saying forested areas could benefit from more controlled fires, but “the job is gigantic” and resources to do it inadequate.

“Just about all the fire scientists I talk to agree that climate change is making” the wildfire challenge “worse than it would be otherwise,” Swain says in the video.

To Mickley, the situation appears bound to only get worse in coming years. “Not just one, but all the climate models predict uniformly higher temperatures and drought in the western U.S. by 2050, and certainly by 2100. The outcome will be “really large increases in the area burned,” she says, with some areas seeing 25% more acres burned and others seeing a four-fold, or 400%, increase in acreage burned in wildfires.

Topics: Climate Science, Communicating Climate, Weather Extremes