August 24, 2018

Northwest Wildfires: Are We Seeing a "New Normal" Due to Climate Change or The "Old Normal"?

Some of the news media, politicians, and environmental advocacy groups have claimed that the smoke hitting western Washington during the past two summers are a "new normal."   That Northwest summers should be smoke and fire free, and that anthropogenic global warming has created a new regime of fires and smoke that has never been experienced before.

As I will describe below, those making such claims are seriously misinformed

Wildfires are an essential part of the ecology of our region, particularly east of the Cascade crest.  When European settler reached the region in the 1800s they found an area that was frequently smoky in summers, with major fires.  And the reason that current inhabitants of the region think smoke is an outlier is because of nearly a century of fire suppression in the West.

To put it succinctly, during the past few summers we have gotten a taste of the "old normal", one that was very familiar to our great grandparents and their predecessors.  And one that we will experience frequently in our future if we don't take steps to restore our forests and to bring back regular fire.

An excellent illustration of our firey and smoky past is found in this graphic produced by the Oregon Department of Forestry (OD) showing acres burned and number of fires from 1911 to 2017 (see below).

The number of acres burned early in the 20th century absolutely dwarfs when are experiencing recently.   And there has been no increase in the number of fires.  During the 1940s, we got good at suppressing fires (with new technologies such as airplane drops of water/retardant) and the number of fires dropped precipitously, with a modest recent rise (but nothing compared to the 1917-1940 period).

Smoke and fire was part of life here in the Northwest before the period of near-total suppression began around approximately 1940.  Native Americans started fires to encourage the productivity of the land.  The early settlers of the region experienced one major fire (with lots of smoke) after another.  Some examples will illustrate.

In 1844, a wildfire approached and almost destroyed Fort Vancouver, north of present-day Portland.  A year later, the Great Fire of 1845 burned down the north half of Lincoln and the south half of Tillamook counties destroying most of the old growth timber of the area (1.5 million acres).  In 1853, the Yaquina fire engulfed 450,000 acres in Oregon, followed by the Silverton Fire of 1865 (million acres in Oregon) and 1868 Coos Fire (Oregon, 300,000 acres).

1895 was a particularly dry, warm year in Washington State.  A detailed report by the U.S. Weather Bureau office here in Seattle reported:

August 1895 was an excessively dry month in all parts of the state.... On many days that were otherwise clear the sun was almost entirely obscured by excessive smoke from forest fires, which extended over a great part of the eastern, as well as the entire western section of the state.

Mark Twain had been invited to speak in Olympia that summer but his reception was smoked out by extensive fires on the Olympics.  An amusing repartee followed:

Mr. Twain, as chairman of the reception committee, allow me to welcome you to the capital of the youngest and most picturesque State in the Union. I am sorry the smoke is so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests, which are now on fire.’ Mark said; ‘I regret to see—I mean to learn (I can’t see, of course, for the smoke) that your magnificent forests are being destroyed by fire. As for the smoke, I do not so much mind. I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.’”

Didn't mind our smoke

A few years later, a huge fire--the Yacolt Burn--- burned 238,000 acres in Clark, Skamania, and Cowlitz counties resulting in over 65 deaths. The fire dropped one-half inch of ash in Portland. The smoke was so thick that street lights glowed at noon in Seattle 160 miles  away and ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate only by compass. It makes our recent experience seem like a walk in the park.

But the real show stopper was the Big Burn of 1910, which destroyed 3 million acres and killed 87 people, a vast area encompassing parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, and parts of BC.   The Big Burn was a turning point in many ways, pushing the U.S. government to get into fire suppression on a massive scale.   At first, our technology and organization was not up to the job and major fires continued, such as the Dole Valley Fire of 1929 that burned over 300,000 acres in Clark and Skamania counties.

But by 1940s, we became very good at it.   Active suppression kept down the number fires and quickly extinguished most of the ones that did start.  

Forests that once encompassed big trees with substantial spacing between them, started to fill in as the big trees were removed and the absence of fires allowed dense, unhealthy stands of smaller trees to develop.  We created sick forests where beetles and other insects did great damage, untempered by frequent fires.  Degraded forests, where huge amounts of "fuel", enhanced by slash left on the ground by careless logging, became primed for huge, catastrophic fires. And we decided to expand our homes and recreation in to the forests, endangering the new residents and initiating many fires.

Today, the bill for our suppression of fire and poor forest management in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia has now come due.  Those who blame our dangerous situation on a "new normal" solely resulting from climate change, are not only misinformed, but they can act as obstacles to the actions that are acutely needed:  a massive effort to thin our forests and bring back low-intensity fire.  Some enlightened politicians, like Senator Maria Cantwell, are calling for such an approach...they should be supported.

Warming from increasing greenhouse gases is surely making the situation a bit worse, and its impact will undoubtedly escalate when the real warming occurs later in this century.   But today, global warming is a relatively small element of the current wildfire situation, particularly in the slow to warm Pacific Northwest.  As citizens of one small region, there is only so much we can do to stop global warming. But we can fix our forests, improving the fire/smoke situation today and preparing for the greater warming that is undoubtedly in our future.


  1. Must read, California Burning, by William Finnegan, New York Review of Books..."Struzik’s Firestorm takes the story north. He is a Canadian science writer, and he concentrates on wildfires in the boreal, mountainous, and subalpine forests of North America and in the Arctic tundra. “Wildfire is no longer a California spectacle,” he writes. His tone is reportorial, not apocalyptic. But the picture he paints is dire. The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. "

  2. How do you feel the potential grand solar minimum would affect the global temperature? You never mention anything about solar physics in any of your blogs, yet the sun is the primary source of energy to this planet.

    1. The amount of temperature deviation for solar minimum is trivia compared to the impact of trapping heat in a layer of CO2. There is a reason the 'bottom half' of the atmosphere is warming and not the 'top half'. If it was the sun, we would see warming throughout the entire atmosphere.

  3. I'm curious if anyone has suggestions on how we as citizens can be more active in bringing better forrestry about. I feel like I tried desperately to find a good foothold to bring this issue to the fore over the last year, and I appreciate that Maria Cantwell is working to move legislation through congress for emergency funds and a few other things, but it didn't seem like the fires issue was on the radar until they started up again. Frustrating. THis *should* be a bipartisan issue, but instead it's just returning to corners and yelling at each other.

  4. As citizens of one small region there is much you can do.

    1) actively oppose all Republican / Conservative governments

    2) actively support the implementation of a carbon tax

    3) actively support transitioning away from coal by any practical means, including hydro which Washington is well positioned to do

    There's other things of course like change light bulbs but these 3 points are a start and it's fair to say that if you are not willing to do the above, its not really a priority for you.

  5. It would be interesting to know how much acreage burned before Europeans arrived. But maybe that data is impossible to get.

    I notice in the ODF Fire History graph that in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s most (maybe 3/4) of the fires were human caused. Was this also true before Europeans arrived, or were the Native Americans more careful with their burning.

  6. Thanks Bruce. I appreciate your input, but I'm looking for further steps than what I'd consider a bare minimum for anyone concerned about the environment in general. And more focused even short term on improving forestry practices.

  7. Cliff, thank you doing a blog post on the topic of wildland fire and fire history in the Pacific Northwest. One thing that is important for all of us to keep in mind is that our forests west of the Cascades and our forests east of the Cascades have two different patterns for fire return intervals.

    West of the mountains - most fires are high severity and large scale, these fires happen on a 400-1000 year return interval (for more specifics - check out Jim Agee. 1993. Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests).

    East of the mountains there is greater variability between montane and dryside forests - but in general, most fires (pre-suppression) were more frequent (10, 20, 30 years - depending on the species/elevation) low and mixed severity on a smaller scale than the complexes we are seeing of late in OR & WA (Jim's 2003 paper is a good summary: Historical range of variability in eastern Cascades forests, Washington, USA). An easy 14-minute TED Talk that can help people understand the topic and ways we can begin to address the situation we are in came out last year featuring Paul Hessburg a USFS researcher out of Wenatchee. If you haven't already seen it, worth the time to do so.

    For westside forests - there's not much we can do - big, intense fires were rare but the norm. Forest disturbances on the westside are most often wind-dominated, at present we are also needing to think about tree species diversity, resistance to pathogens/insects imported from elsewhere, and stocking densities.

    For eastside forests - a local, comprehensive approach that combines mechanical thinning, slash treatment, and controlled burning are methods that are being carried out on small scales by a range of small and medium size businesses, conservation organizations, and public agencies. I sure wish: (1) we had more small mills across eastern WA & OR, and (2) that could take the small diameter material (chip'n'saw, pulp sort of logs) that come out of these restoration projects. Distance to a mill that will buy these materials can be a significant barrier to carrying out these sorts of projects on small private land holdings help to address the problem. This sort of infrastructure could also help for our public lands - but such projects continue to take time to build trust and social license to carry out the work.

    1. It occurs to me that there is still a decommissioned mill site in Twisp that will probably never get developed for anything else. A new, modern mill might go a long way towards bridging the gap between the "good ol' boys" and the "newbies" in the Methow Valley - not to mention creating jobs and helping the forests.

  8. Great write up. This book also gives a very good background on wildfires in the US: Written Professor Stephen J. Pyne "Between Two Fires" by

    Cliff, question. Are there any stats on growth of fires in British Columbia over the last 10 years. That would seem to greatly impact the Air Quality of our region. Thanks

  9. I am happy to see your focus on forest management. For years we have known that the management of the federal forests on the east side have contributed to the threat of major fires, but chosen to tread lightly on the issue. I have been pleased to see the Nature Conservancy take steps to seriously engage the Forest Service on the topic, coupled with an effort to get a new mill established on the East Side. I'm a bit out of touch so don't know if they are still assigning a priority to these things, but will learn more next week.
    John Rose

  10. Just a couple of thoughts...

    My first thought is that there are on the order of 12 million acres of east-side forests in the state that need either manual fuel removal or prescribed fire. Manual fuel removal costs approximately $1000 per acre, and prescribed burns cost about $800 per acre. Does anybody really think that in the current (or any imaginable) budget environment we'd get north of $10 billion for fuel reduction projects in Washington State alone? I doubt the current budget for the entire country is anywhere near that number.

    So what we'll really need is some tools that will help us identify critical locations where manual fuel reduction or prescribed fire will do the most good.

    The second is about the wildland-urban interface. I'm personally a little skeptical about the premise. I built my home on what many would consider the edge of the world in 2000. However, the land here had been homesteaded in the 1920s. Many communities which are now for all practical purposes abandoned had people living in them a century ago -- think of Brief, Ardenvoir, Trinity, Gilbert, &c. So there have been people living close to active fire regimes for a very long time. I think what has changed is the expectation that we are obligated to protect those homes. For myself, while I love my home there is nothing here that I think is worth asking good kids to die for.

  11. The media is in the business of selling ads, not truth.

  12. We need to manage forests as forests though, not cash crops for resource looters. Too often a stand is declared 'sick' as an excuse to strip marketable timber while leaving a swath of destruction that helps no one. We need action & officials who work to maintain as much intact & sustainable habitat as possible instead of being cowed by industry bribes.

  13. Cliff: This is excellent stuff and I'm so glad you brought it to light. I studied under Professor Rich Minnich at UC Riverside as he was preparing his paper "Fire Mosaics in Southern California and Northern Baja California" (1983), using the first Landsat images to map the difference in fire regimes resulting from our fire suppression and the lack of such a policy in Mexico. The next year, I went to Baja California to do field sampling of chaparral vegetation. He had me read old newspaper accounts from around the turn of the 20th century in Los Angeles, and translate old friar's diaries from the early days of Spanish California. He used to joke that the indigenuous population probably practiced "recreational burning" since they set so many fires to open landscapes up for hunting. While sampling in the Baja, I twice saw ranchers torching chaparral stands so (as they told me) that grasses would come back stronger and improve forage for their cattle.

    We don't know how bad the air quality was a century or two or three ago, but the evidence is pretty strong that fires were more numerous down south than they are now. Rich's conclusion was that a mosaic of numerous fires, started by lightning or deliberately, causes subsequent fires to remain small as they run out of fuel. The fire ecology of chaparral is different than our forests here, but the effect of fire suppression is similar.

    I would like you to write about solar minimums, as you promised a while ago, and as Andrew Lincicome mentioned today. I tried to explain to a friend who is a climate skeptic that predictions of an imminent ice age from a solar minimum didn't hold up but as I am not an expert, I don't know how convincing I was.

  14. The National Fire Protection Association is working this issue also:

  15. I have increasingly questioned the dogmatic over-simplification of fire behavior that places all the blame of large fires on the aggressive suppression policies of the 20th century. Clearly, they had a significant impact. But, as pointed out here, there were giant conflagrations prior to their implementation. A significant factor impacting fire severity was the relatively wet period that coincided with the fire suppression policy. The simple truth is that if the forests had been dry during this period, no amount of fire fighting effort would have been capable of extinguishing the fire starts before they grew out of control.

    How much anthropogenic climate change is affecting the severity of the fires currently occurring is arguable, but Cliff needs to get off the "bad forest policy is the main cause" rhetoric. Soil and vegetation moisture are drying out earlier, and lasting later into the fall. Because snow melt is occurring earlier, forests are lacking moisture during peak evapotransportation periods, stressing vegetation further. It is complicated. Fire scientists are pretty good at their jobs, I would suggest reading their literature before making such simple arguments.

  16. The good news is that people like Washington State's Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, are very aware of this, and don't appear to be just jumping on Climate Change as a major (current) cause.

    I just hope this can become a bipartisan issue rather than just more bickering...

  17. I am curious to know why the fires were so widespread and the smoke so thick when the forests were in their natural state in the 1800s, i.e., big widely-spaced trees.

    1. Cliff is reporting data collected after widespread logging began, after coal-fired trains were starting fires with flying sparks, after farmers started using fire to clear their land etc.

  18. I don't believe that Cliff is an astronomer - I suggest you would be wiser to ask a solar astrophysicist. I am not one but my reading on the subject as an interested layman suggests that the effect of a "grand minimum" would not be anywhere close to holding back climate change, or even noticeably defer it. But talk to a solar astrophysicist if you want reliable facts on this matter.

  19. Can you clarify the Before/After picture you closed with? Is "Before" showing before a low intensity burn, and "After" is after the forest was thinned by the burn? Our is Before showing before we started logging and After is showing after the land was logged, with infill replanting done?

    I'm trying to figure out is Before the desirable state or After is?

  20. Seems like everybody is talking about controlled burning now but the professionals who do that sort of thing are expressing some issues that get swept under the rug in all the enthusiasm. One is cost which David addressed, another is how tricky it is to get it right. The recent weather patterns with rainy winters followed by hot, dry springs and summers leave a relatively short sweet spot where burns are effective at removing the fuel load without getting out of control. This puts a limit on how much land can be cleared. And if they do get out of control who is liable? Without some sort of liability protection most professionals don't want to get involved. The last issue is local resistance. The residents of the Methow valley, of all places have strongly objected to prescribed burns because of the smoke (yeah pretty short sighted) and fear that the fires would get out of control. Getting over local resistance will probably require some sort of government intervention, not a popular thing on the East side.

    1. It’s not accurate to say Methow residents have opposed burning, its understandable to have concerns after being exposed to a whole summer of smoke. There are very real implications to air quality and public health from prescribed burns that we need to balance with ecological needs.

  21. "Those who blame our dangerous situation on a "new normal" ... can act as obstacles to the actions that are acutely needed"

    Dr Mass, serious question: Can you point to land management policies that have been impeded by those who blame the fires on climate change? Is this actually a problem happening in real life or is this just theoretical?

  22. Abstract from Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity
    Science 18 Aug 2006:
    Vol. 313, Issue 5789, pp. 940-943

    Note the last sentence.

    Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th- and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

  23. Agree with much of your analysis but new research just published by Univ of Montana and the Forest Service - see the attached abstract this week in the national academy of sciences link - indicates that a documented decrease in precipitation during summer months does have a dramatic effect on the increase in wildfires. Study reflects the years from 1979 to 2016 and looked at western forests so this also needs to be factored in to your analysis.

  24. Bob Hall,

    All the data shows that human ignitions cause 85 to 95% of our wildfires. All the data shows fire suppression have built up dangerous fuel loads. All the data shows that fuels in grass and shrub fires that have speard most of California fires, those fuels can dry out in less than a day of warm dry conditions, irregardless of climate change. However A bipartisan bill in California aimed at securing our power lines to prevent ignitions was vetoed by Gov. Brown who instead has chosen to blame climate change.

    The 2017 wine country fires have been conclusively blamed on power line ignitions and failures of PG&E to properly prevent poweline ignitions. To avoid paying for their irresponsibility, PG&E is blaming climate change.

  25. @Patrick

    The "Before" picture shows a forest with lots of ladder fuels and densely packed small trees with an almost continuous canopy. It's an explosive fire waiting to happen.

    The "After" picture appears to have been selectively thinned leaving big trees and lots of space around them so that if one catches fire they don't all go up. Also, the brush and dead branches have been cleared. It's far better than the "Before" picture from a Wildfire perspective at least.

  26. Was there really that much "management" in the remote, wild forests? In any case, it does seem that fire is a major mechanism of nutrient recycling in the dry forests. It may or may not be the most important factor, but I guess I an beginning to get the the area was historically smokier (in late summer) than today. If I twist this around, that means that the summer air in the last half of the last century was unnaturally clean! And since clean air is seen as a "white knight" we are left wringing our hands about what to do.

    Well, we could all move back east to the humid, buggy, but clean forests of the East. Where the lightning rarely starts fires, and the biggest hazards are the ticks and poison ivy.

  27. Landscape fires are a function of climate and humans. A 2016 study looked at 700 years of fire scar and forest establishment data in coastal British Columbia: "Our results are comparable to other studies in the PNW and indicate that interannual drought and interactions with regional climate variability may have been an important prerequisite for fuel combustion and fire spread, but our results are unique in concluding that fires would not likely have occurred without human ignitions."

    This study's results agree with numerous others (e.g., that correlate acres burned in western North America with decades-long oscillations in ocean sea surface temperatures. So, yes, climate drives fire. The early 20th century Dust Bowl was an era of big fires. The wet mid-20th century saw fewer acres burn. Fire suppression, per se, had little to do with total acres burned. Wet wood doesn't burn whether firefighters are there or not to put out the spark.

    In sum, fires have been driven by climate "change" for as long as there has been sufficiently dry vegetation to burn. What effect increased CO2 concentrations portend for the future of wildfire extent is a complementary, but different, question than how climate change explains fire's past history.

    Andy Stahl, Executive Director
    Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

  28. So your argument is basically that we are having more fires because we don't have enough fires. If those huge fires early in the 20th century were the normal then we will have to let the fires we have now get even bigger if we want to get back to normal according to your argument. As others have pointed out the huge costs associated with manually thinning forests make that happening unrealistic, especially west of the Cascades, so fire then becomes the only practical way to restore the forests. We basically having to burn it all down and start over. Not likely to happen either.

  29. I'm in 95% agreement with Mr. Steele.

    No one likes to be told to use diligence and caution before lighting a campfire, which also means take into account weather conditions and surrounding area.

    No one likes to be told there are burn bans in most areas for a reason.

    No one likes to be told that wood smoke is very unhealthy and we are the root cause of our own smoke problem.

    But that is the most-likely scenario, and where my 5% departure from Mr. Steele comes is I also think current climate is enhancing the negative effects, human influenced and otherwise (but with more natural variability than human influence).

    The amount of smoke flying around right now is insane, it was last year too, and the fastest solution that no one wants to hear ... stop lighting wood fires, full stop, at least until we have moisture in the ground again.

    We have other heating technologies. And we could do it seasonally.

    But since that isn't likely to happen, we will likely go down the political blame-game rabbit hole and be very slow to move towards rising to the challenge of smokey fires every August in the Pac-NW.

    At least, until the natural climate changes towards "not so dry" and does it for us.

  30. Thank you for a nice historical perspective. 21st (and 20th) Century residents have little understanding or perspective on the history of fire in the West. While European management practices and environmental change have contributed to fire occurrence and intensity, the fact remains that western forests have burned and burned big for a long time.

  31. FixedCarbon - thanks for the citation. Excellent article.

    Others - the "problem" is certainly human related.... (1) Ignition sources now, compared to history, are nearly all human: carelessness, power lines, equipment, campfires, etc etc. Eg Tubbs Fire in CA last year likely would not have occurred even with fuel loads and winds absent arcing power lines. (2) people are living/working where they never did - so fires are now affecting human populations more and more. (3) management practices ( fire suppression, forestry practices, range management, etc.) have contributed to fuel loads and conditions.

  32. One of the big problems with correcting the results of decades of forest mismanagement, as others have already mentioned, is paying for it. The trees that need to be logged are precisely the trees with the least value (the spindly little ones). The big trees that need to be left are the ones with the most value.

    There is, alas, often economic pressure to do logging for profit under the name of fire hazard reduction which accomplishes anything but these ends. Just because it is claimed to be fire hazard reduction logging does not automatically make it so.

  33. Then: Fires probably burned at less intensity in the understorey.
    Now: Piles of logging debris, scotch broom and dense trees which could use thinning create a massive conflagration.

    Then: Rugged people used to adapting to the outdoors.
    Now: Fragile smart phone addicted, coffee chugging suburbanites where nature is a spectator sport.

    Then: Clear differentiation between urban and rural.
    Now: Clear cut, cookie cutter housing tracts 50 miles from town interacting with the wilds...poorly. Never mind good land use policy and zoning. People need to make money. Its natures fault, right?

    Then: Discipline and Common sense
    Now: Kids throwing fireworks into The Gorge and adults tossing lit cigarettes out the car window into brush so dry that it can ignite just by staring at it too long.

    Then: A print article in the paper.
    Now: 24 hour news-cycle, social media, tribalism, echo chambers, hyperbole, etc. All committed to some agenda that may or may not require fact.

    Then: Nature has always been here.
    Now: Exponentially more stupid, greedy Humans saying Nature is their B-word.

  34. Don't let bird cage liner like "The Stranger" pull your chain. They aren't even worth mentioning here.

    BAMCIS, thanks for the laugh - all of your points are spot on and are all completely true. We will burn it all down grasping for that very last penny before the lesson sinks in.. if it even does.

  35. "It would be interesting to know how much acreage burned before Europeans arrived. But maybe that data is impossible to get. I notice in the ODF Fire History graph that in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s most (maybe 3/4) of the fires were human caused. Was this also true before Europeans arrived, or were the Native Americans more careful with their burning."

    I don't know about the northwest, but here in the midwest there was definitely an impact from the early humans. Before people showed up the eastern forest used to stretch from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Early humans increased the number of fires and pushed the forest line east. By the time white settlers showed up they gave Illinois the nickname of the Prairie State.

  36. Cliff Mass is not a “denier”—that is, someone who denies humans are contributing to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases like CO2. He’s defensive on that point, concluding one phone interview with Seattle Weekly by imploring, “I’m not a denier!” But he is something of a not-yet-er, arguing that the effects of climate change will be felt decades in the future, not now"

    You are the worst kind of denier, you ignore reality. First, AGW began decades ago and no amount of money will save the forests, it's like Afghanistan.

  37. The unknown commenter who stated:
    "How much anthropogenic climate change is affecting the severity of the fires currently occurring is arguable, but Cliff needs to get off the "bad forest policy is the main cause" rhetoric."
    ....makes the best point in this comment section.
    The fact is, as with most things in this life, the problem is dynamic and so to will the answer need to be. For this particular topic it happens to be incredibly dynamic. "Bad forest policy is the cause" is divisive rhetoric that only serves to promulgate more arguing and embolden one camp or the other.
    Yes, fire suppression has a role. Yes, high grade logging has a role. Yes, fire is a natural part of these ecosystems and we will have periods where we suck smoke...and we happen to be in one of those periods now. Yes, reduced summer precip and winter snowpack...i.e. drought is factoring in. Yes, some level of strategic planning (thin/burn) could help, particularly with creating suppression anchor points for protecting assets in the WUI. Yes, the drought may be influenced by a cause and effect relationship relating to increased CO2 from excessive fossil fuel consumption...but it also may be a historical climate oscillation pattern. Yes, turning the forests back over to the timber industry will exacerbate the problem....yet they have role to play as we move forward.
    What Cliff is spot on about is that this particular media article claiming it's simply a sign of climate change is egregious sensationalism that oversimplifies the whole story. Where you go wrong Cliff is by using a similar tactic to make your argument....unless I mis-understood where you were trying to go here.
    Simply put again, the issue is dynamic.....any proposed solution must be as well.

  38. This is my 2016 critical review of the science literature about the false fire-CO2-warming connection:

    "Anatomy of the false link between forest fires and anthropogenic CO2

    In this critical review of the scientific literature about fire, I describe how the false notion of a link between forest fires and anthropogenic CO2 was ignited in 2006 by a fatally flawed article promoted in the science-trend-setting magazine Science, and spread like wildfire through the scientific literature and beyond, driven in part by high winds of climate modelling extravagance, while fortunately leaving large unburnt patches. There is no evidentiary basis for such a link. On the contrary, established knowledge about forest fires leads to the conclusion that dedication to teasing out such a link is preposterous: In the present circumstances starting in approximately 1900, the dominant effect is direct human impacts on land use, which causes global fire occurrences to be dramatically less than from the known long-term natural cycles (modern fire deficit). No special circumstances or regions have been correctly identified where forest fire behaviour can be attributed to CO2. Canada’s recent Fort McMurray fire is no exception. The claimed 7 g mean birth weight loss arising from mothers’ general exposure to CO2-driven southern California wildfires, like all such claims, is a product of statistical and conceptual overenthusiasm. I use concepts from the animal-behaviour scientific literature to explain how some scientists and their followers can get so carried away. "


  40. Lots of good ideas here but you also have some problems with low intensity burning. Now that our forests have been invaded with weeds, like cheat grass, tansy, spotted knapweed, etc. etc. , who's going to pay for controlling that, if it ever can be now? The logging companies and lumber mills are or have gone out of business. That workforce and heavy equipment was relied on heavily to control fire. They sold their lands and developers built trophy homes on them with wood from Canada and other countries, eg. Brooks Scanlon in Bend, OR comes to mind. Every low intensity burn will have to go thru the courts now because it adversely affects someone, group or species. Judges have been managing our forests for years already. Lawyers get paid by the hour and it takes a lot of money out of the funds just to do the work as prescribed. Low intensity burning has a narrow window of favorable weather to be effective and weather predictions aren't too accurate beyond 5 days. You have to make sure the burn is completely out before going on to the next one.

  41. As stay reasonable wrote "What Cliff is spot on about is that this particular media article claiming it's simply a sign of climate change is egregious sensationalism that oversimplifies the whole story. Where you go wrong Cliff is by using a similar tactic to make your argument....unless I mis-understood where you were trying to go here.
    Simply put again, the issue is dynamic.....any proposed solution must be as well."

    So fires burned a lot more acreage a hundred years ago - but fire-fighting technology was also a lot worse - no big air tankers back then, for example. You even mention that - how technology got better in the 1940s. So to me, using fires from a hundred years ago to say fires today aren't that unusual is comparing apples and oranges.

    In California, climate change is causing trees to die - the drought weakens them, beetles infest them, the warmer winters mean the beetles don't die as much, and the trees die. We also are seeing trees "move up" - trees that used to thrive at 1,000 foot elevation now don't; but they thrive at 2,000 foot elevation, for example. Nothing to do with forest management, everything to do with climate change.

    So while yes, we need healthy forest management (which does not mean clear cutting or ripping roads into the middle of forests to extract mature trees leaving brush and crap behind), we also need to address climate change.

  42. The governor's solution is to add another tax. WTF

  43. In British Columbia, a major reason for the massive fires there over the last ten years or so is the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the mostly lodgepole pine forests of the central interior of the province. In fact, in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, the hardest hit area for beetle kill, there have been so many massive fires over the past several years there almost isnt any large swaths of forest left to burn. In beetle kill forests, trees die and the fuel accumulates on the forest floor. Dead trees and sticks are a massive fuel source. The insect epidemic is largely attributed to climate change. Winters in this region have been getting milder and the insects have survived the winters where before the very cold temperatures would have killed them off. The last 2 summers have seen the worst fire seasons ever for BC. Both for area burned and for interface fires threatening homes and causing evacuations.

  44. We only have dates from the mid 1800s onward. Is there a possibility that the "old normal" fires were caused by early settlers lighting fires indiscriminately?

  45. "You are the worst kind of denier, you ignore reality. "

    And you're the worst kind of smear merchant, using Holocaust language in order to prove a point. You should be ashamed, but since you went there right off the bat, the mere concept likely is beyond your comprehension.

    Using "Climate Denier" was a new term the enviros came up with recently, when they refused to engage in any meaningful debate about AGW. It's designed to smear anyone who disagrees, with the intention of shutting them up - forever. You lose.

  46. unknown and is actually even more complicated. The Forest Service and other started to allow more fires to burn in the mid-80s....which is skewing the numbers higher. My central point is that although we need to minimize climate change, that is largely out of our control. Our forests and where we live IS in our control and repairing the forest would help reduce fires now and make us more robust as the climate warms during this century....cliff

  47. One of the previous commenters wondered about historic fire-severity data. Here it is , 3000 years worth. The key figure is 2C. This shows, for the Western US, biomass burned and predictions of a model based on climate (temperature and drought, see paper for methodology). It shows that over long-term history “normal” varies and it's variability is well predicted by the climate-based model until the late 1800s when a large anomaly (fire deficit) develops such that the model greatly over-predicts biomass burned. This is presumably the result of human activity such as habitat changes, e.g., grazing, land clearing, and of course fire suppression. Clearly any effect of increased fuel load is dwarfed relative to the climate-based model. The clear inference is that the expected increase in climate conditions supportive of greater fire severity due to global warming will eventually overwhelm the human-based factors which have resulted in the fire deficit, and the fire severity will eventually catch up to that predicted the climate-based model. As someone said, Mother Nature bats last.

    Cliff's solution is to get back to the low-intensity fires which clear out the undergrowth but leave the large trees unharmed. But the examples he give of the fires in the pre-suppression “old normal,” and others such as the Wisconsin/Michigan fires of 1871 which killed over a thousand people and destroyed multiple towns, were clearly not low intensity fires. In particular, the 1910 “great burn” was the impetus for the initiation of hard core fire suppression. The Forest Service was historically primarily a timber seller, it is not an anomaly that they are in the Dept of Agriculture, rather than Dept of Interior. The powers that be in the FS, and of course the timber companies, were appalled at the loss of potential lumber, hence the new policy. Other commenters have noted the financial impossibility of thinning/prescribed burning the roughly 9 million acres of non-wilderness-designated forests in Washington, much less in the rest of the West. And as the model in the above paper suggests, it is probably fruitless. Finally, re the “before-after” picture. “Before” is a forest, “after” is a park (as in city, not national). Even if it made sense scientifically and financially, would anyone who now recreats in the forests really want the vast majority of the forests in the state to look like that?

  48. As it concerns forest fires, why hasn't anyone compared forestry practices in privately owned timberlands to those in public forests that aren't being cut? I live in a county in the Columbia Gorge with both kinds of forests, and have observed that the private forests rarely catch fire.

    The faux environmentalists of Seattle and Portlandia would actively oppose any such examination, because it would inevitably favor a resumption of logging in places where it has been stopped. These debates really aren't about science. They are religious jihads by "environmentalists" who declare anyone who doesn't toe their line to be a heretic ... er, "denialist," with the full support of what's left of the news media.

    It's good to see Cliff Mass -- with whom I disagree on the AGW hypothesis, but who is generally a reasonable thinker -- take a logical approach to the recent fires. But he won't be around forever, and will eventually be replaced by some modern-day, gospel-preaching priest.

    I am pessimistic on all of it. More and more people are willfully stupid.

  49. Clif,
    Does your ODF illustration include acres treated with fire like prescribed burns? Those acres create a hell of a lot of smoke too.

  50. This comment has been removed by the author.

  51. I would like to suggest adding one more thing you can do to Bruce Kay's comments..
    "As citizens of one small region there is much you can do.

    1) actively oppose all Republican / Conservative governments
    2) actively support the implementation of a carbon tax
    3) actively support transitioning away from coal by any practical means, including hydro which Washington is well positioned to do"

    ADD: 4.Stop breeding like rabbits and stop rewarding births with government handouts.

  52. There is not uniform acceptance of wildfire statistics for the early years of the 20th century. See the website, which quotes personnel of the National Interagency Fire Center; an excerpt follows:
    *Those sceptical about the role of climate change in the recent increase in fires have pointed to the full dataset, trying to argue that the fire area has decreased by around 80% over the past century.

    This is not an accurate comparison, according to Randy Eardley, a spokesman at the NIFC. As he tells Carbon Brief:

    "I wouldn’t put any stock in those numbers. To try and compare any of the more modern data to that earlier data is not accurate or appropriate, because we didn’t have a good way to measure [earlier data]. Back then we didn’t have a reliable reporting system; for all I know those came from a variety of different sources that often double-counted figures. When you look at some of those years that add up to 60 or 70 million acres burned a lot of those acres have to be double counted two or three times. We didn’t have a system to estimate area burned until 1960, but it was really refined in 1983."

  53. Thank you for bringing history into context.

  54. Cliff, I would like to add my voice to the idea of smaller, more controlled, burns. How can I do that?

  55. we once had real forests with canopies and moss ground cover that absorbed rainfall filtering it before it could flood. locations with pine forests burned and somehow the huge timber survived and created an ecosystem to support itself.. the pine forests thrived with natural fire creating park like conditions underneath documented in books like “The Great Forest”. we now have mono species tree farms over vast amounts of the west with incredible invasive species adding to the is true that since Europeans arrived we created massive forest fires in the 1800s and 1900s. but I wonder whether your data from those days is accurately aligned with today. either way, comparing those old school fires to todays blazes are comparing far too many variables to be relevent. I just don’t buy the premise. natural systems had hundreds of years to recover. we are demanding instant gratification, as usual. just “fix” the problem by letting the same jerks get in and mess with nature. as to logging being “gone” please, I’ve driven by numerous mill operations and they never have had such mounds of logs waiting for processing. to say logging is hurting is just b.s.

  56. It doesn't seem likely that we could ever go back to the "old normal", whatever that was. :)

  57. I see that you used ODF data this time instead of the national one this time. Given the criticism of the data being biased by southeast slash burning (mentioned by several posters here) that would appear to be prudent. The problem with the Oregon data is that it is heavily influenced by the multiple Tillamook burns which were human caused and a direct result of poor logging practices that left large areas of dry slash debris on the ground instead of burning it off. That caused the fire to get large and hot enough to torch off the virgin coastal forests which usually don't burn as easily as non coastal forests. After that there was so much partially burned timber lying around that there were several follow on fires. Ditto the Yacoult burn. The Bandon fire was a weird outlier because the settlers had planted lots of an irish shrub that burned hot and fast. Also the weather was unusually hot and dry during that era, something we are starting to experience now.
    So I don't see those fires as being natural or typical. Not mentioned is that one of the reasons the number of large fires went down was the implementation of "Yacoult Rules" for logging.

  58. The trees have a personal story to tell about wildfire. Simply put, no tree survives into old age without once or more times encountering wildfire. Over a timeline of 300 to 500 years, nearly all forest burn. The typical Western forest burns with a greater frequency, in the 40-150-year range. The proof is visible to the observer, in the scars at the bases of the old growth forest, the uniformity of tree size type and height of the regenerating forest, missing composted soil structure, or even the presence of partial soil gasification in place of soils. If we can get our combine heads wrapped around the reality of the natural forest wildfire cycle, wildfire management and or suppression strategies will be possible Look to the forest and the trees for the answers, after all, they do survive, re-seed and re-build. Look to the trees, what we are doing at present is little more than chasing tails.

  59. Unknown said "Because snow melt is occurring earlier, forests are lacking moisture during peak evapotransportation periods..."

    TW B said: "...increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt..."

    100% not true re: snowmelt trends, the truth is the exact opposite in the Cascades: "There is no evidence of a long-term trend for earlier melt-out dates. In fact, just the opposite....melt out dates are trending later..."

    stay reasonable said: "Yes, reduced summer precip and winter snowpack...i.e. drought is factoring in..."

    Snowpack has been increasing in the Cascades for 40+ years:

    Precip is increasing (has been for decades) in the PNW and is expected to continue that trend:


    Not only is this a beautiful image, but the content for why each area is on fire


    Not only is this a beautiful image, but the content for why each area is on fire

  62. In my previous post the link to the discussed article somehow got deleted. The article is "Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA" in Feb 28, 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  63. Hi Cliff,

    Thanks for writing this essay. It is an important discussion to have. I'm in the south eastern corner of Australia and so we have these discussions too - for much the same reasons. The state government here does conduct burns, although they are not nearly regular enough or done over much of the landscape. In really big fires, well everything dies: trees; animals; insects; birds; soil life etc. So big and really hot fires are a bad thing. I've seen engine blocks melt and roadside guard rails twisted as if they were ribbons. Anyway, I also live in tall forest and try to help the oldest trees along as much as I physically can. It is a big job, which is why few people want to tackle that matter.

    Incidentally I was curious as to why people feel that your forests (and ours down here) were largely untouched pristine forests when the white fellas showed up? The first nation folk down here were forever managing the forests, and we have to too, although not many people realise that. If we take a peek back into deep time, we quickly realise that humans eating all the megafauna which previously kept the forests open meant that we then had to take that job on ourselves. And the tool they used was fire on a regular basis. By all accounts the entire landscape was burned on a 3 (grass land) to 15 year (tall forests) basis.

    Incidentally on an historical basis, the fires were far bigger down here way back in the day. The 1851 fire down here in Victoria was epic and it burned nearly a quarter of the entire state. That beats all of your lot, probably combined. But the fires up north of the country are even more epic in scale.

    Good luck and thanks for the excellent essay.


  64. This post seems to flirt with black and white thinking - our drastic fire situation is just driven by poor management. Common sense tells us otherwise. Longer, hotter, drier summers stress the forests, even reasonably well managed ones.

    A few weeks ago USFS Rocky Mtn. Research Station put out a major paper on this - it finds that declines in summer precipitation and lengthening dry spells during summer are major drivers of increased fire activity. Read the abstract here:

    The sorry state of our forests, especially in Southern Oregon is a huge problem, but it appears that our gridlock on forest matters is being overtaken by forces of weather/climate.

  65. Hi Cliff,

    It would've been interesting to hear a little more about weather conditions that push smoke into the Seattle area. This controls whether we experience smoke when fires do occur. How likely are we to experience the conditions that have prevailed over the last few weeks.

    Laura H.

  66. Any metrics on logging relative to fires? Because it sure looks like peak logging era was around minimal fire era.

    Not saying it's a solution, but if we're going to talk about causes I"m not sure fire management is the ONLY one. Especially since better Fire management practices have been known for 2+ decades now and it's not like we're making a lot of progress.

    I think it would be interesting if Cliffs could add some weather data. Like we know winds effect the perception of fires to us Urban folks. A strong marine push and Poof, no one is talking about fires on the the west side.

    Like I get the caution of connecting a global phenomena with a local one that's 2-3 steps removed, but shouldn't we at least mention/consider local weather? Even if the anomalies aren't Climate Change drive, the last 4 summers have been hotter than normal and our drying season seems to be starting earlier each season, have there been stronger east winds(probably since that's our heat engine). It may not be global climate change, but the local pattern has seemed unusual to say the least.

  67. It's absolutely true that allowing underbrush to accumulate drives hotter fires. It's also true that even in forests without a history of fire suppression (Alaska) or that don't have this natural fire cycle(parts of Colorado), there are still faster hotter fires burning. The question is what's the predominant problem, and the answer is climate change, to the tune of at least 55%.

    The TL;DR is that 55% of increased area burned since 1984 is due to aridity from climate change. The details indicate the number is probably even higher:

  68. Various commenters have touched on the issue of fuel loads and biomass utilization. Here's a recent article that may be of interest.

  69. If increasing wildfire is due to reduced logging then why were “wildfires in the northwest … much worse” before all the logging? This doesn’t add up.

    Science shows that wildfire is driven far more by weather conditions than by fuel conditions.

    Annual wildfire area burned in coming decades is likely to be highly geographically heterogeneous, reflecting interacting regional and seasonal climate drivers of fire occurrence and spread.
    Weather conditions at local and regional scales during the fire season are dominant factors influencing fuel flammability and annual area burned [17–20]. Warmer temperatures in concert with drought decrease fuel moisture, increase lightning ignitions, and lengthen the period over which fires occur [21], [22]. At regional scales, the occurrence of severe fire weather is regulated strongly by seasonal climatology as reflected in synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation [23–26]. As a consequence, the potential impacts of seasonal weather on fire behavior and extent are spatially heterogeneous, for several reasons. Growing season temperature influences water balance deficits (PET-AET)–an important variable controlling annual area burned by regulating biomass and fuel moisture–variably across climates and ecosystems [22], [26–28]. ... In addition to fire-season weather, antecedent temperature and precipitation over prior months and years regulate fire frequency and extent to varying degrees across ecosystem types. These effects are especially strong where winter and spring moisture are limiting to growth and conditioning of fine fuels prior to fire season [26], [33], [34]. Ecosystems will thus generate differential responses in vegetation growth in response to warming and changes in precipitation, resulting in significant differences in fuel types and loads under altered climate [7], [35]. For example, although warming may increase area burned under extreme warming/drying conditions in more productive, less fire-prone ecosystems due to increased fuel desiccation, it may produce only modest changes or even decreased area burned in less productive, fuel limited ecosystems by restricting fuel production [3], [6], [15].
    Seasonal climate variation exerts a primary control on the length, location, and intensity of fire seasons in western North America and worldwide. The amount of area burned by wildfires represents a complex integration of productivity, ignition patterns, landscape configuration (i.e., fuel connectivity), synoptic and local weather, and seasonal climatic conditions that condition fuels and influence fire spread and the length of fire season, along with the important role of anthropogenic ignitions [18], [20], [32].
    Wildfire is a global Earth system process that both integrates and influences many other interactions between ecosystem and the climate system. Fire mediates other ecosystem responses to changing climate, for example by modulating forest density and composition, and thus providing a mechanism by which ecosystems adapt to changing climate conditions. Uncertainties in key elements of climate projections could be compounded by nonlinear responses of fire to climate variability. Fires may also act as triggers for abrupt and irreversible change to novel configurations under Direct and indirect controls on annual wildfire area burned future climate [44], [83]. As climate change progresses, the projected changes in the area affected annually by fire may be an important multiplier of these effects in coming decades.

    Kitzberger T, Falk DA, Westerling AL, Swetnam TW (2017) Direct and indirect climate
    controls predict heterogeneous early-mid 21st century wildfire burned area across western and boreal North America. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0188486.

  70. ,,,global warming,,, miserables-religious call to English the "saint language",,, in the "bonfire",,, "bon" from French bon: "good",,, At present miserables-religious-terrorist-religious from other credos are burning the forest in the entire World,,, obviously using tech-artefacts, drones, balloons,,, (for that reason, news, are robbing drones to the shops), governments must to put in the forest towers of radar and nocturnal infrared for early detection of those drones used by terrorist-religious, although is more cheap and easy to say the truth and to declare that THE RELIGIOUS ARE ENEMIES OF THE HUMANKIND,,, and the miserable-religious occult-power Rome-saint, terror against reason how they did to Galileo Galilei (recent threat: "the World War III has already begun") protects to those other credos and silences to the politicians and the Global Media (they never say that are the incendiary-religious) for that the innocent people that still says "oh my God" do not know it a fact already evident: IS TRUTH THAT RELIGION IS LIE


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