Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Grass Fires Not Forest Fires Dominated Washington State in 2020: What Does That Imply Regarding Global Warming?

The wildfire season has now ended in Washington State, with no major fires currently burning and a very wet weather system approaching for the weekend.

Although the first half of the fire season had below normal acreage burned, we ended up with more fires and more burned acreage than normal (see WA DNR statistics below).  

Global warming?  Or is something else going on?

Some politicians and media outlets are claiming that global warming was the explanation, but as we shall see, something else was going on:  COVID-inspired trash burning and the extraordinary dominance of grass fires over forest fires.

Let's begin by looking at a map of this summer's wildfires over the state (see below).   There were some big fire areas in eastern Washington.  But look carefully and you will notice something important:  nearly all the acreage burned was not in terrain or in forests, but in the grasslands and scrub of the  eastern Washington lowlands.


If you wanted a clearer view of this situation, here is a recent MODIS satellite image centered on the Columbia Basin in which the burned areas are indicated by red.  You can see the agricultural areas (light green) and forested areas (darker green).  


We can compare the fires this year, with the fires of the past 20 years (see below), many of which have been on the eastern Cascade slopes and the slopes of the Okanagan and Blue Mountains.  But not this year.


As I noted in earlier blogs, 2020 was not a particularly favorable year for higher-elevation wildfires, with normal April 1 snowpack and temperature/precipitation conditions that were not particularly unusual.

But this year, something did happen that made the grass/sageland burn.  Something unusual. 

 Extraordinary, record-breaking winds (for the season) hit eastern Washington, with gusts reaching 50-70 mph on September 7th.

These winds both helped initiate grass fires, for example from failing, sparking powerlines, and caused the rapid growth and spread of the grass/sagebrush/brush fires.

The grass was already dry enough to burn after a normal, hot dry summer in eastern Washington.  And even if it were WET, a few hours of strong winds would have ensured it was dry enough to burn.

A plot of the ten-hour fuel moisture at the Columbia NWR RAWS fire weather site in central Columbia Basin (below)  for the 60 days ending Sept 8 shows the story.   Then ten-hour fuel moisture is for vegetation of 1/4 to 1 inch in diameter and values under 15% are dry enough to burn.  As you can see, the 10-h fuels were dry enough to burn all summer (below 10%).  Grasses (one-hour fuels) would have been even drier.  The same thing would be true of summers of other years (I checked).


The area near site and location are shown below:



Summer grass fires like this have NOTHING to do with climate change

 A normal summer makes these fuels dry enough to burn.  Increasing temperatures are irrelevant, and global warming models do not show much change in precipitation (and even if it got drier it would not make a difference).  The temperature and precipitation today are sufficient for fires.

The key issue in this event was the strong winds, which were accompanied by COLDER THAN NORMAL temperatures.   The crazy powerful winds were forced by a cold, high pressure areas to the east and such cold highs should become LESS frequent under global warming.

And there is something else.   Unirrigated areas in eastern Washington are much more flammable today than a century ago because of the invasion of highly flammable invasive grasses such as Cheatgrass (a.k.a. grassoline)--check the map below to see this.


It is totally frustrating that certain politicians, some local newspapers, and some environmental activist groups are pushing an inaccurate claim, not supported by any scientific evidence, that the eastern Washington wildfire siege of September 7-8 was the result of global warming.  It is simply not true.

Such false claims not only promote unnecessary fear and concern but work against taking steps that would actually help mitigate future future fires.

For  example, when very strong winds are forecast (and they were), eastern WA utilities could de-energize the power lines, as done in California.  Homes in the middle of grassland/brush could be built or remodeled to lesson their tendency to burn.  And grass/brush/flammables could be cleared away around buildings to create a safe space.


As I mentioned above, Washington State had more fires than normal.   The cause was not global warming, but COVID-19.

Many of the fires this year were debris fires that got out of hand.   Folks, forced to stay home because of COVID ,decided to clean up their properties and then burned the debris.  To quote from Hillary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands:

“Everybody is following the 'stay home, stay safe' order. They’re getting more time at home to do yard work. We’re seeing an unprecedented number of debris piles, and we’re seeing an unprecedented number of people that are lighting those piles on fire”

In contrast, to grass fires, global warming may well increase the risk for forest fires in some areas over the course of the century.   But there are a number of other factors that play a role in the long-term trend in forest fires, including fire suppression over the past century, poor forest practices, human ignition of fires, invasive grasses and plants, and people moving into wildland areas.   It's complicated.

____________________________

This is the kind of blog that gets me into trouble with the climate activist community, but folks in our state deserve the truth and only the truth will allow society to take rational steps to protect itself from environmental threats.   

After blogs like this, activist groups like 350Seattle typically call me names (denier, etc) and previously pushed KNKX to kick me off the radio.  Well, they succeeded at KNKX but at least I have this blog and the support of many of you.  
___________________________________________
My blog on KNKX and the Undermining of American Freedom is found here.

An extraordinary story about Matt Martinez, Program Director of KNKX, is found here.  All KNKX listeners should read it.
___________________________________________

Want to support the creation of the blog and podcast? 














25 comments:

  1. I don't think the role of invasive annual grasses can be talked about enough. These areas which were historically desert brush with bare dirt in between each bush and which largely prevented the spread of fire has transitioned into a grassland ecosystem as the nonnative grasses outcompete the desert plants. This greatly alters the fire regime of the landscape and greatly increases the fire return interval. While this to many seems like a horrible tragedy I actually believe there is a huge opportunity here. After researching people like Allan Savory and his work on Holistic grazing I believe it is possible to manage this ecosystem into productive rangeland that would have the side benefit of reducing range fires. See the desert environment was pretty degraded and only extremely hardy shurbs were able to survive in the low rainfall environment, however these nonnative annual grasses were introduced and they could if managed properly and over a long time scale transform the desert rangeland into productive grasslands for livestock and wildlife. Using holistic grazing by cattle and other livestock we could graze the annual grasses which would alter the soil enough so that hardy perennial grasses could take hold. Then over the course of many years of holistic grazing of the new perennial grasses it would build up the soil, increase nutrients and water holding capacity to the point where a much larger diversity of grassland species could thrive. Over time I think we could even plant hardy trees and shrubs that could thrive in the deeper richer soils and eventually one could grow forests where once only desert plants grew. The long term benefits of this would be massive and lead to not only more productive land but also could help buffer against climate change and environmental degradation which is largely human caused. It just takes a different point of view to see what is possible. If done correctly fires wouldn't even be on anyone's minds anymore. Anyways I highly recommend people look up Alan Savory and his work on holistic planned grazing. His ideas seem far fetched to some but they have been proven on multiple occasions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, look - an actual detailed possible solution offered, and without any histrionics or apocolyptic language! It's like finding a unicorn.

      Delete
    2. Travis - I totally agree that grass fires are an issue - I posted tha before on Cliff's website. I will need to read Alan Savory. The question is, can we do this on a large scale without government involvement? Probably not. Hanford is a huge area off cheat guess (and that Japanese annual grass) that thrives by burning every year. That also is exterminating the big sagebrush, which cannot withstand annual fires. There may be a lot of other forbes affected also. Maybe we also need to bring back true grazers - goats, buffalo - cattle are limited in what they control. It is a man-caused problem, and we must find solutions.

      Delete
  2. I appreciate your detailed and critical analyses of these phenomenon. I was wondering, have you seen any weather changes here or in the rest of the world that are in line with climate change. It feels like you believe it is a real phenomenon but I have only seen you explain how things are not.

    I was also strongly hoping that you might host a debate on climate change with an expert who believes these phenomena are driven in part by climate change, as i have seen there are more than a few. I think we would all really benefit from seeing each side address each other's analyses directly and in conversation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. I only see individuals either writing about how it is not related to climate change all the time but not spend time in spending the same amount of articles explaining what they think the climate change will bring. It is important to understand the real phenomena but also important to educate people about climate change. Hope we see more conversations among these individuals in the near future.

      Delete
    2. I agree I would like to learn about some examples of the effects of a warming world in the northwest. I have learned that the effects are dampened or delayed out here. Want to learn more!

      Delete
  3. I find it hard to trust what i read anymore. However, I follow you because of this very blog. I trust your use of science I can understand and research myself, if needed. It is very unfortunate that we can't just logically procede forward and that fathead polical careers are more important than the world's health. Keep blogging, Mr Mass, please!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree the grass fires in Eastern WA that occurred this summer were not due to global warming; excellent explanation. Do you believe there is world wide human caused global warming or is it naturally cyclical?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cliff has stated many times that he believes that climate change is real, and caused by man made changes to the ecosystem. He finds fault with media blaming every weather event that comes along on it.

      Delete
  5. So as far as causes go, A quote from Public Lands commissioner Franz (from June) is a smoking bullet for you but September going down as 2nd warmest all time in Seattle is what, merely a coincidence?.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They simply have nothing to do with each other. What connection do you see?

      Delete
    2. Correct, a coincidence. It's not as simple as hot weather = global warming = a lot of fires. It just doesn't work like that.

      Delete
  6. One of the largest and most destructive of the 2020 fires in North Central Washington was caused when high winds re-ignited a long smoldering area. The source was a chip dump that had accumulated years of log mill waste and which had been compromised by a brush fire several months earlier. The fire went below ground and continued to crop up as a hot spot. When it flared up again, it took of and ran for miles downwind torching everything in its path.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think California's situation should have been the emphasis here. Assuming much the same applied ?

    ReplyDelete
  8. It’s extremely sad and frustrating that you are being hampered from voicing your point of view, data, and analysis. You’re honest and bring valid information to the discussion. I want to hear different perspectives (though thoughtful) unfiltered by narratives. I’m sorry for you, and us, that this has happened.

    I found your explanation of the role of wind and that climate change models point to their decrease in the future to be enlightening. Is that due to warming poles reducing the frequency of very high pressure cold air?

    Two questions remain for me after reading your blog. Could climate change affect the amount of fuel? And could CC be affecting the rate and types of invasive species?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also: How does (and how has) climate change affect the duration of fire-suseptible fuel moisture in larger diameter fuels, particularly the larger diameter 100hr and 1000hr+ fuels in forests?

      How does climate change affect the fuel moisture of smaller fuels (like 10hr grasses) in areas that are not as naturally hot and dry pre-climate change (such as western Washington)?

      Delete
  9. Thank you Cliff for you objective scientific approach to climate change. You have always been a breath of fresh air. (pun intended)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Cliff I love your blog and new podcast!

    I agree with you that the Pacific Ocean is mitigating climate change for our PNW. It seems most scientists (including you) agree the world climate is changing due to long term global warming. The problem with our understanding is we don't know the actual rate of change, and how much of the "signal" (extreme events attributable to warming) is obscured by the "noise" (normal random weather events).

    Some regions of the planet will experience very real negative effects well before others. I am not sanguine that we will find geopolitical and technical solutions in time to avoid major worldwide disruptions - climate refugees, resource wars, weather catastrophes, and who knows what else. I don't think the years beyond 2100 will be something to look forward too...

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks Cliff, informative and right on point as usual!!!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I would so like to know the link to where you generated that map image of fires in Washington over the last 20 years. Please, pretty please?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Try
      https://caltopo.com/map.html?fbclid=IwAR0Cl4RqBZc4vNE5KUMKnm-SSJUFSDaz4dPR9_V0KJ39YMTB-qu87svYKlE#ll=47.48781,-119.24011&z=8&b=r&a=fire%2Cmodis_p
      make sure to click the Fire History in the Map Layers.

      Delete
  13. I don't disagree with your analysis. But Cliff, you should just come out and say what you believe: climate change is real but you don't think it's a significant threat (possibly anywhere). That's problem you have. I guess if us folks in Washington living now won't really have any big problems before we die, all is well with the climate, right?

    ReplyDelete
  14. It is a threat....snowpack will decline by mid-century, flooding will get worse over this century. I have stated that many times.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Cliff what about the fires in oregon California? Did climate change contribute to those? I read in LA Times:

    Arizona and California experienced their warmest April-to-September period in 126 years, the Drought Monitor reported. New Mexico and Nevada had their second-warmest such period.

    ReplyDelete