Scientists say climate change increased risk of extreme bushfires in Australia

The researchers found the climate models consistently underestimated the observed increase in temperatures in southeast Australia

bushfire in Victoria Australia
Photo of a fire in Victoria, Australia, by Forest Fire Management Victoria Forest Fire Operations Officer Dion Hooper. It was taken in January, 2020 on Wombargo Track looking towards Cobberas (north of Buchan in East Gippsland).

A group of scientists published a study that shows global warming led to warm and dry weather that created conditions favorable to large bushfires in Australia.

From the BBC:


…Global warming boosted the risk of the hot, dry weather that’s likely to cause bushfires by at least 30%, they say.

But the study suggests the figure is likely to be much greater. It says that if global temperatures rise by 2C, as seems likely, such conditions would occur at least four times more often. The analysis has been carried out by the World Weather Attribution consortium.

Co-author Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt, The Netherlands, told the BBC even the study’s very conservative estimates were troubling.

“Last year the fire prevention system in Australia, which is extremely well prepared for bushfires, was straining. It was at the limits of what it could handle, with volunteers working for weeks on end,” said Prof van Oldenborgh.

“As the world warms, these events will become more likely and more common. And it’s not something that we are ready for.”

During the 2019-2020 fire season in Australia, record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought fueled a series of massive bushfires across the country. At least 33 people were killed and more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq km or 27.2 million acres) of bush, forest and parks across Australia burned.

Although it makes sense that human-induced global warming is likely to have led to more bushfires, assigning a figure to that increased risk is complex. That is because other factors not directly related to climate change may also play a significant role. These include increased water use making the land drier, urban heating effects or unknown local factors.

Nevertheless, Prof Jan van Oldenborgh and 17 fellow climate scientists from six countries gave it their best shot. “It was by far the most complex study we have undertaken,” he told the BBC.

The researchers found the climate models consistently underestimated the observed increase in temperatures in southeast Australia and so could not pinpoint a figure for the increased risk from climate change. They were, however, able to tease out a minimum risk.

“We show that climate change definitely increases the risk of the extreme weather that makes the catastrophic bush fires (that south-east Australia has experienced) in the past few months more likely by at least 30%.

“But we think it could be much more. We don’t know how much more. It could be a lot more.”

Prof van Oldenborgh is among those attempting to find out if the current climate computer models really are underestimating the influence of global warming – and if they are, working out how to correct them.

Statements from five presidential candidates about wildland fire

They were asked about how to break the cycle of more severe weather, homes in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for more catastrophic fires in the future

North Pole Fire South Dakota
Chain saw operator on the North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD March 10, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In an effort to provide for our readers information about positions the presidential candidates have taken on wildland fire issues, today we have the second article in the series. Earlier this month we searched the websites of the candidates and were able to find the issue addressed by only one, Mike Bloomberg, which we put in a February 15 article.

We wrote:

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential Candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

After seeing that article one of our readers, Su Britting, informed us that she had seen a piece in the Desert Sun featuring the candidates’ responses to a fire-related question posed by a Research Scientist for the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at the University of California at Davis.

Below is an excerpt from the article, used here with permission from Executive Editor Julie Makinen. The only part not included are a few introductory paragraphs written by the reporter, Sam Metz. The candidates’ statements in the Desert Sun article are included in their entirety.


…We enlisted Professor Malcolm North, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at UC Davis, to ask the candidates running in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary a question about wildfire policy.

North wanted to see how candidates would balance California’s need for more housing with the hazards of building in wildfire-prone regions and how they’d address concerns surrounding fire suppression and its potential to exacerbate the problem. Each candidate was given the same set of questions to answer within a specific timeframe.  Some campaigns responded in the third person (e.g. “Senator Klobuchar believes …”) while other candidates responded themselves (e.g. “As president, I’ll invest …”). Candidates that are not featured did not provide a response.

Like most of the western United States, California’s wildfires are becoming more destructive with more severe weather, unchecked home building in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for larger, more catastrophic fires in the future. As president, how would you do to help break this cycle for the sake of both people and ecosystems? — Malcolm North, Research Scientist, U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Elizabeth Warren: Climate change is an existential threat to all life on this planet — and Californians are already seeing the dangers of climate change first hand.  Elizabeth Warren is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution and has more than 10 climate plans that detail how a Warren administration will achieve domestic net zero emissions by 2030.

Wildfires pose an especially serious threat to low-income communities, people with disabilities, and seniors. That’s why Elizabeth has committed to:

  • Improving fire mapping and prevention by investing in advanced modeling with a focus on helping the most vulnerable — incorporating not only fire vulnerability but community demographics.
  • Prioritize these data to invest in land management, particularly near the most vulnerable communities, supporting forest restoration, lowering fire risk, and creating jobs all at once.
  • Invest in microgrid technology, so that we can de-energize high-risk areas when required without impacting the larger community’s energy supply.
  • Collaborate with Tribal governments on land management practices to reduce wildfires, including by incorporating traditional ecological practices and exploring co-management and the return of public resources to indigenous protection wherever possible.

She’s also committed to prioritizing at-risk populations in disaster planning and response and strengthening rules to require disaster response plans to uphold the rights of vulnerable populations. A Warren administration will center a right to return for individuals who have been displaced during a disaster and while relocation should be a last resort, when it occurs, she is committed to improving living standards and keeping communities together whenever possible.

Pete Buttigieg: California’s devastating wildfires are one example of the accelerated impacts of climate change. This is one of the most pressing security challenges of our era and it will absolutely be a top priority under my administration. To stem the impacts of climate change my administration will get our country to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, by implementing a bold and achievable Green New Deal. We will enact a price on carbon and use the revenue to send rebates directly to Americans’ pockets. We will also quadruple federal clean energy R&D funding to invest more than $200 billion in developing new technologies as well as create three investment funds to spur clean technology development and fund locally-led clean energy projects, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Promoting resilient infrastructure is crucial to preparing communities against climate change. The American Clean Energy Bank and Regional Resilience Hubs that I am proposing will finance local investments in resilient infrastructure. My administration will develop federal guidelines for investments in and implementation of new approaches, including nature-based solutions, that make our natural resources and communities safer and more resilient. We will also establish a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather Insurance (CEWI) program to provide stability to individuals and communities who experience the major disruptions caused by climate change and other natural risks such as earthquakes. We will build a resilient nation that can stand up to the extreme weather and sea level rise we are already facing, and lead the world in bringing our international partners and local leaders together to solve this crisis.

Tom Steyer: I began this campaign because despite several Democratic candidates talking about the climate crisis, the seriousness of the threat was not getting the attention it demanded.  I am the only candidate who will make addressing climate change my number one priority as President of the United States. Climate change doesn’t just represent a serious threat — it is also a great opportunity to build a sustainable American infrastructure and an economy that restores prosperity to all Americans, not just the wealthy. In order to break the cycle of the catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to build resilient infrastructure and a renewable economy. We also need to invest in individual ecosystems (forests, lakes, oceans) in the context of climate change. This will mean undoing the negligence of the Trump administration’s policies and creating collaboration between the states and the federal government to address the problems of designing, building and maintaining climate-resilient communities.

As part of my Justice Centered Climate Plan, I will invest nearly $500 billion in the upkeep and protection of our watersheds, wetlands, national parks, and forests — and this includes fire management as well as protecting our clean drinking water. Because while some of the impacts of climate change are already here, there are levelheaded preventative measures we can take to protect ourselves and our forests from the worst dangers. My plan puts $555 billion into developing climate-smart communities and housing and an additional $755 billion into adaptation, resilience, and green infrastructure. This will ensure that the people who are displaced from fires and flooding have affordable places to live with access to green space. And it will also ensure that they have good-paying jobs building our new climate-resilient infrastructure, protecting our lands and waters, and serving communities hit by the climate crisis as long-term disaster recovery workers.

Bernie Sanders: We’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change. In California, 15 of the 20 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000. We must invest now in mitigating these more frequent and severe wildfires, making our infrastructure more resilient, and preparing for disaster response. We must change our framework of fire suppression and forest management to take the whole local ecosystem into account, including the rural communities who are most vulnerable.

In California, developers are building houses in fire hazard zones, a move partially driven by the housing shortage. Bernie is committed to fully closing the 7.4 million unit shortage of affordable housing to guarantee housing to all as a right. We will work to ensure housing growth is climate-resilient, with experts and impacted communities included every step of the way.

We’ll expand the wildfire restoration and disaster preparedness workforce. We’ll increase federal funding for firefighting by $18 billion to deal with the increased severity and frequency of wildfires. Furthermore, we must facilitate community evacuation plans that include people experiencing homelessness, and increase social cohesion for rapid and resilient disaster recovery to avoid the use of martial law and increased policing in disaster response.

We’ll also amend the Stafford Act to ensure that FEMA ensures that recovery and rebuilding efforts make affected communities stronger than they were before the disaster so they are more resilient to the next disaster.

Michael Bloomberg: First and most importantly, we’ve got to act aggressively to curb the carbon pollution and climate change that is like pouring accelerant on our western forests, making fires bigger and more catastrophic — this will be a top priority for my presidency. In addition, we’ve got to transition from the old fire suppression approach to managing our forests to restore healthy ecosystems that are inherently more resilient to catastrophic fire.

I’m calling for an effort on the scale of FDR’s response to the Dust Bowl, making this a top priority for the Forest Service. I will direct them to work with other federal land agencies, states, tribes, and local communities to develop a far-reaching fire prevention and management plan for each state at risk, aiming to reduce the loss of lives and property by half within four years.

Fire management and the presidential election

As we have said often here at Wildfire Today, we do not get into politics unless it directly affects firefighters or fire management. And there is nothing more political than a presidential election.

However, I ran across an op-ed written by Ken Pimlott, former chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who mentioned that one candidate has a wildfire plan. I do not recall any major candidate saying much about wildland fire, so it got my attention.

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

The candidate Chief Pimlott wrote about is Mike Bloomberg. Below is the text from his “Wildfire Resilience” webpage:


Lead a Nationwide Effort to Strengthen the Nation’s Resilience against Wildfires

Responsibility for preventing and fighting fires crosses multiple jurisdictions and interests — federal, state, local, private and tribal. In the West in particular, multiple landowners can be involved between the point where a fire starts and where it causes the most damage. This kind of large-scale action demands strong leadership and coordination. To ensure our country is protected from future harm and is equipped to mitigate future damages, Mike knows that it’s up to the federal government, as the majority landowner of forests in the West, to take the lead. Mike’s plan will:

  • Make fire resilience a top priority of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as other federal land management agencies. Task the agency with coordinating the development of a far-reaching new plan for firefighting and fire prevention for each Western state.
  • Increase collaboration among all levels of government, and public and private sectors. The Forest Service will work with other federal partners, local communities, state and local agencies, tribal leaders, environmental groups, private timber companies, rural land owners, utilities and the insurance industry to develop region- or state-specific plans with the goal of reducing life and property loss by half within four years.
  • Improve community resilience and prevent redlining by the insurance industry. Collaborative fire protection plans will include measures to reduce risk to communities and property, minimize damages in case of fire, and thereby improve the chances of getting or maintaining insurance, so that current homeowners who don’t have alternatives aren’t left without the ability to insure for disasters.

Continue reading “Fire management and the presidential election”

Pentagon says climate change is a growing security threat

Wildfires have the potential to become a concern at seven additional bases where it is not now a serious threat

Canyon Fire entrapment
3-D map of the Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, looking east. The red line was the perimeter of the Canyon Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 20, 2016. The white line was the perimeter at approximately 11 p.m. September 19.

A report prepared by the Department of Defense in 2019 identified 36 bases where wildfire is currently a concern. Taking climate change into account that number is expected to grow to 43 over the next 20 years.

An analysis required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 studied 79 priority installations based on their operational role. The goal was to assess the significant vulnerabilities from climate-related events in order to identify high risks to mission effectiveness on installations and to operations.

The installations break down by organization as follows:

Military Base Climate Change Study
Department of Defense

In addition to the predicted effects of climate change on wildfire potential, the report also considers recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, and the thawing of permafrost.

The installations that currently are not classified as vulnerable to wildfires but are expected to become so within 20 years are:

  • Key West Naval Air Station, Florida
  • Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Georgia
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor & Hickham, Hawaii
  • Wahiawa Annex, Hawaii
  • Naval Magazine Indian Island, Washington
  • Naval and Submarine Base Bangor, Washington
  • Naval Base Guam

Of the 79 installations that were considered in the study, all that were predicted to develop a new vulnerability to wildfire are Naval Bases. Of the 21 Army bases only 4 are now described as vulnerable to wildfire and no others are identified as becoming vulnerable within 20 years.

Military Base Climate Change Study
A summary from the report of current and future (20 years) vulnerabilities to military installations.

One example of an Air Force Base that is currently vulnerable to wildfires is Vandenberg on the Southern California Coast. Two fires on the base come to mind:

  1. On December 20, 1977, three people were entrapped and killed on the Honda Canyon Fire on the base, including the Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell, and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Additionally, severe burns were experienced by Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley.  He later died due to complications from the burns.
  2. In 2016 the Canyon Fire burned over 12,000 acres on the base. Dozens of firefighters were entrapped and endured a harrowing escape through very thick smoke and flying embers. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned center produced an excellent explanatory video about the entrapment.

Statement from the IAWF about climate change

The following is a statement from the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Climate Change Week at the United Nations
September 23 – 29, 2019


Climate change has already had significant consequences in the global wildfire reality, affecting citizens as well as the global wildland fire community. Many key issues of importance to the IAWF – including firefighter and civilian safety, fire management expenses, changing weather patterns, natural role of fire, fire regimes and ecosystem succession, as well as the wildland urban interface– all require recognition of the role of climate change.

Globally, we regularly see new reports about the “worst”, “largest”, “most expensive”, and “deadliest” fires and fire seasons. In 2019 and 2018, striking headlines read “Arctic on Fire” (Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska), and the most expensive and largest fire years were recorded in 2018 in California and British Columbia, respectively, breaking the previous records set in 2017. The Camp Fire (CA, 2018), Attica Greece (2018), Black Saturday Australia (2009), and Portugal (2017) fires were all ranked amongst the top 11 deadliest fires in the last 100 years.

Under current climate change scenarios, fire regimes will change in terms of increases in burned area, severity, fire season length, frequency, and ignitions from lightning. Many parts of the world have already experienced an increase in record breaking temperatures and recurring droughts that have led to shifts in wildland fire. There is already evidence of climate-driven fire regime change in the Northern Hemisphere upper latitudes with fire risk increasing in non-traditional fire-prone countries. The consequences of human actions are here today, not in some distant future, and these are alarming and, most important, escalating.

The IAWF encourages all countries to emphasize increased international fire training and to implement easier cross-border sharing of professional fire management resources for suppression and prescribed fire opportunities. These will lessen the irrationally heavy burden any single country will have to carry to manage extreme fire seasons. Homes and communities must be better planned and built, so they are increasingly fire resistant and more adapted to natural disasters of all types. Health impacts of fires have long-term consequences, not only those that are immediate from the flames but also those from smoke and toxins, and these must be considered when planning and managing for future wildland fires. Wildfires and smoke do not recognize borders. As the global community tries to manage the new wildfire challenges, it is incumbent on everyone to prepare to support international neighbours in protecting lives and communities from fires and their impacts.

IAWF Vice-President Toddi Steelman recently said in Wildfire magazine (August 2019) that “Recent extreme weather events have catalysed public belief in, and concern about, climate change, and boosted public support for government actions to reduce its harmful impacts. This gives us a window of opportunity when conditions are right to make great strides on climate if we are strategic about it.” This window of opportunity requires people having the knowledge and political will to act now. Our global scientific community needs to publicly share knowledge learned about patterns of extreme wildland fire and weather, as well as how climate change is associated with these patterns. Our global fire management community needs to leverage its credibility to share its experiences about how climate change and its role in extreme weather is playing out in their day to day work environments. Connecting extreme weather events to real on-the-ground consequences can help more people understand how climate impacts are affecting us all.

Will efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions affect forest management?

Convection column Pioneer Fire
Convection column on the Pioneer Fire, August 30, 2016. Photo by Nick Guy of the University of Wyoming.

In case you came to our website yesterday and saw the green banner saying the site was closed for the day to recognize the global #ClimateStrike, we are back in service as you can see.

On Friday millions of people across the world, many of them young,  assembled to help bring awareness to what I and others are convinced is an emergency — a climate emergency. The more scientists learn about the changing climate the more serious the situation looks. A few years ago we were hearing that we had to reach net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050. That is a long way off and many of us will not be around then. But the young people marching today will be stuck with the results of what we do between now and then.

We still need to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but we can’t wait until 2049 to begin making changes. Scientists are saying that to reach that goal, emissions would have to start dropping well before 2030 and be on a path to fall by about 45 percent by 2030. The longer we wait to begin making significant changes, the more difficult it will be to meet the 2050 goal.

Scientists estimate that wildland fires make up 5 to 10 percent of annual global CO2 emissions when taking into account renewed forest growth in the burned areas. Fires also release other greenhouse gasses such as methane. Experts estimate that the wildfires in California’s North Bay in October of 2017 emitted as much CO2 in one week as all of the state’s cars and trucks do in one year.

Up until now fire management in developed countries has virtually received a free pass when it comes to CO2, at least compared to what it could become in the next 10 to 15 years. There is world-wide pressure now to rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels. It is only a matter of time before we start hearing a chorus saying all vegetation fires are “bad”, including prescribed or “good fires”, using a term now being used by some U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Land managers should be thinking about how to deal with strong pressure to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from burning vegetation. Part of the answer is additional firefighters, engines, dozers, helicopters, and air tankers. The U.S. Forest Service budget for wildland fire has remained flat for the last several years, while the costs of suppression infrastructure has increased. In light of the climate emergency, allotting fewer real dollars to suppression is counter intuitive. Congress and the President need to take action on this budget issue.

Fuel treatment projects, including mechanical projects and prescribed fires, can reduce the size and resistance to control of wildfires. However, pressure to reduce CO2 emissions could make it more difficult to obtain approvals to conduct prescribed fires even though the results if done on a large enough scale can reduce emissions from wildfires over the long term. But it will be difficult to develop the formula for the right mix and priorities of mechanical treatments, prescribed fires, wildfire suppression, or doing nothing.

There are many irons in that fire, so to speak, such as dealing with smoke, protecting communities, restoring forests, conserving water resources, wildlife, endangered species, and of course the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses coming out of our forests as they burn one way or the other. It remains to be seen if all of those goals can be satisfied as we move closer to the climate emergency tipping point. Some of them may have to be de-emphasized. Land managers might be accused of being selfish if they insist on attempting to accomplish all of these traditional objectives that may exacerbate the climate for the entire planet. As well meaning as de-emphasis might me, unless skillfully implemented using the best science, the unintended consequences could actually increase CO2 emissions over time.