About 32 percent of the United States has gotten warmer and drier over the last 40 years, primarily in the West. The eastern two-thirds, about 66 percent, is warmer and wetter.
That leaves 2 percent of the country that is cooler and wetter — across the northern areas of Montana, North Dakota, Michigan, and Minnesota. A very tiny fraction, 0.06 percent in the northeastern tip of Minnesota, is cooler and drier. (Data from The Prism Climate Group and Brian Brettschneider)
And, it’s not only the U.S. that is getting warmer:
The number of fires is decreasing, but fires are growing larger
While all the wildfire statistics for 2020 are not yet available, the data through December 2, 2020 shows that the United States is on track to shatter the record for the average size of wildfires. Looking at the last 35 years, the average size of fires this year was the highest ever, 168 acres. This number has been growing rapidly year to year (see the chart above). The second highest was 145 acres in 2018, and third highest was 132 in 2017.
From 1985 through 1993 the average size was 27 acres — 16 percent of the average size in 2020, 168 acres.
From looking at the data, here are some highlights:
During the last 35 years, the number of acres burned this year in the lower 49 states was the 5th highest.
The number of fires has been declining. This year was the fourth lowest number in the last 35 years. The first, second and third lowest were 2013, 1989, and 2019 respectively.
Fewer, but larger fires — why?
The number of fires may be declining because we are better at preventing them. NFPA data shows the number of highway vehicle fires has declined from 456,000 in 1980 to 182,000 in 2018. The highway vehicles fires per billion miles driven has decreased over that same period from 299 to 56. In addition, we may have better spark arrestors on equipment, and, fewer people are smoking and those that do, smoke less.
Higher temperatures most likely has led to lower live and dead fuel moistures, more preheating of vegetation, extreme weather, more rapid fire spread, and increased resistance to control of fires. And when there is more fire on the landscape, the same number of forestry technicians year after year can’t suddenly increase their firefighting output by 300 percent.
All of the wildfire data in our charts here excludes Alaska. I treat that state separately because:
They don’t fully suppress most fires in Alaska, or sometimes just try to herd them away from communities. Fires can grow huge which really skews the numbers for the nation.
Alaska’s burned acres can vary widely from year to year. For example, so far this year they have only burned 181,234 acres; the other 49 states burned 8,708,060. In 2015 5,111,404 acres burned in Alaska.
I also do not show on charts the numbers before 1985 because the data available from NIFC shows wide shifts between 1982 and 1984. It appears that a different record-keeping system was introduced at that time.
Vice President Biden at the memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013: “Firefighting is not what they did — it is who they were”
With a new administration taking the reins of the federal government January 20, some may be thinking about what changes, if any, will affect wildland firefighting. Of course it is dangerous to attempt to predict what any government official will do, but in this case President Elect Joe Biden has a lengthy track record even before he served as Vice President for eight years under the Obama presidency.
Vice President Biden spoke at the memorial service July 9, 2013 in Prescott Valley, Arizona, for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire. From the C-SPAN recording, we made a video clip of his remarks and the slide show that followed featuring the 19 men. You can see the entire two-hour service at C-SPAN.
At Prescott Valley Mr. Biden showed tremendous empathy and appreciation for the deceased men, their families, and firefighters in general, saying, “All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters,” and, “They were heroes long before we knew their names.” Few public servants would be capable or have the desire to exhibit the degree of compassion for firefighters showed by Mr. Biden. Most people will find themselves choking up while listening to his sympathetic words. Cameras caught people in the audience wiping away tears.
Vice President Biden also spoke September 12, 2009 at the memorial service for the two firefighters killed on the Station Fire near Los Angeles, Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones.
In 2013 Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the Medal of Valor to 18 firefighters and police officers for exhibiting exceptional courage. The Vice President, a former Chairperson of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, made some very meaningful remarks, some of which appeared to be unscripted. Here is a brief excerpt:
There’s something special about firefighters and cops……. You all share — you’re all crazy, God love you — you all share a selflessness that is not easily explained, a commitment to your fellow man that’s rare, bravery that inspires, literally inspires almost everyone that hears about it……. Being a firefighter or police officer is not what you do, it’s who you are….. There’s something about ya’ll. You can smell it when you’re 10, you’re 12, you’re 15. And God we’re lucky for it man. I marvel at what makes them tick. I marvel at what makes them tick.
But showing compassion and empathy does not guarantee future action or passing legislation when necessary.
The Obama/Biden administration worked with Congress to address climate change in many ways, including participating in the 2015 Climate Agreement. During the last four years the U.S. has withdrawn from the Agreement and taken other actions to reverse previous progress, but Mr. Biden has said he will make dealing with climate change an important priority, will again honor the agreement, and has an ambitious goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The large majority of respected climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change has greatly affected our weather. The higher temperatures and bouts of drought and extreme weather have resulted in lower fuel moistures and extreme wildfires that are very difficult to suppress. At stake are lives, private property, health of the population, and natural resources. Lack of action to slow climate change is not a reasonable option.
Here are some examples of Mr. Biden’s record on firefighter issues documented by the International Association of Firefighters:
As vice president, Mr. Biden was tasked by President Obama as the administration’s point-person on first responder issues.
During his time in the Senate, he played a leadership role on nearly every piece of legislation introduced affecting fire fighters.
Early in his Senate career, Mr. Biden championed the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program, which provides death benefits to the families of fallen fire fighters. He later introduced and passed legislation to increase PSOB benefits from $150,000 to $250,000, and indexed it to inflation so the benefit is now $340,000.
Senator Biden helped create the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, and consistently advocated for robust funding.
As vice president, Mr. Biden helped push through the Zadroga 9/11 Act to provide healthcare and compensation to those fire fighters who participated in the 9/11 response and recovery efforts. (Video of Jon Stewart advocating for the extension of the Act in 2019.)
William Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” We can safely assume that in his administration, Mr. Biden will continue to care about firefighters. But he can’t pass legislation — he will need the cooperation of Congress, which has found it difficult move any kind of bill in recent years.
Perhaps Mr. Biden will have more luck than previous presidents due to having served in the Senate for 36 years and his relationship with Mitch McConnell, who may still be the Majority Leader in the Senate going forward. Here is an excerpt from an article at Firechief.com:
In his book “The Long Game: A Memoir,” McConnell stated that trying to deal with then-President Obama was impossible. “[Obama] acted like a professor every time we tried to discuss legislation. The first 45 minutes was always a lecture about how and why we were wrong,” McConnell wrote. On the other hand, McConnell loved dealing with Biden. “Joe would come into a meeting and say, this is what I need, and this is what I understand that you need. Is there any way to work out a deal here?”
…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.