By Dr. John Happs
Australia has always experienced droughts, floods and bushfires and it is immoral for those with vested interests, political or otherwise, to blame (imaginary) global warming for bushfires that occur in Australia or other parts of the world.
Climate alarmists will point to the need for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or the closure of coal-mines, the banning of fracking and a shift to unreliable, inefficient alternative energy sources such as solar and wind farms. These measures, they argue, will somehow combat bushfires that have always been part of Australia’s history. There is no evidence to show that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have any impact on global temperature or bushfire frequency.
Following the tragic Queensland bushfires this year, the state’s Deputy Premier Jackie Trad commented:
“Scientists had been warning of more frequent and more ferocious fires for quite some time.”
“There is no doubt that with an increasing temperature with climate change, then what the scientists tell us is that events such as these will be more frequent and they will be much more ferocious.”
(The Australian Associated Press, September 8th 2019)
Equally fatuous comments have been made by crusading celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, who also attempted to link bushfires with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (what she calls pollution) saying:
“We will face many more catastrophic fire days in Southeast Australia unless the world acts to dramatically cut greenhouse pollution.”
Fortunately, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack responded robustly to what he creatively called the “Raving inner-city lunatics” pointing out that climate change cannot be linked to the fires across Queensland and New South Wales.
Green Zealots, aided and abetted by the media, rarely mention the real causes of bushfires. Without offering any empirical evidence, they take every opportunity to imply that fires simply start because the day is hot and that fires will become more of a problem because of the trivial amounts of carbon dioxide human activity produces.
The Australian Institute of Criminology has been more matter of fact about how bushfires are started:
No mention here of global warming or climate change or extreme weather or whatever weasel words climate alarmists wish to use.
Whatever the type of wood involved, combustion is only achievable at temperatures between 190oC and 260oC. Incredibly, some activists have argued that a 40oC day will actually result in bushfires.
Of course we can always count on the media to ensure that bushfires will be reported and linked to climate change whenever and wherever they occur around the world. The recent bushfires in California provide a good example.
Dr. John Keeley, research ecologist with the US Geological Survey, noted that poor decision-making was responsible for the impact of the Californian fires. He pointed out that people are allowed to build in fire-prone areas and live in houses that are not fire-proofed. He said that, apart from lightning strikes, humans are responsible for all the fires, either through arson, carelessness or through insecure power lines.
We now know that many of the 2016 California wildfires were the work of a serial arsonist who was arrested and accused of igniting 17 of California’s wildfires.
The International Journal of Wildland Fire reported that 95% of Californian wildfires over the last 100 years were caused by humans and all evidence contradicts the claim by climate alarmists that the wildfires were a result of the California drought exacerbated by (imaginary) global warming.
In fact there has been no detectable long-term increase in heat waves in the United States or anywhere else in the world.
The risks from fires will inevitably increase in those once rural areas when the population increases. There will be more buildings, services, vehicles, power lines and other fire sources in forested areas that were once sparsely populated.
Keeley emphasised the problem:
“More people are living in wildfire-prone areas. The increased human presence means more chances of ignition in places and at times where fires tend not to naturally occur without lightning.”
Climate Scientist Dr. Cliff Mass from the University of Washington said:
“There is a lot misinformation going around in the media, some environmental advocacy groups, and some politicians. The story can’t be simply that warming is increasing the numbers of wildfires in California because the number of fires is declining and the area burned has not been increasing either.”
“The bottom line of the real fire data produced by the State of California and in the peer-reviewed literature is clear: there has been no upward trend in the number of wildfires in California during the past decades.”
When Governor Jerry Brown attempted to link Californian bush fires to global warming, it triggered a sharp response from Dr. Roger Pielke, Professor of climate science at the University of Colorado. He pointed out to Brown the lack of a link between climate change and Californian fires.
Here are the average temperature plots for California from 1895 to 2018:
California temperatures have increased by 0.02oC per decade since 1895 and this is well within the range of measurement error. In other words there is no evidence for rising temperatures in California.
A study of wildfires in the western states by the US Geological Survey (USGS) shows the incidence of fires has declined over the last 40 years in California. They used both United States Forest Service (USFS) and CalFire historical data sources.
In 2014, Dr. David South, Forestry Professor at Auburn University, testified to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He made clear that:
“Data suggest that extremely large mega-fires were four-times more common before 1940 and we cannot reasonably say that anthropogenic global warming causes extremely large wildfires.”
“To attribute this human-caused increase in fire risk to carbon dioxide emissions is simply unscientific.”
California congressman Ro Khanna has pointed out that increased forest floor flammable debris is the main problem, saying:
“Because we don’t have the right science, it is costing us lives, and that is the urgency of getting this right.”
Reflecting on historical data from 1926 to 2017, we see a decline in US forest area that has burned:
In a recent congressional hearing, Representative Tom McClintock blamed poor forest management and the 1970’s law, such as the “National Environmental Policy Act” and the “Endangered Species Act.”
“These laws have resulted in endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions and requirements that have made the scientific management of our forests virtually impossible.”
Fires in Canada are also in decline yet fire will always be a necessary part of Canada’s forest ecology. Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager in Fort McMurray, made clear:
“The boreal forest is a fire-dependant ecosystem.The spruce trees, pine trees, they like to burn.”
“They have to burn to regenerate themselves, and those species have adapted themselves to fire. Their cones have adapted so they open up after the fire has left, and the trees have adapted in that once they’re old and need to be replaced, they’re available to fire so they burn.”
The Canadian city of Fort McMurray, located on the southern edge of the Canadian boreal forest was evacuated in May 2016 because of an out-of-control wildfire. As expected, climate activists attempted to link this natural disaster with (imaginary) global warming whilst ignoring the fact that Canadian bushfires appear to be declining in number:
Although Europe has experienced wildfires over a long period of time, research by Feurdean et al. (Quaternary Science Reviews, December, 2013) shows no major fire events have taken place over the last 700 years whilst periods of greater fire activity occurred between 10,700 – 7,100 BP and 3,300 – 700 BP.
The tragedy of the recent Greek fires (July, 2018) represented one of the nation’s worst disasters with over 2,500 homes lost and more than 80 people killed.
Greek authorities have pointed to a number of causative factors for the disaster including illegally built houses amongst protected forest and a poor response to fire containment and evacuation procedures. Greek Minister Panos Kammenos argued that the actions of some residents had closed the roads to the beach, preventing escape. He said:
“This is a crime from the past and this coast of Athens, all these properties, the majority are without a licence, and they have occupied the coast without rules.”
Wildfires in Greece, and Mediterranean Europe as a whole, have declined since 1980. Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, author of the book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” has looked at the data and found that the area consumed by fires in Southern Europe (including Greece) has halved in the last 25 years.
Climate alarmism was raised when a heat wave hit Russia in 2010. Imaginary catastrophic anthropogenic global warming was blamed by activists but repudiated by scientists who pointed to natural internal atmospheric variability with a strong, persistent blocking pattern preventing the movement of weather systems.
Schneidereit et al. published a paper in the Monthly Weather Review: “Large scale flow and the long-lasting blocking high over Russia: Summer 2010“ which also emphasized natural variability as the cause of the heat wave.
Dr. Randall Dole and Dr. Martin Hoerling of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said:
“To be sure, it was a rare event. But rare events happen and rarity alone doesn’t imply cause.”
Whilst climate alarmists were also quick to blame (imaginary) global warming on Russian fires, Der Spiegel interviewed forestry experts who blamed the authorities. They pointed out that, like California, large fires in Russia are caused primarily by forest mis-management and arson.
Bushfire and Air Quality Alerts were issued in Alaska between June 28 and September 17, 2004 as 6,590,140 acres were burned out. Of the 701 fires fought 426 were human caused and 275 caused by lightning. Again, there was no link between the Alaskan fires and atmospheric carbon dioxide or (imaginary) global warming. Research in 2016 by Dr. Stefan Doerr and Dr. Cristina Santin, reported by the UK Royal Society showed that:
“There is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago and the global area burned has seen a slight decline over past decades.”
“Many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends.”
A study by NASA has also shown that, contrary to climate alarmist claims, wildfires have declined globally:
There is good evidence to show that Australian vegetation has evolved through thousands of years of frequent burning triggered by lightning strikes or human intervention. In 1793 Watkin Tench noted that Aborigines:
“Always, if possible, carry a lighted stick with them, whether in their canoes or moving from place to place on land.”
“It is a very common custom for the Indians in their hunting parties to set fire to the surrounding country.”
Jurskis and Underwood (2013) reported that:
“Clark and McLoughlin (1986) presented historical evidence that Aborigines burnt Sydney’s sandstone vegetation frequently and that less frequent fire after European settlement caused woody thickening and upslope expansion of gully vegetation at the expense of groundcover plants.”
Climate alarmists point to recent Australian fires as being something new. While people will remember the bushfires of Black Saturday 2009 and the more recent fires, not many will remember the Black Friday fire event of 1939.
Bushfires have always been part of the Australian landscape and much of our vegetation has evolved because of fire. Eucalypts recover quickly because of the evolution of a number of fire adaptations. Many gum trees have kino in their bark which helps them resist heat penetration; lignotubers are common in eucalypts, giving the plant an ability to survive drought and fire; some gums have epicormic buds under their bark and these are protected from fire, allowing dense leaf growth following a bushfire. A number of banksias and acacias need fire to split open their seeds that germinate when the fire has passed.
Sparg et al. (2005) have described how smoke from bushfires stimulates seed germination in a number of plant species.
In summary, eucalypts accelerate fire to promote their germination. They do so by releasing volatile flammable oils when fire comes through and these volatile organic compounds (VOCS) can ignite in mid-air and are capable of leaping across fire-breaks and roadways.
Robert Darby and Nick Brown (The Australian, 1st January, 2010) pointed out the eucalypt problem:
“Green environmental policies that have encouraged and even mandated the planting of eucalypts in rural and semi-rural areas.”
Roger Franklin wrote:
“That culpable stupidity was nowhere better illustrated than in the local council’s advice to home-owners, who were urged in a shire-sponsored pamphlet to plant a species of ti-tree it was said would attract butterflies to their yards. The fact that the plant’s natural habitat is the riparian zone along creek banks, not hillsides and beneath the eaves of wooden homes, was ignored, as was CFA volunteers’ habit of referring to the shrub as “petrol bush.”
Questionable policies promoted by “green councils” have encouraged and enforced the planting of eucalypts in rural areas. Incredibly, they are still being planted in urban areas such as parklands, alongside roadways and throughout new housing estates. This head-shaking policy could well have led to the destruction of so many homes in the January, 2003 Canberra bushfire.
One wonders if any of those “green policymakers” have reflected on the Canberra experience and the proximity of homes to the pine forest that burned? Did any of them observe how homes that were surrounded by oak and elm trees were protected from the fire?
Why have those “green policymakers” not learned from past bushfires how stands of eucalypts are giant tinder-boxes just waiting for prolonged dry weather, a northerly wind and a lightning strike or arsonist to provide them with the fire they have always thrived on?
Have any of these “green policymakers” actually looked at the evidence and even considered planting more fire-resistant trees in urban areas or mandating the planting of such species around homes in rural and semi-rural areas?
Those “green policymakers” should apply a little due diligence and identify the many trees that are most fire-resistant such as the Coast Live Oak; the Flowering Horse-Chestnut; the Japanese Elm; the American Mountain Ash; the Southern Magnolia; the Ponderosa Pine and the Baobab tree.
There are other fire resistant trees such as poplars and the Cape Lilac but the most fire resistant tree of them all is probably the Mediterranean Cypress.
Perhaps those “green policymakers” could use a little imagination for bushfire-prone areas and mandate the planting of Mediterranean Cypress trees or other fire-resistant trees as firebreaks.
I wonder if any of those “green policymakers” have actually talked to observers on the ground about their experience of fire-resistant trees?
Following the 2009 Ferndale fire, firefighter John Guest observed:
“Every ember that fell on the side of the house that was planted with Blue Gums started a fire in the fallen gum leaves. Every ember that fell on the other side, amongst the poplar leaves, just petered out. There was a 100 per cent difference.”
Following the 2003 West Bridgetown fire, farmer and Fire Control Officer David Jenkins reported:
“The fire roared through the pines, jumped the river, burnt through the eucalypts on the flat and swept up the hill burning out almost our entire farm. The Poplars stood between the fire’s path and the hay in the shed, trapping the flying embers without catching fire themselves.”
Following Victoria’s Black Saturday Firestorm, the former owner of the Crossways Hotel in Marysville observed:
“European trees saved my house. The embers that landed in the trees had time to burn out but if they land in eucalypts, they burn immediately.”
“All three commercial buildings left standing in Marysville had European trees nearby – they really cooled the fire down when it reached them.”
Global warming alarmists really should heed the words of National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) chief executive Allan Hansard when he said:
“Bushfire management policy must be based on the best scientific knowledge, not the whims of uninformed green ideologists.”
Crompton et al. (2010) have evaluated the history of building damage and loss of life due to bushfires in Australia since 1925 and found no evidence of any influence from climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions. Their more significant findings were to do with issues of land-use planning.
Roger Underwood, former district and regional forester and chairman of The Bushfire Front, Australia, presented a case study on Australian Bushfire Management (2009) in which he made the comment:
“They cannot say the impacts of intense bushfires on human communities were unimaginable. We have known for 200 years that European settlement represented the insertion of a fire-vulnerable society into a fire-prone environment.”
“Research has confirmed that fire is not an alien visitor, but a natural part of Australian bushland ecosystems.”
“There is no question that the influence of green activists at Federal, State and Local government levels has resulted in a steep decline in the standard of bushfire management in this country.”
“The excuses put forward, especially that fires are unstoppable because of global warming, are simply that: excuses. We already know that there are going to be droughts every few years and heatwaves every summer and that in these situations bushfires are going to be hard to handle, especially if they are burning in heavy fuels. We also already know that by investing in a sensible, professionally-designed program of fuel reduction (among other things) we can largely mitigate the risk of bushfire calamities.”
Dr. Phil Cheney, formerly of the CSIRO has pointed out that, in order to manage bushfires, a scientifically prescribed regimen of strategic understory burning in the cooler months during spring and autumn is needed. He says:
“Today I believe that our capacity for fire management in forest land is going backwards. We need land management agencies to set a clear direction and develop the fire management systems that are needed for the future without fear or favour. Above all, we must be honest about our capacity to deal with fire and work with the community to ensure that everybody has taken “all reasonable steps” to reduce the impact of wildfires on their property.”
Wildfires will always be a fact of life in Australia and insurance claims for loss of property will continue to rise as the population grows and more people acquire more wealth with many of them choosing to live in the bush.
There is no evidence to show that wildfires are on the increase globally. Neither is there any evidence to show that such fires are driven by the slightly increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide or (imaginary) global warming.
Life-threatening bushfires are a reflection of failed leadership, failed land management and failed governance because environmental lobbyists, green NGO’s and “feel-good” politicians have exerted political pressure and made “logging” a dirty word whilst claiming that disturbing forest understory will destroy animal habitats.
Barnaby Joyce has faced criticism for his comments:
“The problems we have got have been created by the Greens. We haven’t had the capacity to easily access (hazard) reduction burns because of all of the paperwork that is part of green policy.”
“We don’t have access to dams because they have been decommissioned on national parks because of green policy. We have trees that have fallen over vehicles and block roads, so people cannot either get access to fight a fire or to get away from fires. And we can’t knock over the trees because of Greens policy.”
Roger Franklin would most likely say “Amen” to that:
Nobody wants green policies that inevitably lead to more bushfires, property loss and deaths and both major parties need to be frank about this. More importantly, they need to overturn those bad policies.
Without regular fire-abatement programmes such as understorey removal, back-burning, the wider introduction of fire-resistant trees and prudent logging, life-threatening bushfires will be a regular problem in Australia.
Some might say that Groucho Marx was being over-pessimistic when he said:
“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
Dr. John Happs M.Sc.1st Class; D.Phil. John has an academic background in the geosciences with special interests in climate, and paleoclimate. He has been a science educator at several universities in Australia and overseas and was President of the Western Australian Skeptics for 25 years.