Nineteen fire fighters were killed yesterday as they were overrun by a lightning-sparked fire in Arizona. This consisted of the entire crew as deployed to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire near Phoenix, Arizona. The best way to honor these fallen heroes, from afar and from the perspective of fellow citizens, is to demand that more support be given to their efforts (by ending the Republican Sequester) and to acknowledge that their job has been made much harder because of global warming induced increases in wild fire frequency and severity.

Global warming is on track to double the number of wild fires in the US by 2050, but very few predictions of this type have panned out over the last ten years. Usually, the degree of severity of climate effects from global warming is much larger than predicted, or comes sooner than predicted. Some people try to push responsibility for more fires off on bad management practices, but this, while it may be a factor, is a) old news and addressed in many areas decades ago; b) pales in comparison to the effects of drought and c) pales in comparison to massive tree death which in turn is exacerbated if not simply directly caused by anthropogenic climate change.

Climate change increases wild fire frequency and severity via a number of different mechanisms (as described here). We have known for some time that global warming would change weather patterns in a way that increases the amount of burn in already dry areas such as the American Southwest and Australia. A while back it was postulated that warming in the Arctic would have this as a direct effect. And this has all come to pass in the last few years. Recently, the chief of the US Forest Service reminded Congress that climate change is the reason for the recent uptick in wild fires. I think we still have to see what effect, if any, the Republican Sequester will have on fire fighting and safety to communities and fire fighters alike.

There is an interesting meme going around, that fire fighter deaths have been declining in recent years. This is cited along side the news of the 19 who died yesterday. But that figure is for fire fighters in general, not wild fire fighters specifically, and since the data don’t include the last two years, which have been particularly bad, they may be misleading. (In the case I link to, USA Today, the 9/11 attacks are said to have occurred in 2011, so clearly, the report put together by John Bacon, is very poorly done generally.)

Between April 1990 and August 2011, 319 firefighters had died on duty in addressing fires in wild lands. According to the US Fire Administration, 47 firefighters died during the five year period 2007 and 2011 (inclusively), 91 between 2002 and 2006, 83 between 1997 and 2001, 66 between 1992 and 2001, 32 between 1987 and 1991. A the sequence 32-66-83-91-47 is not a downward trend. Unfortunately, I don’t have good data on the number of fire fighters killed for annual 2011 and 2012, and we are obviously early in the year for 2013.

Comments

  1. #1 David B. Crawford, MD
    Las Vegas, NV, USA
    July 1, 2013

    These valiant men are martyrs in the war on manmade CO2 pollution.

  2. #2 Physicist-retired
    New Jersey, USA
    July 1, 2013

    Regarding data on wild firefighter mortality, this link might help, Greg. They post provisional 2012 data, too. You’ll have to filter the data for wild firefighters – but I think there’s enough information to do that.

    http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/firefighter-fatalities/fatalityData/statistics

    The National Research Council reports that twice as many acres burned (on average) during the last decade as in the 1970s.

    Climate Central reported on it last fall. You can read more here:

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/report-the-age-of-western-wildfires-14873

    Finally, the Sequester cuts will most certainly make things worse. This year, dollars are being shifted away from fire prevention to fund fighting these current fires. When did this country decide that investing to prevent future problems was a bad idea?

  3. #3 Les Johnson
    Norway
    July 1, 2013

    Greg: YTD, the number of fires in the US is just under 60% of the 10 year average. The number of cares burned is just over 60% of the 10 year average. The number of fires is the lowest in 10 years. The acres burned is the second lowest in 10 years.

    http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm

    Globally, fires have declined over the last 100 years.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277379112005318

    Even PNAS says that fires have declined since the 1950s, and it will be 2050 before fires catch up to that level again.

    Blaming this season on AGW is going against the facts, Greg.

  4. #4 Art
    July 1, 2013

    The numbers of wildfire crew lost has been going down because fire science and training have improved and safe procedures, such as watching the winds and making sure safe zones are close, have become the norm. The people who run the crews spend a lot of time keeping the crews out of trouble and making sure they have somewhere to run to if things go south. The general rule is that if a job can’t be done in relative safety it doesn’t get done. No house, or subdivision, or stand of trees is worth even one life.

    Something went very wrong. Crews aren’t supposed to be where this sort of thing can happen. Somebody missed some information of underestimated the danger.

    The good news is that these events typically get investigated down to the finest detail. Given time, we will know what went wrong and how to avoid a similar situation.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    July 1, 2013

    The number of wild fighters fire loss of life has gone up or stayed steady as I show in the post.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 1, 2013

    Les, I refer you to the links in the post you seem to have not bothered to read. Also I’ll point out that claims about climate change made by comparing the current situation to the current situation and declaring them to be similar are not impressive. Finally, the PNAS is not a thing that makes claims. It is a journal.

  7. #7 Les Johnson
    July 2, 2013

    Greg: Fires are nearly 1/2 the 10 year average, in terms of number and acres burned.

    The trend since the 50s is down. Fire size and numbers in the 1800s and early 1900s were much worse. The Peshtigo fire in 1871 killed 1500.

    To claim that AGW is involved is to go against the facts. Fire is trending down. Granted, models predict it go back up. But models don;t have a great track record.

    corrigendum: “Even a PNAS article says that fires have declined since the 1950s, and it will be 2050 before fires catch up to that level again.”

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    July 2, 2013

    Les,

    Among the many already realized and potential effects of climate change, wild fire frequency, intensity, and distribution is one of the trickiest because without climate change this phenomenon has a lot of annual variation and inherent secular variation. Also, as is the case with certain storm types, a large number of events at one time (for a few years) in the past (for whatever reason) skews the data, but saying that a high frequency period in the past invalidated climate change as an explanation for a new high frequency period is like saying the crashes of early jet liners due to metal fatigue in the 1950s demands that we forever use metal fatigue as our default explanation for crashes of modern jet liners.

    The comparison of any given year (like the current year) to a ten year average of the most recent years is certainly not an appropriate one, and has an additional absurdity to it: The same individuals that deny (falsely) that there has been any “global warming” over the last 10 (or 17 or 12 or whatever) years can’t then use the average over that same period as a baseline to compare with the last year or two. That’s like saying “there’s no such thing as ghosts, and I know this for a fact because a ghost told me!”

    One study showed that in the US western states, “almost seven times more forested federal land burned during the 1987–2003 period than during the prior 17 years” and that large fires were four times more likely to occur during the latter period. That was a 2006 study. This is in accord with the idea that more extreme precipitation patterns link to global warming (see this and this, which in turn can cause cycles of fuel development (rainy) and high change of burn (dry, windy) which would cause intense fire seasons, though not every year. Indeed, we know that these extremes are likely linked to Arctic warming in particular. This also brings up an important point: We don’t expect extreme fire years to occur every year, and to have an increase every year. We expect that global warming will cause several years in a row with very little fire in a particular area, followed by a handful of years during which the chance of fire’s starting is very high, and the chance of them becoming large and intense is very high, but within that, it all depends on the activities of arsonists and thunder storms.

    People who actually fight fires know that increased heat, increased aridity, and a longer warm and arid season, means more fires. Increased heat waves in the recent decades in the west have clearly caused increased tinderbox conditions in the forests there, and the same has been noted for Canada. That is not a “model,” but common knowledge among fire fighters. We are having these periods now and expect to have more in the future, and thus fire fighters are more concerned. I think we should respect that.

    But on top of that there are models, as discussed. It is not appropriate to say “I don’t like what your model might say, therefore I’ll say that models are not worth looking at because they are wrong no matter what.”

    Fires are like certain kinds of major storms. We expect changes, can suggest what kinds of changes they may be, and in fact observe the changes, but because of the underlying high degree of randomness to much of it, science denialists get to play with our future a little longer. It is time to stop doing that, though. It really is getting old and as time goes by it becomes increasingly obnoxious.

    Also, you should look at the recent paper from Nature Climate Chagne (Williams et al 2013): Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality.

  9. #9 Physicist-retired
    New Jersey, USA
    July 2, 2013

    Les,

    Perhaps you should spend a few minutes graphing and analyzing the data from your own cited link:

    http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html

    Looking at data from just the last 10 years will skew your analysis just a bit – as the noticeable uptick in acreage burned began in the 1990s. The NIFC data goes back to 1960. Why not use all of it?

  10. #10 Les Johnson
    July 2, 2013

    Sigh. You need to compare YTD. Only the last 10 years of YTD are available. If I had YTD going back to 1960, I would be happy to see that.

    If the current number of fires YTD is less than the 10 year average, and the number of acres is less than the 10 year YTD average, then you can’t say that an increasing trend of fires and acreage is repsonsible for .this years fires, because this YTD is well under the average. If you can show me the YTD average prior to 2003, I would be happy to see that.

    But, in the US, fires used to burn 50,000,000 acres per year. Even in the 1950s, it was nearly 20,000,000 per year. Now, a bad year is less than 10,000,000. According to the PNAS article I quoted, it will be 2050 before we get back to 1950 levels. According to models.

    See Fig 5.

    http://www.fs.fed.us/pl/rpa/amforest.pdf

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    July 2, 2013

    “Sigh. You need to compare YTD. Only the last 10 years of YTD are available. If I had YTD going back to 1960, I would be happy to see that.” So, you are saying that you are FORCED to cherry pick the data, then!

    Anyway, I can see there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding of the fire situation, and that is in part because it is a complicated issue. That complexity also makes it easier for yammering denailists to blow smoke. For this reason I’ve decided to write a more detailed blog post that will be helpful for those who want to engage in an honest and well informed discussion. The tl’dr: Global warming matters to fire frequency and extent, and it is a matter of concern.

    But it is complicated. Complicate, however, does not mean as many science denialists claim either too hard to understand or too whacky to be relevant. Complicated does not mean that fire frequency and extent is determined by the wing flapping behavior of a butterfly in Mexico.

  12. #12 Les Johnson
    July 3, 2013

    Greg: No, I am not cherry picking. I am using the entire data set. For YTD data it only extends back 10 years. For entire year data, it goes back to the 1930s. I used the entire data in both.

    Both series show current fire numbers and extent are much less than recent years, and a huge decrease in historical context.

  13. #13 Les Johnson
    July 3, 2013

    And I agree that the forest issue is complicated. While climate change is probably involved, land management plays a much greater role. And that is still anthropogenic, too.

    1. Fire management practices have led to the decline in fires, especially from the 1930s and 1950s. (see my reference in Post 10) This has led to more accumulated fuel, and, as one paper puts it, puts us in a “fire deficit”, that will come back and bite us.
    2. The Forest Service (not just the US, but Canada as well), are going back to a “let it burn”, especially undergrowth.
    3. There is much more development at the “urban-wilderness interface”, as Revkin calls it. This means more property damage, and more risks taken to protect that property. In this case, the 19 died trying to protect nearby homes.

    While I admit that future climate change could exasperate the above points, I find it difficult to reconcile present fire numbers with any evidence of an AGW fingerprint.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 3, 2013

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/us/experts-see-a-hotter-drier-west-with-more-huge-fires.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

    “…One of the deadliest wildfires in a generation vastly expanded Monday to cover more than 8,000 acres, sweeping up sharp slopes through dry scrub and gnarled piñon pines a day after fickle winds and flames killed 19 firefighters.

    gusty monsoon winds where the Colorado Plateau begins to drop off into the Sonoran Desert continued to bedevil about 400 firefighters who were defending 500 homes and 200 businesses in the old gold mining villages of Yarnell and Peeples Valley.

    Scientists said those blazes and 15 others that remained uncontained from New Mexico to California and Idaho were part of the new normal — an increasingly hot and dry West, resulting in more catastrophic fires.

    “The fire season has lengthened substantially, by two months, over the last 30 years,” said Craig D. Allen, a research ecologist at the United States Geological Survey station at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

    The fire potential is exacerbated by the past policy, beginning around 1900, of putting out all fires. Fires are a natural way of clearing out the underbrush. With that natural rhythm disrupted, the flammable material piled up, so when it did catch fire, it ignited a giant fire that burned hotter and wider.

    This total-suppression policy began to ease as early as the 1950s, when scientists began to see fire’s role in ecosystems. It was completely abandoned nearly two decades ago.

    But in the 1970s, the Southwest entered a wet period, part of a climate cycle that repeats every 20 to 30 years. “That wet period helped keep a lid on fires,” Dr. Allen said. “And it also allowed the forests to fluff up.”

    Since 1996, the climate pattern, known as the Pacific decadal oscillation, has swung to the dry end of the spectrum, and the region is caught in a long-term drought….”

    As an additional note: People (especially denialists, since this is complicated) often conflate policy related causes. The suppression of the early and middle 20th century is an issue but this was recognized in the 80s as a bad policy, and over the last several decades that has been addressed (addressed does not mean fixed … that may take another century … but fixed in some places). The more current suppression related policy is not wild land management related (directly) but rather related to development. Land under development in remote areas and adjoining wild lands demand suppression because people are allowed to build fire-damagable properties in fire prone area (note: This is not necessary, there are parts of the world where people don’t do this).

  15. #15 Les Johnson
    July 3, 2013

    Greg: from your last post:

    The fire potential is exacerbated by the past policy, beginning around 1900, of putting out all fires. Fires are a natural way of clearing out the underbrush. With that natural rhythm disrupted, the flammable material piled up, so when it did catch fire, it ignited a giant fire that burned hotter and wider.

    Is this not exactly what I have been saying?

  16. #16 Nancy Reyes
    RedLakeMn
    July 8, 2013

    the sequestor hasn’t been going on long enough to effectthe equipment of local fire fighters, whose training would have occured before the sequestor started.

    My question is if they were properly trained, and if the one in charge should have noticed the unstable winds.

    You are doing no one a favor by using deaths to promote your political ideas.