Half 1 – watts with it?

By Jim Steele

Every day I try to synthesize strangely different views on the news. I listen to National Public Radio (NPR) in the morning and watch Fox News in the evening. However, I am increasingly concerned about the unbalanced reporting by NPR on forest fires. With every forest fire report, NPR now adds a comment on the climate crisis but ignores forest fire science. As a scout, I learned more about heat transfer and forest fires. I also advanced my forest fire science as an ecologist who spent 30 years researching California’s Sierra Nevada ecosystems, and I have to say an honest NPR would focus on the 3 main issues needed to minimize the destruction of forest fires.

  1. Minimize human ignitions.
  2. Improve fuel management on the ground.
  3. Remove introduced annual grasses.

Politicians and media journalists who claim that reducing CO2 would save us from major forest fires only exacerbate public fears and encourage ineffective action.

As a Boy Scout, I was dropped off in a snowy Maine wilderness with temperatures below 32 ° F. My job was to build a life-saving campfire with just one match. In order to survive, enough combustible fuel had to be found. Fortunately, there was an abundance of small dead branches on the lowest branches of most trees. With sufficient air flow, these small-diameter fuels (A) are reliably ignited with a single match. Forest fire experts refer to small twigs, pine needles, and dead grasses as being fuel with an hour delay, as these fuels will dry out sufficiently in an hour of dry weather, with or without global warming. Different amounts of 1-hour fuel determine how easily forest fires ignite and spread. Forest fire experts rate 1-hour fuels every day during the fire season. Although they are easily ignited, twigs or dead grass have very little mass to sustain a fire. So, to build my survival fire, I carefully added a layer of slightly larger sticks (B) that could be lit quickly before the heat from my branches was exhausted. Added sticks cannot be too big. Larger branches and trunks absorb small amounts of heat without igniting.

My only match generated temperatures in excess of 1000 ° F, but only for a short time. But with the right balance of 1-hour fuel and kindling, my survival fire was assured. Plenty of lighting is key to lighting and sustaining any great fire. In California, piling up ground fuels provided kindling, so a spark from a tire rim scraping asphalt ignited dead grass on the side of the road, which then expanded into the great Carr Fire. A spark from a rancher ramming a stake into the ground ignited the surrounding dead grass and lit California’s second largest fire, the Mendocino Complex Fire, even though the regional highs were 3 ° F cooler than the 1930s. In November, sparks from power lines caused California’s deadliest bonfire; and power lines also ignited California’s largest fire in 2021, the Dixie Fire.

All of these fires were caused by human ignition, and experts calculate that 84% of wildfires in America are human-caused. Good science cannot attribute an increase in forest fires to climate change unless it first takes into account the increased inflammation caused by humans. In addition, once ignited, fires generate such enormous heat that soil fuels easily dry out as the fire approaches. Swaths of burning grass are great for lighting and create temperatures up to 1400 ° F, which makes accumulated soil fuels and shrubbery easy to ignite. These milled fuels then generate temperatures of 2000 ° F. Claims that an insignificant 2 ° F rise from global warming will make forest fires bigger and more intense seems like politicized scare-mongering. My survival fire started in freezing temperatures and during the Little Ice Age large wildfires burned. So the best way to prevent increased ignitions is by burying power lines and removing 1-hour fuel from curbs.

In defense of NPR, gullible journalists are being fed cherry-picked “science” by researchers seeking fame and fortune by promoting climate crises. To naive journalists, graphs of “unprecedented” increasing forest fire trends have been made available, but only since 1970. The longer-term trend, as exemplified by the Oregon Department of Forestry, is seldom spread widely. In addition, cunning researchers blame global warming by showing how it theoretically dries up fire fuels, but simple good physics is then grossly misapplied.

For example, widespread invasive annual grasses have also increased the aridity of the landscape, increasing the likelihood of inflammation and the extent of the burned area. Non-native cheatgrass earned its name because it grows in winter and early spring, consuming soil moisture and drawing native grasses away. Growing in the wetter winter season of the west, cheatgrass spread to arid regions where extensive grasslands were prohibited. Carpets made from combustible cheatgrass engulfed the ecosystems of mugwort and covered bare ground that had previously limited large or frequent fires. And carpets made from cheatgrass can easily spread fires to forests and other ecosystems.

In contrast, native perennial grasses that grew during the summer held high levels of moisture and did not become dormant until late August. Their high moisture content reduced both the likelihood of a weed fire and its spread. But native grasses were soon supplanted by moisture-hoarding cheatgrass, which dies, dries, and becomes highly flammable in April and May. When the landscapes were dominated by Cheatgrass, the fire season intensified and lengthened by 2-3 months. Although NPR once mentioned the destructive effects of invasive grasses, NPR is now driving climate change. But the drying up of the western grasslands is not due to climate change. This is due to natural weather cycles and the transformation of landscapes into moisture-sucking invasive annuals. After all, the Cheatgrass conversion correlates too well with the maps of the most active fire regions in the western United States. Restoring native grasslands would be another proven method to reduce the larger forest fires in the west.

Jim Steele is Director Emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus at San Francisco State University, author of Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism, and a proud member of the CO2 Coalition

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