California Wildfires Falsely Linked to Global Warming

Published November 1, 2009

The largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history destroyed 78 homes and burned more than 150,000 acres during the last week in August and the first week in September. Despite the fire’s direct link to arson following an extended period without any fire activity, activists put the blame squarely on global warming.

An arsonist started the fire in an area that had not burned in several decades, during which time a substantial amount of dry tinder had accumulated.

Exploiting Catastrophe

“[T]hanks to global warming and degradation of the environment, it looks like there’s yet another showdown between natural disaster and a Chicago-related historic landmark,” wrote Tim Samuelson, a Chicago cultural historian, in an August 31 Chicago Tribune column. Samuelson was referring to the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, which was designed by Chicago architects. The Tribune did not attempt to explain the cultural historian’s expertise on global warming or wildfires.

Not to be outdone, Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress, an activist group established by Washington, DC lobbyist John Podesta, stoked the rhetorical flames even more blatantly.

“Now brutal heat and drought are fueling massive California wildfires once again,” wrote Romm in a September 1 Grist blog item, failing to acknowledge the 40- to 60-year run of no wildfires in the area would have continued if not for the arson.

Romm also failed to note California temperatures have been declining since the turn of the century, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

CBS News also jumped into the fray. “Global warming is increasing the intensity and number of forest fires across the American West,” the network claimed in a September 3 story on its 60 Minutes Web site.

Meteorologist Sets Record Straight

California meteorologist Anthony Watts took strong exception to the assertions of global warming causing the Los Angeles fire.

“Alarmists like Joe Romm flatly ignore that the fire was caused by arson, and that the area hadn’t burned in 40 to 60 years, leading up to a collection of dry-dead underbrush which is part of the natural fire cycle in Southern California,” Watts said.

“They also ignore ocean patterns that exacerbate the problem,” said Watts. “The recent 2008 La Niña, which led to much cooler temperatures globally, historically has been shown to minimize precipitation in Southern California, leading to an increased fire threat. This is part of the natural cycle of weather, climate, and cleansing fire that existed for thousands of years before people started building homes in the middle of dry chaparral-covered hills.”

Studies Show No Connection

Assertions that global warming is causing an increase in drought conditions that fuel wildfires are strongly contradicted by scientific data, studies, and reports.

National Climatic Data Center records show an increasing trend in U.S. precipitation, especially during the summer and autumn wildfire seasons, as carbon dioxide levels and temperatures gradually rose during the twentieth century. Autumn precipitation alone has risen by more than 20 percent since 1950.

“Evidence indicates that summer soil moisture content has increased during the last several decades at almost all sites having long-term records in the Global Soil Moisture Data Bank,” scientists reported in the March 15, 2006 Journal of Hydrology.

“An increasing trend is apparent in both model soil moisture and runoff over much of the U.S. … This wetting trend is consistent with the general increase in precipitation in the latter half of the 20th century. Droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the country over the last century,” scientists reported in the May 25, 2006 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

California Fires a Local Event

“The disastrous fires and the catastrophic losses are due to a combination of natural climate factors and unwise environmental and building practices,” said meteorologist Joe D’Aleo, executive director of the International Climate and Environmental Change Assessment Project.

“The cooling of the Pacific since 2006 is favoring more La Niñas, which shifted the rainfall-bearing winter jet stream north, resulting in below-normal rainfall in the California wet season,” D’Aleo explained.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.