Sorry, Steve Running, Wildfires Are Decreasing with Global Warming

Published September 15, 2014

A Billings Gazette article last week quoted University of Montana global warming activist Steve Running claiming major wildfires have quadrupled since 1986, but the facts show wildfires are actually declining.

In the September 7 Gazette article, “Global warming makes firefighting more dangerous,” Running is quoted saying “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” Fortunately for scientific truth, the National Interagency Fire Center keeps detailed statistics on wildfires going back to 1960. The objective data show wildfires are decreasing, not increasing, as the planet modestly warms.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports 85,000 wildfires occurred in 1986, versus only 47,000 wildfires last year. Fewer wildfires occurred in 2013 than any year since 1984, and 2013 had the third-fewest wildfires since records began in 1960.

This year’s wildfire season may end up being even quieter than 2013. On the same day Running’s claim was quoted in the Billings Gazette article, the Washington Times reported only 38,000 wildfires have occurred so far this year. The 2014 wildfire season will almost certainly be one of the three quietest since 1984, and may well end up quietest of them all.

So how does Running justify his claim that global warming is making wildfires worse? Running cleverly slips in the term “major” wildfires, which allows him to blame global warming for recent forestry management policies that allow small wildfires to become large wildfires. During recent years, U.S. wildfire policy has emphasized allowing wildfires to burn without human suppression until and unless the wildfires threaten human population centers. This is a dramatic change of policy after decades of government policy to extinguish wildfires whenever and wherever they occur. Accordingly, even though there were approximately half as many wildfires in 2013 as in 1986, the total number of acres burned increased by more than 50 percent in 2013.

If one conveniently ignores the extremely quiet 2013 and 2014 wildfire seasons and compares 1986 to 2012, wildfires in 2012 burned nearly four times as much acreage in 1986, but there were fewer wildfires in 2012 than in 1986.

The National Interagency Fire Center data show an even more striking decline in wildfires when comparing the full 1970-1986 era versus the full 1986-2013 era. True, the number of acres burned each year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, was approximately 67 percent higher during 1987-2013 than during 1970-1986 (though substantially less than the 600 percent figure claimed by Running), but even this small increase in acres burned merely reflects changes in federal wildfire suppression policy. Barely half as many wildfires occurred each year from 1987-2013 than from 1970-1986.

Outlandish and misleading claims by global warming alarmists such as Running explain why the public increasingly tunes out the alarmists’ unending predictions of doom and gloom. If they want people to take them seriously, they must begin speaking truth rather than propaganda.