Where There’s Fuel, There’s Bound to be Wildfire

Published September 1, 1998

When Vice President Al Gore claimed there was a 1 in 1,000 chance that the wildfires that ravaged Florida during June and July would have occurred without global warming, he actually overstated the odds. Without global warming, there would have been no chance that such fires could have taken place–because there would have been no life in Florida, or anywhere else for that matter, to burn.

It is sometimes easy to forget, amid all the rhetoric on this highly politicized issue, that global warming is a natural process that keeps the planet warm enough to sustain life.

As for how the Vice President arrived at his specific figure–the 1 in 1000 chance–no one knows. An inquiry to his office on this matter has yielded no reply.

“Actually, most scientists haven’t had a chance to examine Gore’s July data yet, but his earlier claim that June was the hottest ever required later qualification,” noted Dr. S. Fred Singer professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Fairfax-based Science and Environmental Policy Project.

Singer noted that an analysis of June temperatures in the United States, conducted by the Earth System Science lab at the University of alabama, showed that June was, in fact, cooler than average, despie the meltdown in Texas.

“Something is driving up global ‘average’ temperatures,” Singer said, “but it isn’t global warming, and it isn’t affecting most of the United States.”

It is clear, however, that the Vice President’s intention was to blame anthropogenic global warming–global warming caused by humans–for the Florida wildfires. Human beings, he and other proponents of global warming theory contend, are changing the Earth’s climate by burning fossil fuels. The increased global warming, in turn, is inducing more frequent and more powerful El Ninos. In Central florida, El Nino produced heavier-than-usual rains in the spring, which increased vegetation, followed by a summer drought, creating the ideal conditions for wildfires.

The problem with Vice President Gore’s logic is that it is not supported by fact.

Fires in Florida are certainly nothing new and, in any event, are unlikely to be related to such recent phenomena as global warming or global warming-enhanced El Ninos. Explorers Sir Francis Drake and Giovanni da Verrazano, for instance, reported seeing fires in Florida during the 1500s. The planet was in the midst of the Little Ice Age at the time.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, 105 percent of Florida reportedly burned in a single year (reflecting the fact that some areas burned more than once). That, of course, was well before fossil fuels were in widespread use.

In 1932 and 1933, Florida experienced fires of a magnitude similar to those it has experienced this summer. But El Nino was not a factor then. In fact, the incidence of drought in Florida appears to be no more common during El Nino years than during non-El Nino years. The most severe droughts of this century occurred during 1907-1908, 1932-1933, 1963-1964, and 1980-81. El Nino occurred during 1904-1905, 1917-1918, 1940-1941, 1957-1958, 1965-1966, 1972-1973, 1982-1983 and 1991-1992.

Dr. Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia examined 100 years of drought history in Florida and concluded that El Ninos have not led to droughts in Florida. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index (a common drought indicator in which dry conditions are expressed in negative values while wet conditions are expressed in positive values) Michaels found that wet conditions prevailed in Central Florida more often than dry conditions during El Nino years.

The Florida fires are only the most recent example used by global warming theory proponents to suggest a link between global warming and fire. In its 1997 State of the Climate report, for example, the World Wildlife Fund warned that fires in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Borneo, and drought conditions threatening future fires in Yellowstone, are indications that global warming is beginning to have a profound influence not only on our climate, but our environment.

But the existence of fires neither proves that global warming is taking place, nor that global warming increases the risk of forest fires. Prior to the settlement of North America–again, when the planet was still in the grip of the Little Ice Age–an estimated 4 to 11 percent of the land mass that is now the United States burned each year. For the lower 48 states, that represents 75 to 206 million acres.

More recently, in 1924, 28.8 million acres of land burned in the United States, not including fires in National Parks and on Indian reservations. The acreage burned in 1924 was roughly 58 times the acreage claimed by the fires in Central Florida in June and July of this year. And 1924 wasn’t an aberration. Fires in 1923 and 1925 claimed 26.1 and 26.5 million acres, respectively.

Since the 1920s, however, wildfires have been on a more or less steady decline. The average number of acres burned has fallen from 12.4 million per year during the 1920s, to 3.9 million in the 1930s, 2.6 million acres in the 1960s, and just 2 million during the 1980s. Improved fire suppression capabilities, better forestry management techniques, and forest fire prevention education programs such as “Smokey Bear” and the “Dixie Rangers,” which effectively convinced Americans that fire prevention was a civic duty, all played a part in the success.

But this success hasn’t come without a price. Since the beginning of this decade, there has been an uptick in the number of fires nationwide. Neil Sampson, a senior fellow with the Forest Policy Center who served as chairman of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters (established by Congress), explains why.

“We’ve been living through a period when fire suppression capability grew faster than the fire hazard. In the late 1970s, something different started to happen. Any dry weather period began to be accompanied by a greatly increased amount of wildfire. [T]he natural resource conditions in wildland ecosystems had been made more fire-prone and dangerous, at least in part by our past success at stopping the fires that would have reduced fuel buildups.”

In other words, the increased risk of fire is the result of excess timber and vegetation that provides fuel for fires. While advancements in fire suppression were able to keep pace with the increased fire risks of ever-increasing fuel loads for a while, they are no longer able to do so.

“In any case,” concluded Singer of the Environmental Policy Project, “the possibility that droughts and heat waves might be natural events doesn’t seem to faze Mr. Gore, who mistakenly believes he looks manly at these near-weekly global-warming press briefings.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that environmentalists frequently stand in the way of forest management policies that could help reduce these fuel loads. It is now no longer a question of “whether” more fires like those in Florida are going to occur, but “when.” It is true that human activity and environmental policies have brought this condition about . . . but global warming is not to blame.>/p>