Yesterday CBS aired an updated version of a 2007 “60 Minutes” story about the catastrophic forest fires that have become so common in the West. The story featured interviews with a federal official in charge of managing “hotshot” firefighting crews, and an interview with a professor at the University of Arizona. Both explained that these fires are beyond anything ever seen in the West, and both were quick to blame it all on global warming.
The story made only a very brief mention of the Forest Service’s 100-year policy of complete fire suppression, and quoted the federal official saying the result is “a huge buildup of fuel in these woods.” But then the focus of the discussion shifted entirely onto global warming, as if the Forest Service policy would have produced no such result if only global warming had not happened. It is a convenient way to avoid placing any blame on the overzealous environmental campaign to stop all cutting of trees in America. It is convenient – but wrong.
The fact is that the average temperature on Earth increased about 1 degree in the past century (as the “60 Minutes” story correctly pointed out), but that trend has not continued during the last decade. If the result of such minor warming had been to dry out the forests in the way these activists claim, there would also be dramatic decreases in recent snowfall. But that has not occurred. In fact, snowpack is back up – way up – across the Rocky Mountains in the past three years (along with colder temperatures). Yet we are not seeing huge increases in river flows, and that is for the exact same reason as the fires – too many trees.
Forest managers ended the historic role played by wildfires a century ago, but they also drastically reduced thinning and clearing about 20 years ago – about the same time these massive, catastrophic fires began. As a result, western forests that historically averaged 30-50 trees per acre now have more than 900 in many places. The trees are weaker, competing for water with a massive overgrowth of brush and grasses – all drier than normal. None of this is natural, nor are the resulting catastrophic fires.
To absolve forest managers and politicians (and ourselves) from any and all responsibility for these giant fires by blaming global warming may feel good, but don’t kid yourself. If every American were to stop traveling tomorrow, move into smaller houses without air conditioning, and get rid of their cars, the forests would still be overgrown tinderboxes ready to become towering infernos with the first lightning strike or errant cigarette. Nothing will change that until someone with a chain saw gets serious about thinning the forest back to a more natural condition.