Global Wildfire Area Has Declined, Contrary To Popular Myth
Another thorough assessment of wildfire trends wrecks alarmist claims:
Wildfire has been an important process affecting the Earth’s surface and atmosphere for over 350 million years and human societies have coexisted with fire since their emergence. Yet many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago. Regarding fire severity, limited data are available. For the western USA, they indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement. Direct fatalities from fire and economic losses also show no clear trends over the past three decades. Trends in indirect impacts, such as health problems from smoke or disruption to social functioning, remain insufficiently quantified to be examined. Global predictions for increased fire under a warming climate highlight the already urgent need for a more sustainable coexistence with fire. The data evaluation presented here aims to contribute to this by reducing misconceptions and facilitating a more informed understanding of the realities of global fire.
This section is particularly relevant:
3. Have fire impacts increased in many regions around the globe?
(a) Fire intensity and severity
While the trends in area burned explored above have implications for the effects of fire on global carbon emissions, ecosystems and society, the spatial extent of burning is not always closely linked to the impacts of a fire. From a perspective of fire ecology or risk to infrastructures, the intensity of a fire (i.e. its rate of energy output), its severity (its ecosystem impacts) and its spatial patterns (degree of patchiness) may be more important than the total area burned. For example, the degree of vegetation consumption, the depth of burning into the organic and mineral soil, and the proximity of areas less affected or not by fire are key in determining the length of time for a burned area to ‘recover’1 [3,61–63]. The notion that fire intensity and severity have increased in recent years pervades media reports and some of the literature [11,64–66]. Whether or not this is the case is not easy to ascertain given that these parameters and associated trends are much more difficult to determine compared with area burned. All else being equal, fire intensity can indeed be expected to increase with air temperature , and it can be deduced that areas that are experiencing higher atmospheric temperatures in the fire season associated with global warming would experience more intense fires. For example, the catastrophic 2009 Black Saturday fires of Victoria (Australia) were reportedly associated, among other factors, with unprecedented high atmospheric temperatures (since measurements began) and fire intensity . Whether or not this extreme event signifies a trend or may simply be the result of longer-term natural variability in fire behaviour remains an open question. Indeed, it has subsequently been suggested that the fire weather potential witnessed during Black Saturday and the associated level of fire intensity was not unprecedented in southeastern Australia .
Few studies exist that have explicitly examined trends in fire severity. These have mainly focused on the western USA, an area where there are particular concerns about increased fire activity [42,70]. Examining trends from 1984 to 2006 for large ecoregions in the north- and southwest USA, Dillon et al.  found no significant increase in the proportion of annual area burned at high severity for five of the six regions considered, with the southern Rockies being the exception. For the Sierra Nevada region (California), which was not covered in the previous study , Hanson & Odion [72,73] found no general increase in fire severity within the period 1984–2010. Considering ten national forests in California for the same period, Miller & Safford  found a significant increase in burn severity for yellow pine–mixed conifer forests. They attribute this largely to decades of fire suppression and other management practices rather than climate, which have led to major changes in forest composition and structure, increases in density and fuel-loading, and hence fire behaviour. Covering the much larger area of the dry forest landscapes of the western USA, including large parts of those examined in the aforementioned studies, Baker  found that the rate of high-severity fire in the period 1984–2012 was within or below that of historical century- to millennial-scale estimates.
Thus, while there is evidence of a recent increase in proportional fire severity for a specific forest type in California, these independent studies do not support the notion of an overall increase in fire severity over the past few decades in the fire-adapted forested landscapes in the western USA. Indeed, a longer term perspective focused on the Californian Sierra Nevada and Cascades by Mallek et al.  suggests that the annual area burned at high severity between 1984 and 2009 was only half that prior to European settlement (approx. 1500–1850), associated with an overall smaller area burned compared to pre-European times. Whether or not the overall lack of change in burn severity applies also to other regions where perceptions of increases in fire severity exist too has to remain unanswered until robust data emerge to test this notion.
Time after time, forestry experts tell us that wildfires are not getting worse because of climate change, that from a historical perspective current wildfire activity is not unusual, and that we are now seeing the results of decades of fire suppression and poor forest management.
I predict that David Attenborough’s upcoming programme on climate change will highlight forest fires in California and maybe Greece. He will wheel on Michael Mann to “explain the science”. Mann, who of course knows nothing at all about forestry or most of the other things he opines about, will waffle on about droughts, heatwaves and beetles, and then blame them all on global warming.
At no stage though will Attenborough consult the experts who actually know about forests and wildfires.
I wonder why?