There’s no watering down major forest fires

Paul Wetzl, the chief meteorologist for TV station WKBN in Youngstown, said recently that in his long career with the station he had never given a forecast that called for overcast skies filled with smoke the following day as he was about to give that early evening.

The smoke, which did make for hazy conditions the next day, was carried east from the wildfires that have plagued California, Oregon and Washington incinerating 4 million acres of state’s forests, an area around eight times the size of the Allegheny National forest.

The fires, which have destroyed whole communities and forced thousands to flee their homes have included six of the largest wildfires in the state’s history, including one which is now the largest.

The basic causes of the fires have been heat and drought. On Aug. 17, a world heat record of 130 degrees was set in Death Valley. The intense heat has caused rain to evaporate before even striking the ground.

I doubt that there is a climate expert or scientist who would deny that the cause of this California calamity is global warming or climate change.

The campfire, which destroyed the northern California towns of Paradise and Concow, caused 85 deaths and caused $16.5 billion in damages, flared in November of 2018 after an autumn which saw the area get one-seventh an inch of rain compared to its usual five inches.

Yet, President Donald Trump just remarked, “It will be getting cooler,” after hearing a recitation of the state’s woes on a visit to California.

He also faulted the state’s Gov. Gavin Newsom on the state’s forest maintenance record, saying that better policies could counter the wildfires problem. He said that such fires are less of a problem in Europe, where the forests are well tended.

However, California and Europe largely have markedly different climates. A commentator also later remarked that only 3% of the state’s forest land is owned by the state, and that over 50 percent is federal property.

Years ago, I spent a summer working as a surveyors’ assistant in one of the state’s largest federal forests, El Dorado, and I would say that it would be difficult to manage such forests against fires, given their size, complex terrain and the now intense effects of global warming.

But I have noticed an attempt in certain circles to challenge the assumption that California’s wildfires problem is caused by global warming.

A Fox News commentator, Tucker Carlson, was quoted in the New York Times as contending that since it has been acknowledged that the dry lightning which has ignited so many of the fires is not caused by global warming, that neither are the fires themselves. This seems like a senseless assumption.

Then there’s John Stossel, who in a recent column cast the blame for the fires on forest management.

He writes, “Forests are supposed to burn. If there aren’t small fires, debris from dead trees and plants accumulate. That provides fuel for big deadlier fires that are more likely to burn out of control.

“But for years, government and environmentalists put out every small fire they could, while also fighting logging.

“Megafires could have been avoided if forests had just been better managed.”

I would dispute Stossel on the grounds that, as stated above, the California forests are so large and cover such complex terrain they would defy management even as the intensity of global warming makes such fires inevitable.

Stossel quotes Michael Shellenberger, author of a new bestseller “Apocalypse Never,” as saying “This catastrophizing over climate change is just a huge distraction.”

He also notes that Shellenberger says that arriving Europeans found California “very smoky and on fire during the summers” due to fires set by Native Americans.

But the Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, and the fires they set were linked to their need for subsistence as well as to offset the risk of larger fires.

They lived in the places where the Spaniards set up 21 missions on their behalf on or near the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco, and they couldn’t be linked to the huge inland fires which have plagued California — including its northern section — in recent years, especially this year.

The Native Americans didn’t fare too well under the Spanish. Some 37,000 died at the missions from their establishment in 1769 until their secularization in 1834. Epidemics and diseases took a heavy toll.

Stossel quotes Shellenberger as saying that “Climate change is real, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s not our most serious environmental problem.”

If there is a worse one, it’s certainly a deeply held secret.

I’m much more inclined to believe what James Hansen says than what Shallenberger puts forth.

In a 2009 New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert which the magazine recently reprinted, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen (who is now 69 and retired) concluded that based on the latest information, the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected.

“Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it’s already there. Unless immediate action is taken – including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades – the planet will be committed to change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with,” he said.

Hansen added, “This particular problem has become an emergency.”

The world’s average carbon dioxide level has even risen somewhat since Hansen gave that warning. The level at that time was about 388 parts per million (ppm). The average level this September was 411.29 ppm.

Hansen has compared freight trains carrying coal to “death trains.”

Meanwhile, the year’s 10th storm — Delta — wreaked a different sort of havoc on our country. What’s next?

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.


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