60 Minutes ran a spectacularly well-timed feature this past Sunday on wildfires in the Western states, entitled "Expert: Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires." Predictably, climate change denier Steven Milloy, who runs a website and serves as a pundit for Fox News, was quick to criticize the news report.
His press agent at Advocacy Ink issued a release for him, in which Milloy claimed that, "There’s no evidence that man-made climate change is playing any role whatsoever in the current Western forest fire season."
I called the press agent, Audrey Mullen, to check on the quote, and to ask to interview the Fox pundit. She promised he would return the call within the hour; predictably, he did not. But Milloy’s outrageously false claims still demand a challenge — especially for those of us threatened by wildfires.
In truth, the 60 Minutes report itself did a superb job of laying out the evidence for the role that global warming plays in wildfire in the West, beginning by saying — as virtually all fire experts agree — that the past national policy of total fire suppression was a mistake. As far as Milloy is concerned, that’s all that need be said: Smoky the Bear was wrong, end of story.
But this is now conventional wisdom among fire experts, and has been for many years. In fact, where I live in Ventura County, "fire planners" work year round preparing "prescribed burns" designed to reduce the risk of fuel build-up and let wildfires not threatening homes burn freely, as they are right now in the backcountry.
"Current drought conditions and poor timber management practices are the primary causes," Milloy goes on to claim from his offices in Maryland. Milloy ignores the fact that, as the 60 Minutes report showed, the fire season today in the west is far longer than in past years.
Reporter Scott Pelley talked to researcher Tom Swetnam, who has the largest collection of tree ring data in the world and has shown authoritatively that the fire season in the high mountains is far longer today than in the past. Swetnam said:
The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole Western U.S. So actually, 78 days of average longer fire season in the last 15 years compared to the previous 15 or 20 years.
Had Milloy then talked of the risk of building homes in what experts call the WUI (Wildlands-Urban Interface), he would have been on solid ground, but that might have contradicted the right-wing ideology of the former tobacco consultant and Exxonian. So he concluded by again by insisting the current drought in the Southwest is nothing unusual, and by criticizing "poor forest management practices."
This conveniently ignores a raft of reports by experts and scientists, from the likes of Martin Hoerling (showing how the Southwest is entering a period of continual drought); from Anthony Westerling, who found a strong connection between warming and fire in high elevations in the northern Rockies, where forests are rarely managed at all; from Norm Miller, who linked global warming to the increasing strength of Santa Ana winds late in the season, and from fire departments such as Ventura County’s in Southern California, which in a report after the devasting fires of 2003 specifically warned of the increasing risks brought by global warming.
60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley brought the subject to Tom Boatner, head of Federal firefighting efforts, pointing out that a lot of people still didn’t believe in climate change.
"You won’t find them on the fire line in the American West anymore, because we’ve had climate change beat into us over the last ten or fifteen years," said Boatner. "We know what we’re seeing, and we’re dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought, that’s different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes."
So who are you going to believe: Scientists and firefighters? Or Fox News?
(picture of Canyon Country fire in SoCal taken by Andrew Meyer)