Things fall apart part 1: Colorado burns. Again

The three most expensive fires in Colorado’s history have happened in the last year,

Until recently the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 was the states most devastating fire. 


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43 thoughts on “Things fall apart part 1: Colorado burns. Again

  1. john byatt says:

    IPCC Apr16 2007 US

    Accelerating wildfire and ecosystem disturbance dynamics

    “Since 1980, an average of 22,000 km2/yr has burned in U.S. wildfires, almost twice the 1920-1980 average of 13,000 km2/yr (Schoennagel et al., 2004). The forested area burned in the western U.S. from 1987-2003 is 6.7 times the area burned from 1970-1986… Human vulnerability to wildfires has also increased, with a rising population in the wildland-urban interface.”

    “A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread. Westerling et al. (2006) found that, in the last three decades, the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased by 78 days, and burn durations of fires >1000 ha have increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, in response to a spring-summer warming of 0.87°C. Earlier spring snowmelt has led to longer growing seasons and drought, especially at higher elevations, where the increase in wildfire activity has been greatest. In the south-western U.S., fire activity is correlated with ENSO positive phases, and higher Palmer Drought Severity Indices.”

    “Insects and diseases are a natural part of ecosystems. In forests, periodic insect epidemics kill trees over large regions, providing dead, desiccated fuels for large wildfires. These epidemics are related to aspects of insect life cycles that are climate sensitive.”

  2. 44% of US still covered by drought. The mid-west floods while Colorado burns. The new abnormal.

  3. BBD says:

    All the heavy weather since 1998 casts a shadow over the TCR debate. If this is now, even if the lowest plausible estimates are correct (eg Otto et al.), there will be wildfires and floods and crop failures to top anything we’ve seen over the last decade.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      My thoughts as well.

      • Ray R. says:

        “The three most expensive fires in Colorado’s history have happened in the last year”,

        What is your point? Certainly more people in harms way will give a higher cost to a fire, as well the value of a dollar then as opposed to now, as an example 1500 years ago this same fire would not have burned a single house nor was a penny spent fighting it.

        The fire itself is not even remarkable in historic terms. In 1910 a fire swept 5 million acres of Colorado. Prominent peaks in forest fires occurred during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (ca. 950–1250 CE) and during the 1800s. (

        For a site that professes to condemn things unscientific you sure as hell dish out crap.

        • john byatt says:

          More than 350 homes have been lost in what is now the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, surpassing last year’s Waldo Canyon fire,

        • Warming increases wildfire risk, independently of the fact that more humans are in harms way… that just makes us more vulnerable. Links to sources are available here.

          A 2012 report by Climate Central lists reasons why warming increases the risk of wildfires in 11 western states:

          1. The fire season is about 75 days longer than in the 1970s (Figure 8).

          2. Mountain snowpack melts earlier (Figure 10) (and warming increases evapotranspiration). Both reduce available moisture during the fire season.

          3. Winter warming reduces the mortality of insects like pine beetles, which may turn forests into kindling (surprisingly, this appears controversial).

          It’s true that many other factors affect wildfires. For instance, the skyrocketing human population implies an increasing number of pyromaniacs. However, Figure 9 shows that hotter years have more fires, which can’t be blamed on a steadily increasing number of pyromaniacs.

          The report then calculates the trend in fires larger than 1000 acres in 11 western states, showing that large fires have increased significantly in 10 of the 11 states since 1970. Tamino even redid their analysis while including years with no large fires in the regression, and shows that large fires actually increased significantly in all 11 states including Washington.

          The report notes that natural climate variability (ENSO, PDO, etc.) strongly affects wildfires in this region, and that human behavior (non-climatic) undoubtedly has an influence. (Of what sign? Firefighting has also improved.) So attribution of these trends is challenging. But dismissing the connection between global warming and wildfires in favor of vague references to other human influences requires ignoring Figure 5.8 from this 2011 National Academies report. It shows that each 1°C of warming leads to at least a doubling of area burned each year for most of those 11 western states, with some regions burning 6 times as much.

          We’ve probably already missed the 2°C global target: even if we peak by 2020, we’d still need to reduce emissions 9% per year after that. So this research suggests that the Midwest 2011,2012 fires are a sneak preview of the coming decades, along with Amazon 2005,2010, Greece 2007, Australia 2009, Russia 2010,2012, etc.

        • Sources available here.

          In his second inaugural address, President Obama said:

          “… We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

          Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

          We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared. …”

          A few days later, Bjorn Lomborg wrongly accused Obama of fear-mongering:

          “… Historical analysis of wildfires around the world shows that since 1950 their numbers have decreased globally by 15%. Estimates published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that even with global warming proceeding uninterrupted, the level of wildfires will continue to decline until around midcentury and won’t resume on the level of 1950- the worst for fire- before the end of the century. …”

          This is classic Lomborg misdirection. Mike is probably right: Lomborg seems to be referring to Pechony and Shindell 2010. Here’s an excerpt from its abstract:

          “Recent bursts in the incidence of large wildfires worldwide have raised concerns about the influence climate change and humans might have on future fire activity. … We find that during the preindustrial period, the global fire regime was strongly driven by precipitation (rather than temperature), shifting to an anthropogenic-driven regime with the Industrial Revolution. Our future projections indicate an impending shift to a temperature-driven global fire regime in the 21st century, creating an unprecedentedly fire-prone environment. These results suggest a possibility that in the future climate will play a considerably stronger role in driving global fire trends, outweighing direct human influence on fire (both ignition and suppression), a reversal from the situation during the last two centuries.”

          That’s right, Lomborg actually used a paper that projects “an unprecedentedly fire-prone environment” to criticize Obama for mentioning fires as an impact of climate change. Lomborg used the word “wildfire” twice, but Fig. 2(A) shows that the 1950 peak in fires was due to direct anthropogenic interference (both ignition and suppression). Pechony and Shindell even note that “… the common tool for land clearing was fire (13-16). Wildfire mapping for the 1880 US census, for instance, revealed staggering amounts of burning, predominantly of agricultural origins (15).”

          So the 1950 peak wasn’t really a peak in wildfires. In reality, we burned “staggering amounts” of forests and jungles to plant crops. The paper projects that by 2100 actual wildfires will rival those staggering intentional burns, despite our best efforts at fire suppression.

          Pechony and Shindell elaborate:

          “… Toward the late 20th century, the charcoal-based records’ uncertainty increases, and they do not depict, for instance, increased burning in the tropics and the western United States in the past three decades (12). Although ice-core reconstructions show an increasing trend throughout the 20th century, it is likely that the downturn in the charcoal-based data, reproduced by the model both on a global scale and at the charcoal sites (SI Text), is real, though late 20th century fire activity may be higher than implied by the charcoal-based records. …”

          I’ve recently discussed wildfires in the western United States, which apparently don’t appear in those charcoal-based data. Since 1970, all 11 western states have experienced statistically significant increases in large wildfires, and hotter years have more large wildfires.

          Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. On page 116 of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg also downplayed the 1997 Indonesian fires, otherwise known as “the largest fire disaster ever observed.”

          George Will also hides the incline in U.S. wildfires, which are very strongly correlated with spring and summer temperatures. In 2012, the area burned per wildfire in the U.S. was far more than any previous year. Fox “news” regurgitates Will’s nonsense to attack Obama.

          Bjorn Lomborg, George Will, Fox “news”: please stop spamming humanity with all this misinformation. It’s staining your legacies and threatening the future of our civilization.

        • john byatt says:

          Your reasoning is no different to saying that Sea levels were five metres higher 100,000 years ago so a one metre rise this century is not remarkable,

          There was no civilization nor human coastal cities 100,000 years ago and there were no housing estate 1500 years ago in Colorado, there is now,

        • Incidentally, Marlon et al. 2012 reinforces the connection between temperature and wildfires. Marcott et al. 2013 shows that the globe cooled slightly between ~6000 years ago until the Little Ice Age, and Marlon et al. finds “a slight decline in burning over the past 3,000 y”. Also, observing a “prominent peak” during the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” which experienced regional warming but less global warming than today is disturbing.

        • Watching the Deniers says:

          Here’s the final part of the abstract:

          “Since the late 1800s , human activities and the ecological effects of recent high fire activity caused a large, abrupt decline in burning similar to the LIA fire decline. Consequently, there is now a forest “fire deficit” in the western United States attributable to the combined effects of human activities, ecological, and climate changes. Large fires in the late 20th and 21st century fires have begun to address the fire deficit, but it is continuing to grow.”

          Human activities caused an abrupt decline in fires on the same scale of the Little Ice Age – so human impact is considerable. Now climate change is reversing the trend and helping make up the deficit. The incidence of fires is increasing, reversing the trend of the previous century.

          I don’t think you even understood the abstract. You’ve actually just made the case that fires are getting worse. Thanks for the link.

  4. john byatt says:

    Ray R “The fire itself is not even remarkable in historic terms. In 1910 a fire swept 5 million acres of Colorado.’

    maybe next time we could just let it burn to see if we can beat the record?


    • Ray R. says:

      Mike, The human activities they mention is suppressing fires, the consequence of that policy with a warming world spawns mores fires. (fire deficit) How does that excuse you of [CUT]

      John…go away [CUT].

      FIRST WARNING – insults not accepted. You have one more warning before a ban is put in place. I will not be insulted on my own blog. Mike @ WtD

      • Warming increases wildfire risk, independently of the fact that more humans are in harms way… that just makes us more vulnerable. As I’ve repeatedly explained, other human activities such as fire ignition and suppression don’t change this fact.

        Accusations and insults don’t change the fact that warming increases wildfire risk either. Pity. Humanity seems to have a fire deficit and an insult surplus; it’d be great if we could exchange those.

        • Ray R. says:

          Agreed, a warming world increases the likelihood of fire. As does recent fire suppression, as does changing land use, but to attach a monetary cost to the event is pure sensational garbage.

          It is unfortunate we cannot experience an ice age ( very few fires) to have our limited perspective put in historic context.

        • Cost = risk + vulnerability. That’s not garbage. In fact, it’s exactly what insurers care about, which is why I wrote this:

          Scientists aren’t the only ones concerned about risk management: large insurance companies like Munich Re, Swiss Re and Allianz have already noticed increased damages that are partially due to climate change. In 2010, the Pentagon said “Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

      • john byatt says:

        try reading your own abstract again, WTD just proved that you did not have a clue. you will just make a donkey of yourself trying to ignore your own reference with “look squirrel”

        “you of posting sensational bullshit?

        well it was sensational and it was not bullshit,

        the only BS is you now trying to distance yourself from your own reference paper

      • Ray R. says:

        I do not visit often and was posting in a style inherent of this site…having been insulted many times and in many ways in the past. If indeed you have cleaned up the board good for you. I will abide by those rules…

        Honest debate is healthy which includes calling you or others on false or deceiving comments. Don’t take that from us but I will tone down the insults. and thanks for the warning. Cheers. Ray

        • john byatt says:

          This is what you reacted to

          Ray R “The fire itself is not even remarkable in historic terms. In 1910 a fire swept 5 million acres of Colorado.’

          maybe next time we could just let it burn to see if we can beat the record?

          that was the perspective which you give, that a fire in 1910 burning out 5 million acres was somehow relevant, proving just what? so unless we get a bigger fire it is no big deal?,

        • john byatt says:

          Ray ” calling you or others on false or deceiving comments”

          that is pure rhetoric, just what were those false or deceiving comments?

        • Watching the Deniers says:

          Play the ball, not the man and tone it down. You can challenge an argument but MUST offer evidence to support a claim.

      • Ray R. says:

        BTW, you have not responded to my point.

  5. john byatt says:

    Ray R. says:
    June 15, 2013 at 2:02 am
    Agreed, a warming world increases the likelihood of fire. As does recent fire suppression, as does changing land use, but to attach a monetary cost to the event is pure sensational garbage.

    It is unfortunate we cannot experience an ice age ( very few fires) to have our limited perspective put in historic context.

    Like his fellow travelers Ray is without empathy, at least 350 families have lost their house but Ray thinks that the monetary cost ( those houses etc) is somehow irrelevant.

    • Ray R. says:

      Excuse me John my option was to respond to you…not my intent.

      Scientist, my exception to the post was the subheading “The three most expensive fires in Colorado’s history have happened in the last year,” I live with fire. I know the consequences but I also know history and the spin of sensational journalism in support a cause.

      I am 61….these have been the oldest years of my life ever. Like that matters?

    • Ray R. says:

      Mike quietly……do you really want to stand in judgment of what is valid evidence to support a claim? Should I be held to the same standard as Mr. Byatt or Anthony Watts? Can you honestly bare the burden of deciding or like Richard Parncutt think those who disagree be put to death?

  6. john byatt says:

    Ray “my exception to the post was the subheading “The three most expensive fires in Colorado’s history have happened in the last year”

    The three most expensive fires in Colorado history have all occurred in the past year
    The 360 homes burned by this week’s Black Canyon fire are the most ever destroyed in Colorado by a fire, and will likely make it the most expensive fire in Colorado history. The previous record was the $353 million Waldo Canyon fire of June 23 – July 10, 2012. That fire killed two people, destroyed 347 homes, forced the evacuation of over 32,000 people, and burned 18,247 acres of land. The High Park fire of June, 2012, which destroyed 259 buildings near Fort Collins, now ranks as the third most expensive Colorado fire (it was the most expensive one at the time.) The Black Forest fire has a long ways to go if it wants to challenge the 2002 Hayman Fire as the largest fire in Colorado history. The Hayman fire burned 138,000 acres, an area about nine times as large as this week’s Black Forest fire.

    According to a federal report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012, Colorado can expect to see a sharp increase in wildfires during the coming decades, if the climate warms as expected. The report cited research predicting that a 1.8°F increase in Colorado’s average temperature–the level of warming expected by 2050 under a moderate global warming scenario–would cause a factor of 2.8 – 6.6 increase in fire area burned in the state.

  7. Mark says:

    Its been argued in Australia that one of the reasons for seemingly more ferocious fires is the faulty management of the landscape. Large tracts of the nation have adapted to the native’s practice of yearly burning. Although the main purpose of the burning was to encourage new plant growth which would in turn attract game, a by-product was that the undergrowth was kept under control.

    These days this process is no longer followed and is indeed frowned upon by our greens. Hence we end up with multiple years of undergrowth build-up which creates vastly more powerful fires when they do eventually escape containment.

    Although most governments understand and/or pay lip-service to the need to do ‘back-burn’ to reduce the fuel load, its been argued that what is done is nowhere near sufficiently and explains the fire-storms of the recent decades.

    I’m not entirely familiar with the US situation but do know that the natives there also practised land management using fire. I do seem to recall reading of similar complaints that local greenies oppose back-burning. It wouldn’t surprise to find that there’s more to the story than extra heat.

    The problem with this type of thing is that, following a fire, virtually everyone has good reason to blame the climate rather than the land management. Governments don’t want to be blamed for a poor job. Greens don’t want to be blamed for opposing control systems or to see such control systems be recommended in the future. Fires services, who manage the control systems, don’t want to be lumped with any blame. So, as usual, CO2 is accused, tried and convicted in absentia. Win/win. Well we miss the truth, but that hardly matters in these issues.

    • Ray R. says:

      It does matter Mark, thanks…..G’day, I am going to bed.

    • john byatt says:

      The Greens believe that living with bushfire threat requires a coordinated approach that includes:

      planning of housing sites to avoid development in risk prone areas;
      strategically planned hazard reduction, including controlled burning, where and when climatic conditions allow it to be done safely and where it is consistent with maintaining the ecosystem;
      education and community awareness programs to reduce the incidence of arson; and
      a well funded and managed fire fighting service which can protect human life and homes and contain the spread of fires.
      While recognising that controlled burning is only one form of bush fire risk reduction, The Greens have not been responsible for restricting its use. We are committed to an effective and scientifically based approach to hazard reduction, which takes into account the needs of both the human and natural environments.
      The location of residential or rural residential development in high bush fire hazard areas increases the level of threat to people and their homes. This is not economically, socially or ecologically sustainable. Development should not be permitted in identified Bushfire Prone Areas, where such development is likely to endanger lives or property or involve substantial protection and suppression costs, including loss of environmental values.

      I thought that the vic fires were due to liberal abortion laws not the greens ?

  8. john byatt says:

    Jamie Kirkpatrick is Distinguished Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, where he teaches in the undergraduate program and supervises 15-20 postgraduate and honours students working on a variety of topics. His main research loves are alpine, grassy, coastal and garden ecosystems, nature conservation and the politics of environment. He has been recognized by several national awards and prizes for his work developing methods for planning reserves and his contribution to forest conservation and world heritage matters, and has been recognized internationally for producing the pioneering work on minimum set reservation planning methods

  9. Colorado’s ‘expensive’ fires occur at lower elevations, in the ‘burbs.

    In the higher mountains, the warmer winters no longer kill off the bark beetles. Dead trees burn readily…

    “The Mountain Pine Beetle is at epidemchicic levels throughout the western United States, including here in the Rocky Mountain Region…Forests, affected here include several in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. In northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, Mountain Pine Beetles have impacted more than 4 million acres since the first signs of outbreak in 1996.” (US Forest Service)

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      I’ve been seeing that link as well in stuff people have sent me. This is pretty much in line with predictions.

  10. […] 2013/06/14: WtD: Things fall apart part 1: Colorado burns. Again […]

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