Being well into October and with a train of very wet weather systems approaching, we can be confident that most wildfire activity is over this year over the Northwest U.S. There are no active fires over Washington State today.
The good news is that this was a very benign wildfire year for the entire U.S..
In fact, the lowest wildfire acreage since 2000 (see below). You will note little evidence of a long-term trend.
Here in Washington State, the Department of Natural Resources is responsible for a large proportion of the burnable area of the State. 2023 is running way below the average for acreage burned (red line is average). Again, no obvious upward trend.
What about the biggest fire state of the western U.S.: California? This year was the second lowest in ten years! And last year was equally low.
And what about monthly particulate/smoke levels for the past five years? According to Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, things are getting better! Note the outlier during September 2020.
Do these numbers surprise you? They are reality. But if you follow the media and some activist groups, the wildfire threat is getting worse very quickly, with global warming being the major cause!
Of course, there is no group that exaggerates wildfire threats more than the Seattle Times and their cartoonist, David Horsey (see below). I do wonder why his wildfire monster wears sunglasses.
You should not be surprised that the wildfire threat has stayed tame over the last few years and probably won’t accelerate during the years ahead.
Let me give you several reasons:
1. Global warming for all the hype and exaggeration is quite modest at this point….the western U.S. has warmed up by roughly 2F over the past half century with very little change in precipitation. Not enough to profoundly alter the fire situation.
2. The areas that have burned during the past decades will enjoy suppressed fire potential for a while.
3. Many of the wildfires in the western U.S. during the past decade were caused by failing electrical infrastructure. After severe impacts on their bottom lines, many power companies (like PG&E) are hardening their powerlines and turning off power when strong winds are predicted.
4. After much delay or insufficient efforts, states are getting more serious about restoring forests, using approaches such as thinning and prescribed burning. This reduces the potential for catastrophic fire.
5. Fire management policy changes allowed more fires to burn in previous decades and contributed to more fires and smoke.
The bottom line is that all the scary talk about rapidly rising wildfire threats in our future is really not based on solid facts, and reality is going a different way.
How many other scary and unfounded predictions have gone viral in the public space? That communists were taking over the universities and government in the 1950s? That Vietnam was a domino requiring intervention? That weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Iraq? We seem to love believing in apocalyptic predictions, whether or not factual information supports them?