With Wildfire, When Is Climate Change the Spark?

August 22, 2018
An Aug. 20 satellite image showing the West Coast shrouded in smoke from 110 large fires that have erupted across the region, burning nearly 2 million acres. Image: NASA. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: With Wildfire, When Is Climate Change the Spark?

Many kinds of extreme weather events make news: hurricanes, snowstorms, rainstorms, droughts, floods, heat waves and ultra cold. But right now, the big one is wildfires.

Wildfires are enough of a story by themselves — as people are killed and homes are incinerated. The immediacy of the news business leaves many reporters scrambling just to report the latest evacuation.

But there’s a bigger story — the seeming trend of increasing wildfire — that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Although scientific debate remains, there is plenty of evidence that in the last few decades in the American West, wildfires have been more numerous and more intense, starting earlier, lasting longer, burning more acres, and so are more deadly and more destructive.

Yet the linkage between climate change and the extreme weather events is not simple. And that makes it a tough problem for journalists, since either ignoring or overplaying the connections can be mistakes.

So here are a few tips and tidbits that may help keep journalists out of trouble.

For Zinke, environmental “terrorist groups” to blame

As fires raged in August 2018, so did debate between environmentalists and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over whether climate change was to blame for the deadly and destructive fires devastating swaths of California and blanketing the West with smoke.

Zinke blamed (may require subscription) the fires on “environmental terrorist groups.” He argued the fires had nothing to do with climate and that the solution was to cut more trees. Environmentalists said the Trump administration was exploiting the tragedy for partisan gain. The fires burned on.

If climate had anything to do with the death and destruction, you might not have known about it from watching the news on TV. There has in fact been quite a bit of media criticism of climate’s absence from wildfire coverage.

Emily Atkin wrote in the New Republic as recently as July 25 about “The Media’s Failure to Connect the Dots on Climate Change.” A Public Citizen study found that few stories linked wildfires to climate change, reported ClimateWire (subscription required). MSNBC’s Chris Hayes only threw gasoline on the flames when he called climate coverage a “ratings killer.”

While the fires still raged, NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen responded to criticism that the network hadn’t been factoring climate into its wildfire coverage enough. Jensen acknowledged the criticism, but defended the coverage, noting that wildfire often means stories about human impacts in the moment.

It was not a new issue. Media Matters had been writing about the lack of dot-connection for years, going back to 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017.

What actually causes wildfires?

But wait. Whatever its influence, climate change alone is not the whole explanation for any destructive fire. Fires are complex. Fire seasons vary. Hot temperatures, drought and high winds make fires worse (and these may not be climate-caused in any one given situation).

The buildup of fuel (dry, combustible vegetation) is another factor. That may be the result of several factors — one of the biggest being decades of fire-suppression.

Commercial logging is hardly a remedy in many situations. The fuel may be dry brush or grass, not timber. And not every tract is suitable for commercial logging (e.g., national parks). Ironically, abundant rain in months prior may prompt dense growth of brushy fuel.


Even though precipitation and heat fluctuate

with short-term weather cycles, there is now

considerable agreement among scientists

that climate change makes drought and heat,

and therefore fires, worse.


Moreover, much of the death and destruction from fires results from the growth of the wildland-urban interface. Too many people build houses (and commercial buildings) in burnable areas — whether in cities or vacation areas. Often these structures are not fire-resistant and not landscaped for fire defense.

In these cases, planning, preparation, and building and zoning codes matter. This phenomenon accounts for much of the recent trend toward more fire damage. Even if wildfires stayed constant, the urban growth would make them more destructive.

There is one more ingredient: today’s intense fires create their own weather.

The recent Carr fire that destroyed a lot of Redding, Calif., was spread partly by a tornado of fire. In high wind conditions, embers blown ahead of a fire can make it almost impossible to stop. Big fires make pyrocumulus clouds, convective updrafts that can create strong gusts on the surface, which may make fires worse. These phenomena have little to do with global climate.

When it’s appropriate to finger climate change

But climate change does get a lot of the blame. It creates hotter temperatures, which make vegetation drier and fires worse. Climate change also brings drought, like the one that struck California in 2012-2015 (and lingers). Drought also dries vegetative fuel.

Even though precipitation and heat fluctuate with short-term weather cycles, there is now considerable agreement among scientists that climate change makes drought and heat, and therefore fires, worse.

The issue was addressed in this recent NPR interview with University of California professor LeRoy Westerling. The Union of Concerned Scientists also has published extensive scientific studies on the connection between climate change and wildfire. And similar conclusions have been reached by investigators at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, while journalist Scott Waldman recently summed up some of the current climate-wildfire research for ClimateWire.

Despite criticism of mainstream outlets, it is worth noting that CBS News this year has done coverage of the connection between climate and wildfire. So has NBC News. Major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune have done stories on the role climate change plays in causing wildfire. So has the Los Angeles Times (may require subscription).

SciLine, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a forum which underlines the importance of probabilistic thinking when it comes to attributing many kinds of extreme weather events to a cause like climate change.

Nobody may be able to definitively blame a single weather event on climate — but that is a false test. Go pull out your college statistics textbook. The odds may still be very good that wildfires are worsened by climate change. SciLine has also published another piece focusing just on wildfire.

Get the latest headlines on wildfires via EJ Today. And be sure to read other recent SEJournal stories about covering wildfires:

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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