California/Australia Fires, and their roots in Climate Change, Land Management, and Ecosystem Collapse

Since this is an international forum I had a question about the Australia fires that I thought someone might have an answer for.

The California fires we have been having are often ‘blamed’ on climate change, but there are a lot of other factors also. This is not to say that climate change isn’t a huge deal and a big problem, but more to say climate change is part of a broader pattern of how we interact with our planet:

In California:
-Thousands of years of indigenous fire management was stopped
-Heavy, uncontrolled cattle grazing from early colonial days spread invasive grasses widely and caused watershed degradation, lowering water tables and drying up springs and streams
-Hydraulic mining associated with the gold rush caused more mass erosion, gullying up streams, filling in wetlands, and generally drying out the landscape more
-Beavers were trapped out, which also reduced the amount of water in the landscape dramatically. In most of California they are still gone.
-Clear cutting of most of California’s forests resulted in more of the same.
-When the trees tried to grow back, fire suppression started, causing them to grow back extremely dense, requiring more water use, despite the above.
-Water projects and development destroyed 95% (!) of California’s wetlands and dried up a large number of the rivers further. These wetlands and floodplain forests were natural firebreaks that worked much better than cleared land - oaks and willows and cottonwoods and such catch flying sparks but when well watered, will not ignite.
-Deep groundwater withdrawals removed a source of water to the deep-taprooted plants. These plants actually can lift up water from deep groundwater and ‘share’ it with other plants. But not if there is no water.
-Ironically, highly flammable eucalyptus trees from Australia were planted, making matters worse.
-Sprawling development spread the very flammable invasive species even further. The invasive grasses and mustards can burn every 1-2 years instead of 30-100 with chaparral, and burn much more intensely than a pine forest understory. Also the development dramatically introduces ignition sources and puts lives at risks.
-As if that all was not enough, climate change has led to more extreme weather including heat waves and drought years, setting off the inevitable and making it worse.

Climate change is a super important and dire issue, but talking about the California fires as if they are only an issue due to a global problem and not also local and regional management is problematic. Note that there are also many who claim that the fires are because the forests weren’t logged enough which considering the above doesn’t actually make sense. And, we need to understand the problem to fix it!

So, apologies for all this text, but my question here is… does anyone know if the Australia fires are a similar situation, or are more cleanly linked to just climate change?

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Thank you for saying this, Charlie; you’ve echoed my thoughts exactly. I’m personally sick and tired of people using climate change as a way to explain every ecological issue (for instance, the lack of sugar maple regeneration in my area is typically attributed to climate change, while the presence of unnaturally high deer densities is typically ignored). Not to say that it is not having an affect on these ecosystems where I live, but it isn’t the most immediate and pressing concern. I think we should not attempt to restore the land prior to restoring our relationship with it, or else a few take a narrow interest in economic gain and improving habitat only for certain species. I look forward to hearing about the situation in Australia as well, as I have been wondering about it much as well.

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high deer densities, earthworms, invasive shrubs, etc, definitely more of a risk to sugar maples than climate change. I am not minimizing the impacts of climate change at all, but i almost think it should be treated as a social issue as with nearly every ecosystem management problem the issues with habitat loss and ecosystem collapse are far more dire than those of climate change and make the effects of climate change much worse.

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Thank you for listing these things. While climate change is definitely a factor, humans have made things infinitely worse and continue to do so in the way that we manage our environment. I might add that building dams should be added to the list of poor water management in terms of the environment. Paving river channels to prevent flooding has also led to water running out to the ocean rather than being absorbed by the soil. I also see that the city of LosAngeles has a free tree project where they will give people trees to plant…most of which are non native. Unfortunately the list seems endless.
Susan

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i definitely had dams in mind when i noted water projects and development but they are such a big issue they perhaps deserve their own note. Same with the concretization of streams and of watersheds in general, where most of the sometimes copious rains of southern California dump straight into the ocean along with pollution, instead of soaking in to feed what was once another vast wetland complex. Sigh.

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It would difficult to address the question(s) posed by Charlie in an iNaturalist Forum Discussion (as the venue), in great detail, but I think the topic is relevant and timely – as it relates to the activities relating to biodiversity, habitat status, and ecosystem health - that we all are a part of either professionally or personally (or both).

Your questions are framed around climate change and the devastating wildfires in California and Australia – and to what extent is there is a link (?) – and perhaps if there is a causal link, or at minimum, a correlation such that there is an association, but multiple factors are involved, with varying degrees of influence (or impact).

While climate change is often thrown into the discussion as THE factor or the primary factor in increased intensity (frequency?) of wildfires (e.g., California; Australia), it appears that some have already declared a psychological state ( existential – perhaps ) of “climate despair” and that we have not only entered an era known as the Anthropocene (and the related topic of “Reconciliation Ecology”), but it is time to consider what to do (action – praxis) “after climate despair” (see Matt Frost in The New Atlantis , Fall, 2019) who proposed, “Only by changing our entire energy system and social order can we preserve the continuity of our biosphere. And so, climate politics has become the art of the impossible: a cycle of increasingly desperate exhortations to impracticable action, presumably in hopes of inspiring at least some half-measures. Understandably, many despair, while others deny that there is a problem, or at least that any solution is possible.” Not everyone will agree with the solutions proposed by Frost, much less his diagnosis, but I think of the of Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo (in the early 1970’s) and the quote: “We have met the enemy, and he is us” - in this case and with the topic at hand with climate change and wildfires.

A partial and provisional answer (or answers) to your questions can be provided (I think) by three articles that address the issues, and the answer in both cases, does not indicate climate change as the “pristine” causal factor, but rather climate change is a part of the multivariate equation to the outcome that we observe, and so your point of “land management practices” (local and regional), and ecosystem decline (or decay), and myopic political choices – all factor into the outcomes. Two articles below touches on this theme - in regard to the California fires – and the third one focuses on fires in Australia - and I am trying to rely on scientific analyses to frame the questions – and findings:

  1. Williams, A. , Abatzoglou, J. , Gershunov, A. , Guzman‐Morales, J. , Bishop, D. , Balch, J. , & Lettenmaier, D. (2019). Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California . Earth’s Future, 7(8), 892–910.

Since the early 1970s, California’s annual wildfire extent increased fivefold, punctuated by extremely large and destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. This trend was mainly due to an eightfold increase in summertime forest‐fire area and was very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming. Warming effects were also apparent in the fall by enhancing the odds that fuels are dry when strong fall wind events occur. The ability of dry fuels to promote large fires is nonlinear, which has allowed warming to become increasingly impactful. Human‐caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California, particularly in the forests of the Sierra Nevada and North Coast and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades.

  1. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):
    Wildfires and Climate Change
    Many factors contribute to wildfire occurrences, and human activities are by far the leading source of wildfire ignitions even as climate change has contributed significantly to wildfire size and intensity. (From 1992 to 2012 in the United States, humans ignited 84 percent of wildfires. Instead of asking whether climate change “caused” a wildfire, it’s better to ask:
  • How is climate change influencing the likelihood of wildfires such as these?
  • To what extent was this wildfire larger and/or more intense because of climate change?
  • How has climate change made the U.S. more vulnerable to large fires like this one?
    https://www.sciline.org/quick-facts/wildfires-climate-change
  1. “The causes of unprecedented bushfires are complex but climate change is part of the puzzle”
    By David Bowman
    David Bowman is professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, exploring the relationship between fire, landscapes and humans.

“It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer that involves fuel management, firefighting techniques, landscape planning, building design and environmental history.
Climate change is making a bad situation worse.
Bushfires are an ancient presence in Australia, and the landscape is generally able to spring back to life because this regenerative capacity has been honed over time.
Bushfires are burning and many Australians are suffering directly.
It is a tough time to talk about bushfire causes and solutions.
But without respectful, informed discussion — including the linkage between climate change — we cannot effectively adapt to the inherent risk of bushfires.
I want this debate to be beyond sensationalism, blaming and the promotion of simplistic solutions.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-12/cause-of-bushfires-is-complex-but-climate-change-is-part-of-it/11692176

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People like to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the environmental issues we face (including climate change) are management and implementation issues.

Throughout the history of the Earth there are periods of rapid environmental change similar to what we are now facing but those are rare… that’s part of why they have such a significant record in both fossils and in the geology of the planet.

What we, and the majority of other species are facing now is a human based event, one that we have a choice over, not an impersonal event like a commentary impact, a massive series of volcanic eruptions, a synchronous change in orbital and axial parameters, the evolution of a new algae species that floods the environment with a different gas (oxygen at the time). The changes we humans are imposing are intentional and broad in scope.

If it was just climate change it would be bad, but not so bad. Instead we are blocking connectivity routes plants and animals need to move ranges. We are introducing thousands of foreign species in large amounts to novel and sensitive ecosystems. We are destroying biodiversity left, right, and center. We are “preserving” only the most extreme habitats, the places where organisms are already on the edges of their viable habitats. We are building over what will be critical habitats in the next 50-100 years as we lose existing habitats (intertidal wetlands and mangroves are a good example of this). And we continue to extract and use non-renewable sources (or only multi-million year renewable sources) of stockpiled energy (oil and coal) with abandon.

These are all management and implementation decisions humans have made based on economic and philosophical concerns not “naturally occurring” environmental ones.

We are now in the midst of what’s currently the 6th largest mass extinction we know of in the history of the planet and the extinctions are happening in large enough numbers and rapidly enough that we may well be on the way to an extinction event larger and faster than the Permian Extinction, the Great Dying, the largest extinction event we know of.

This is already the first major extinction event that is due to philosophy and intentional choice, the only one that we could make a choice to prevent or change.

But we, as a species, won’t do so.

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i guess one could question whether our species is in fact actually sentient enough in large groups to not act the same way as the algae did, though that’s perhaps a divergent topic. I’ve often commented that if/when intelligent aliens come to earth they may comment that while our species is sentient on an individual level, in such large groups (at least under the current socio-economic-cultural algorithm) we kind of are not. I feel like many are working to change that but… maybe our species just isn’t there yet or has become lost/trapped in an invasive sort of worldview. We will see if we get there or not. But we need to (re) learn true systems thinking to do that. Keep on pushing… I feel like iNat is a part of this, especially in terms of community discussion. But even here, it’s hard.

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i guess one could question whether our species is in fact actually sentient enough in large groups to not act the same way as the algae did

I think this is a really interesting discussion, though I agree, it probably needs its own topic. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about domestication, and I have been becoming more aware of how this process was not originally an intentional or planned act. Staple domesticated agricultural crops today would have had to be uncommon, but useful, in the wild, that way they could have been removed from the genetic influence of wild populations allowing the process of domestication to begin. This is why it would be impossible to domesticate red oaks or sugar maples where they could still breed with wild populations. No hunter-gatherers could have planned this act on the scale that it has occurred, yet I think we retain some belief that these acts of cultivation and domestication were very intentional and that we have been on an intentional “ascent to humanity” ever since. I like to think of this as a ‘great accident’ that has brought some benefit to certain species, but a lot of trouble to countless others.

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A post was merged into an existing topic: Hypothetical past and present trajectory of our species

3 posts were split to a new topic: Hypothetical past and present trajectory of our species

Well said, @charlie. Rich Minnich, a professor at UC Riverside, has gone through decades of fire records in SoCal and Baja California. He gave a departmental seminar a couple years ago where he had an animation showing fires through time. The evidence was pretty damning about it being an issue of mismanagement. It was amazing watching the fires happen at the same frequency, be at the same size, and with the same spread between them in the entire study area at first, then a distinct shift in the size (larger), frequency (less frequent), and location (concentrated in areas of heavy [mis]management) of California fires happen, with a stark straight line between them and the Baja fires carrying on as they had been.

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that probably relates more to the thread I split off…

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The Western Cape is similar to California. Our fynbos (= chaparral) burns cooler than pine and Eucalyptus plantations, or invasive Australian wattles.
Knysna had a terrible fire - a combination of unusual weather and swathes of invasive aliens.
https://www.georgeherald.com/News/Article/General/knysna-fire-independent-disaster-report-released-201906060101

https://www.hamtern.co.za/background-on-the-origin-and-causes-of-the-knysna-fires/

Our groundwater use is unregulated, and some say we are in a green drought, and we will see trees dying.

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My impressions and thoughts are the same. Here, 1000 miles from Australia in New Zealand, with only a slight smoke haze here from those millions of hectares, I don’t know enough about Australian ecology to comment, but I see most of the issues Charlie referred to all about me here in urban Auckland with hundreds of hectares of forest nearby, one of them hanging over our house which is surrounded by piles of cut trees and shrubs and weeds generated by neighbours who don’t use their outdoor areas, just cut down most of the vegetation once or twice a year and pile it out of sight on the fringes of the forest - where it used to rot, eventually, but now is just drying, under trees growing only slowly because of the dry ground exacerbated by the current drought (we have late summer droughts; last summer’s started in late December 2018 and was barely broken over winter, and now it’s early summer again). The ridges around the forest remnants and gullies of Kaipatiki (this neighbourhood, stream and catchment) seem to be increasingly dry to me over the last 20 years, with ever-intensifying housing and paved outdoor surfaces, all drained by piping the runoff of any significant rain event directly out to sea.
@jharkness I also observe “restoration” activities and marketing, and believe they are mostly ill-founded and ineffective, due to the people involved operating from concepts based on other marketing and fashion rather than observation and the natural horror of pollution and destruction that would result from any relationship with the land or water.

Charlie, there was a media article recently about Australian Aboriginal traditional fire prevention by small staged burnoffs that allowed wildlife to move ahead. Apparently some consultation with people who know the practice has been undertaken or proposed, sorry I don’t have a link.

UPDATE see a more recent article with a successful example
https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/australia/118612599/australia-bushfires-owners-say-cultural-burning-miraculously-saved-their-property

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Hi yes our Australian indigenous people did regularly burn the landscape and still do in the Northern Territory. I am in my 70’s so remember places such as Mallacoota and Wilson’s Promontory that I visited as a child. Terrible fires are now happening at Mallacoota right now. As a child I loved the heathlands at both these places because of the diversity of flora and fauna. I visited Mallacoota at the end of October this year and was concerned by what appeared to me to be a huge amount of fuel both in the heathlands and the bush. I am not a scientist but there was no longer the diversity of flora and fauna that I remember as a child. Dead, dry vegetation was acting as a mulch preventing many plants from growing. Park rangers do try controlled burns but the often become “uncontrolled”. I wonder why they don’t slash areas rather than burn. I hope this may help your discussion.
rozkidd.

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I feel that the fires in Australia are driven more by climate than those in California. OP mentioned that eucalyptus has been introduced to California and has made the fires there worse due to their greater flammability. The areas burnt in Australia currently are dominated by eucalypt woodland. (Edit: these are more flammable than any gardens, invasive plants, urban sprawl, farms etc)

For fuel reduction burning to be carried out, there must be weather that isn’t too cold / wet (or the fires won’t start) and not too hot/dry/windy (or the fire goes out of control). Enough staff also has to be available. In a typical year, there are only ten days or so that meet the former requirements. Of those ten days, three will be weekends or public holidays with no staff available. Toss in climate change (so there are fewer suitable days), a sparser population (fewer firefighters and access tracks) and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

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I know in California, slashing with masticator type equipment often spreads the weeds that are making the fires worse, and doesn’t trigger the regrowth of seeds and burls that are adapted to grow after being triggered by a fire. Could be different there though.

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@rozkidd What an invaluable observation at this time as we read daily about the plight of Mallacoota, which was only a name to me until I read your description.

Unfortunately it appears to describe what I am seeing around me. Of course in NZ we do not have the same continental heat, but last summer there were unprecedented forest fires near two cities, Christchurch and Nelson. One of them unfortunately destroyed most of the forest in a large area of restoration on Reserve land.

I have been looking for a proactive response from local authorities but have not yet seen any.

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