About a month ago, a wildfire ravaged about 28,000 acres over the mountains around Mount Charleston, Nevada, leaving burn marks and charred land 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The fire, declared a major disaster by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, forced the evacuation of over 500 people, threatened over 500 structures, and was rated the nation's number one wildfire priority on July 7.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasted no time blaming the fire’s devastation on global warming. Though the senator from Nevada doesn’t usually discuss climate change in his press conferences, he addressed the issue twice in one week and called for more funding for the Forest Service to clear away the dry brush that fuels wildfires.
“Why are we having them? Because we have climate change. Things are different. The forests are drier, the winters are shorter, and we have these terrible fires all over the West,” Reid told Nevada reporters, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Terrible fires all over the West? It’s true that both natural and manmade wildfires destroy millions of acres across the U.S. landscape every year. What Reid neglects to mention, however, is that the number of these fires has significantly declined in recent years. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 96,358 wildland fires swept the nation in 2006. In 2009, the number had decreased to 78,792. In 2012, there were 67,774. By July 17 last year, 32,920 fires had burned through 3.7 million acres, while the number on the same date of this year has only reached 25,370, destroying 2 million acres.
Yet Reid continued to hammer the idea of climate change as the cause of some of the nation’s most devastating wildfires, commenting in a press conference only a day later that “Millions of acres have burned…They’re occurring all over. Why? Because the climate has changed. The winters are shorter, the summers are hotter.”
Reid called for more funding for the Forest Service to clear away dry brush and undergrowth. He has also mentioned bringing a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill to the floor.
Never mind the fact that the massive fire was started by a lightning strike on July 1 in Trout Canyon—a far cry from any manmade cause. Lightning fires cannot be attributed to any warming trend either: Throughout the early 2000s, the annual number of lightning fires in the U.S. was between 11,000 to 15,000. With a few intermittent increases, that number had dropped to 9,443 in 2012, and was as low as 7,164 in 2010.
The data on Reid’s statement about hotter summers don't necessarily back him up either. Though this month’s highest temperature in Mount Charleston was 86.8 degrees, almost 6 degrees above the monthly high average of 81 degrees, the area’s lowest temperature for the month was 48.5 degrees, almost 4 degrees below its average minimum temperature of 52.3 degrees.
The extremely dry conditions in parts of the West do call for extra precautions. Yet even these droughts are not quite as dire as Reid would have it seem. Across the northern Great Basin, wildfire season actually started late due to increased rain in early June that reduced the amount of dry fuel. In the Northwest and Northern Rockies, fuel moistures were also above normal through mid-June. Though some of these areas have dried out significantly in the past month, the NIFC’s data indicates that hot, dry conditions have not been the trend for the entire season.
Reid isn't the only senator who's been fearmongering over climate change recently. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse used similar scare tactics after the tornado that devastated the Oklahoma City region back in May, blaming Republicans for indirectly causing the storm and other natural disasters by refusing to cooperate with climate change efforts. They seized the opportunity to push their own global warming agendas, including Boxer’s carbon tax bill. And like Reid, neither of them checked their facts before brashly citing climate change as the best reason for more funding.
As wildfire season rolls on, probably well into September, it’s important to keep the weather in perspective. Fire victims need help, not global warming hysteria, from their government.