Is this one of the nation’s worst fire seasons?

It has been a bad fire year but some mainstream reporting is getting ahead of itself and seems more intent on providing a propaganda message. In fact, its the worst fire season since … 2015!

Propaganda:

Note the reference to “in one of the nation’s worst fire seasons”.

And:

“worst fire seasons we’ve ever seen”?

Some news writers confused record spending with record wildfires. While there is a linkage, it is not an accurate 1:1 correlation nor is the spending inflation adjusted.

Data:

  • As of September 15th, 2 of the last 10 years burned more acres, and 4 of the last 10 years had more total fires – to date per the National Interagency Fire Center (screen snapshot taken on September 15th, 2017).

It has been a bad fire year, but 2 of the past 10 years were worse – to date – and 4 of the past 10 years had more total fires – to date. And in the context of the last 100 years, it is not unusual and not even close to being “one of the nation’s worst fire seasons”.

Reporting

Many news reports correctly note questions on how the nation has funded (or not funded) wildfire suppression and management. My state’s US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been pushing since 2013 for more funding and pro-active management of forests, saying fuels have grown precipitously during a time that fires (a natural process in the west) have been aggressively suppressed.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has a good and lengthy explanation of the issues related to western wildland fires. If you would like to learn more, read it!

It is not fake news to say this is a bad wildland fire year, but the stories slide in that direction when marking it as one of the nation’s worst fire years. That claim is false, based on the data, above, from official government sources.

It is unfortunate that news reporters were unable to spend a few moments with Google in order to add context to their reporting.

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Solar eclipse will increase fire danger?

“Drought over, but eclipse event will raise fire danger”

That is the odd headline of a KATU local TV news report about Oregon State. Authorities think more people will visit Oregon in the summer of 2017 because of a solar eclipse. Since humans cause wild fires, this will increase the wild fire risk.

To strengthen the claim, the local news story emphasizes:

“According to the National Park Service, 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans, from unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes or arson.”

Source: Drought over, but eclipse event will raise fire danger | KATU

Wild fires are a serious threat to life and property and the majority of wild fires in the U.S. are indeed caused by human factors.

But two items in the story are misleading:

  1. The 90% figure comes from here. The actual percentage is 84% (and 44% of total area burned) from the PNAS journal article analysis of wild fire records from 1992-2012. This data point was oddly rounded upwards (0.84 rounds to 0.8, not 0.9) as the larger number has a greater emotional impact, a clue we might be seeing propaganda at work. Further, about 60% of the fires inside National Parks are caused by humans, which is not the figure you perceive given the quote above.
  2. In Oregon 48% of wild fires are human caused, not 90%, according to peer reviewed research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (authored by the same scientist who wrote the 1992-2012 analysis). Click on the link, then click on the SI tab, then download the supporting data PDF. Go to the last page of the downloaded PDF document. Search down for OR and read first 3 columns for % of total fires caused by humans or lightning.

Consider the above in the context of propaganda messaging:  KATU delivered a propaganda message that 90% of wild fires in Oregon are started by humans. This claim is not true for Oregon but is the number anchored in the minds of KATU TV news viewers and web site readers.

This propaganda could lead to state-level activism for increased laws, regulations and funding to reduce “90% of wild fires caused by humans”.

Wild fires are a serious threat to life and property in the U.S. and in Oregon State. The purpose of this post is to illustrate how the news media is an active participant in propaganda messaging and made no effort to verify the authenticity of the information and report on the subject accurately. And given the headline (most people read only headlines on social media!), how many will incorrectly conclude that solar eclipses cause wildfires? 🙂

(I notified KATU news of the above and they did not even acknowledge my note to them. I personally watched the May 20, 2012 solar eclipse visible in Northern California. Oddly, there were no concerns about eclipse related wild fires, even though California was in the midst of a drought.)