Changes in choices, not solely climate, help fuel natural disasters

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: July 14, 2013
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THE New York Times devoted nearly 2,000 words to an excellent analysis of the Arizona forest fire tragedy. Incredibly, considering the Times and the times in which we live, anthropogenic climate change wasn't mentioned once.

References to the increasing threat of wildfires in the West were included in the Page One story, published July 7, but human-induced global warming wasn't mentioned. It was invoked by others, however, as happened following Superstorm Sandy last year and the May 19-20 Oklahoma tornadoes this year and after virtually every natural disaster these days.

Such references are typically done before the bodies are recovered and no thoughtful analysis can take place. Thus, it's beyond dispute that groups with political agendas are ready to pounce on tragedies. This is what Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse did following the Moore tornado and what others are doing now to exploit the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona.

The climate is changing. It's always changing. The Times story notes that wildfires “are becoming increasingly dangerous and unpredictable adversaries” partly as a result of persistent drought and overgrown vegetation. The latter isn't helped by the former — it grows because of moisture rather than the lack of it — but the choice to avoid thinning undergrowth has exacerbated fires.

A larger factor in the property damage and fatality totals is where natural disasters are occurring. The Colorado Springs fires of the past two summers took out expensive homes and cost lives in areas where few people lived until relatively recently. The Moore tornadoes of 1999 and 2013 would not have resulted in extensive property damage or loss of lives had the same area been struck by an EF5 tornado 75 years ago. Property damage from hurricanes is massive today not because hurricanes are worse or more frequent but because more people are building expensive homes right on the coast.

Fire suppression is a key factor in the worsening of wildfires in the West, just as it's a key factor in the spread of Eastern red cedars in Oklahoma. Wildfires weren't suppressed 100 years ago. They were endured. The fires consumed trees. Suppression leads to more tree growth in general and cedar growth in particular. Under certain conditions, cedars provide an ideal way for a wildfire to spread.

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