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An Open Letter to Poynter Institute and Facebook – Fuel and Poor Forest Management is the Main Factor in Australian Wildfires, Not Human-caused Climate Change

ATTN: Neil Brown, President, Poynter Institute

ATTN: Julia Bain, Integrity Partnerships Lead, Facebook

Dear Mr. Brown and Ms. Bain,

RE: Fact Check Challenge – An Open Letter

Your International Fact Check Network project is misreporting the facts. Please ask us for our rationale and supporting evidence before issuing Facebook ‘page quality’ limitations.

Most recently, the issue of the Australian wildfires and two of our postings about the events were flagged as “false news” – claiming to have been fact checked by ONE scientist, Stephan Doerr, of Swansea University.

On December 19, 2019, Neil Brown sent out a year end appeal for donations for Poynter Institute writing:

A free press is essential to our democratic way of life. …Poynter equips local journalists with the skills they need to answer the questions you want to know:

The “who.” The “what.” The “where.” The “when.” And most importantly, the “why.”

Because questions of “why” are the ones that keep us up at night. They’re the most complicated. The ones that get brushed aside when the rest of the world moves on. The ones that require time, persistence and courage to answer.

It is in this regard that the International Fact Check Network, Poynter Institute and Facebook have failed democracy by relying on a single scientist to denounce valid reporting on the many aspects of Australian wildfires. Facebook reaches 2.45 billion people or more, and facebook’s mission is:

Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

Shouldn’t that community have the benefit of broad insight into complex issues?

While your joint International Fact Check Network project is well intentioned, we believe that your participating/contributing scientists are presenting only a small slice of climate reality, and one that is imbued with an alleged ‘consensus’ view. The fact that a monolithic corporation like Facebook and a small contingent of group-think scientists and journalists can limit discussion on important topics like climate change, simply because they reject dissenting views, is contrary to the fundamental principles of the US First Amendment.

While Facebook is a private company and therefore free to set policies as it pleases, if Facebook were a corner store or vanity press, it would be of little consequence. However in this case, by avoiding the factual discussions on the Australian wildfires and instead focussing on the irrelevant element of human-caused climate change – we believe that you are preventing thoughtful consideration of appropriate policies to deal with wildfires, and thereby contributing to the multi-trillion dollar waste of public funds thrown at ‘climate change’ for any disaster-flavour-of-the-week. This poses a threat to public safety in wildfire-risk areas worldwide.

Furthermore, as Facebook is set to launch “Libra” and Mark Carney, new climate envoy at the UN has in the past publicly referenced this digital currency as a replacement for the US dollar as the reserve standard, it appears that Facebook policies may be slanted in favor of the climate catastrophe agenda for commercial purposes. This is not transparently stated anywhere.

Our detailed argument deconstructing the Climate Feedback “Fact Check” follows. We hope that future Climate Feedback commentaries include a proper assessment of the ‘why’ of complex issues like wildfires and climate change, and not just hand-waving.

We request of facebook that you immediately clear the Friends of Science Society’s Facebook page of any ‘page quality’ issues, as we have clearly provided evidence that refutes Climate Feedback’s ‘fact-check.’

We request of Climate Feedback that you first ask us for supporting evidence for our claims before issuing your journalistic condemnation of our work. As with the story of the “CLINTEL 500 Scientists say No Climate Emergency” story, which you – Poynter Institute and IFCN – effectively blocked from mainstream media while claiming to be a bastion of freedom of the press, you have done a great disservice to the millions of people around the world who are unnecessarily afraid of an apocalyptic end of the world. We deem your review of CLINTEL to have very low scientific credibility and it should be retracted.

Thank you for your review of the following factual critique of Climate Feedback’s ‘Fact Check’ on our facebook postings of these Australian wildfire stories. We request that our rebuttal be posted on your Climate Feedback site to encourage freedom of the press and open, civil debate.

Sincerely,

Friends of Science Society

Fuel and Poor Forest Management is the Main Factor in Australian Wildfires, Not Human-caused Climate Change

Compiled by Michelle Stirling, Communications Manager for Friends of Science Society, with files from Rob Scagel. © Jan. 13, 2020

Climate Feedback claims that stories of Australian arsonists or poor forest management are not true – they claim that climate change is the culprit. To this end, Facebook has limited Friends of Science Society’s page and put up a page quality notice that the stories posted are ‘false news.’

We dispute Climate Feedback’s commentary and will show in this document that Facebook is wrongly preventing the ~2.45 billion facebook user community from learning about the real causes of wildfires. It’s fuel, not human-caused climate change.

On Facebook, Chris Dynon of Australia does a bit of a ‘walk about’ in the brush near his residence to show people the fuel load (burnable material) that should have been burnt back in prescribed fires. “Prescribed fires” are controlled fires done by relevant authorities during cooler times when there is low wind, so as to reduce the dead wood or highly flammable shrubs which create the very tragic fuel load outcomes we are witnessing today in Australia.

Chris Dynon video:
https://www.facebook.com/chris.dynon/videos/10216306351231927/

We sent this video and Climate Feedback’s Prof. Doerr commentary to our wildfire and forestry expert here in Canada.

Here is our Facebook post and our wildfire expert’s response: (we include some screenshots from the Chris Dynon video).

We got a message from Facebook on a Climate Feedback factcheck, related to Australia wildfires. They claim a story we posted about Aussie fires started by arsonists and lightning – not climate change. Climate Feedback says that is misleading and that though authorities are investigating causes, that does not preclude climate change as a factor. Here’s the Climate Feedback story.
And here’s the Australian Bureau of Met explaining the past year.

As others have pointed out, even if the land is bone dry, if there is nothing to ignite, there won’t be any big wildfires. Here’s a fellow named Chris Dynon doing a ‘walkabout’ with his camera, showing the build up of dead fuel on the ground and light shrubs. This is catastrophic for wildfire risk. https://www.facebook.com/chris.dynon/videos/10216306351231927/

We sent this video to a Canadian forestry/wildfire specialist who responded with these comments: (screenshots from Chris Dynon’s video included here)

“Yes indeed, exciting stand structure. Think California chaparral under a canopy.

Heat is proportional to the fourth power of weight of fuel. Doubling even a sparse fuel loading has a huge consequence for fire intensity.

Speed is inversely proportional to bulk density of surface fuel and fuel bed depth.

Three things to note (in the video):

  1. Previous fire scorch height is only 2-3m. This is low intensity, fast moving fire from a completely different stand structure. Current stand condition would generate 5-6m scorch height and crowning.
Chris Dynon

2. Lots of coarse debris on the ground. Stand is aging and trees are dying. Lots of cured standing dead. As the stand breaks up lots of ingress creating additional laddering above a cribbed surface fuel load. Broken stand structure generates chimneying.

3. Surface fuels that were previously herbaceous and cured grass, now replaced by accumulating leaf and bark nested in woody perennial shrubs. It is worse than just the biomass increase. Fuel bed bulk density is very low, and the resinous vegetation and debris makes for extreme combustibility. Think gasoline-soaked vegetation.

This isn’t ClimateChange but stand succession without fire disturbance. Nothing magic or special here except for romantic nutter bureaucracy.

What makes this so dangerous is, like British Columbia, the worst stand structure is most likely closest to and in communities – like Paradise, CA. Proximity to communities also increases the probability of ignition.

Paradise, CA from Google Maps images. How it looked prior to the catastrophic Camp Fire. Please read “Camp Fire the tragedy we were all warned about.”

Adding to the danger is that fire suppression methods and community structure and building codes that were adequate for the previous fire regime completely fail with these stand replacing fires.

It ain’t the global Climate – it is us and our neglected backyards.
We either put up with a little bit of smoke every year or have these infrequent cataclysmic events. “
….

So Facebook and Climate Feedback, looks like our expert says it is NOT climate change.

Since climate change is typically evaluated in cycles/patterns over periods of 30, 50, 100 and 1,000 years and up, a one-or-two-year drought is just part of natural variability and not a sign of climate change. It is worth noting that during the Medieval Warm Period, California had periods of 100-and-200-year droughts. Now THAT’s climate change. The Australian tragedy does not fit those kind of parameters. Will Facebook put a note on Climate Feedback’s page, telling them to stop distributing fake news?

Graph shows megadroughts in California’s history. This is climate change.

Climate Change Has Become the Great Diversion – Funds Diverted from Practical Solutions

Friends of Science Society is tired of seeing billions of dollars recklessly thrown at any ‘climate change’ cause, while a few million dollars, properly applied to forestry wildfire risk management would save lives and property in any forested region of the world. Climate change has become a diversion and now people are dead and much of a continent in flames, because proper fire risk management measures were not taken.

We know wildfires very well in Canada, and we know that human-causation, whether intentional like arson, or accidental, like negligent campers or an ATV spark, or incidental, like human power lines sparking branches, are major factors. The following statistics are from Alberta Environment (2011). Note there is an increase in human causation in the 5-year trend as more people become active in the woods, or move to acreages, but fewer have any wilderness training or skills.

Alberta Environment 2011

Regarding Prof. Doerr’s Climate Feedback commentary on the stories in question, our wildfire expert explains why Doerr’s commentary is false news, beginning with the fact that Prof. Doerr couches his commentary (in the middle, not at the beginning) by saying: “While a precise attribution study will be needed to quantify the influence of climate change on this specific series of fires in Australia…”

Thus, his commentary is imprecise and not based on evidence.

As Neil Brown, President of Poynter Institute has written about the ‘who, what, when, where, and why’ of journalism:

And most importantly, the “why.”

Because questions of “why” are the ones that keep us up at night. They’re the most complicated. The ones that get brushed aside when the rest of the world moves on. The ones that require time, persistence and courage to answer.

Let us first find the courage to ask the right questions and not leap to the ‘human-caused climate change’ assumption. Assumption can be deadly.

Wildfire is a complex reality, but it is a reality that does not require the invocation of the magical thinking of ClimateChange™. Let us examine the ‘why’ of the Australian wildfires.

1) Claim the fires are unprecedented or dry conditions are caused by human-caused climate change

There is a lack of veracity about the historical claims being made in this commentary: unprecedented, etc.

Australia is subject to the unpredictable swings of the warm El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and cool La Nina cycles, both of which can wreak havoc on Australia. These are natural phenomenon unrelated to human-caused climate change.

In Brian Fagan’s book “The Great Warming” he notes that:

“During the intense El Nino cycles of 1870-1900, New South Wales and Victoria in Australia turned into dustbowls, with huge forest fires and dust storms lasting for days. Millions of sheep perished; crops failed over a wide area.” (pp 203)

The South Asian Monsoon has also set precedents: “The South Asian monsoon failed again in 1789, and the failure was followed by intense droughts that descended on Australia, Mexico, and southern Africa in 1790.” (pp 206)

The cooler La Nina phase can be damaging as well. “The less conspicuous, and often longer-lasting, La Nina can be just as destructive, especially in its ability to nurture drought over large tracts of land” …” the cool, dry sister of El Nino persisted for years.” (pp 232)

Fagan notes that people living on marginal land ‘are at the mercy of ENSO droughts” (pp 238), so to state the present conditions are unprecedented is untrue.

2) Wildfire factors not reviewed by IFCN/Climate Feedback or Professor Doerr

The International Fact Check Network, Climate Feedback, journalists and Prof. Doerr, need to start to define their terms:
• magnitude – numbers of ignitions, spatial size,
• frequency – numbers of fires (spatial), ignition events (temporal)
• severity – speed, fuel consumption,
• consequences – human habitation, other human values.
• drought – drought is an extremely complex phenomena that must be defined. Drought is being used in the Climate Feedback “Fact Check” commentary in a generic, biblical matter, that does not permit comment in this analysis.

These words and phrases above have been emphasized as they require clarification. They are not discussed in the commentary that claims to debunk the articles in question. Why not? Why are these essential wildfire factors not even addressed?

3) Assume the climate is completely stable (which we know is false – see Brian Fagan notes above)

Let us indulge in a thought experiment.
Let us assume that the Climate is stable. Hyper stable. A climate in which every year the same weather occurs. Year in, year out.
Even under such a regime, forest stands age and fuels accumulate.
The fire risk increases.

a) Rate of spread
• Fine fuels are the principle source of ignition. The amount of fine fuel is not as important as the distribution of these fuels.
• As stands age and fuels accumulate the distribution of these fuels increases over the landscape and the continuity of increase.
• As the continuity of fuels increases the initial rate of fire spread increases.
• No need to invoke ClimateChange™.

b) Probability of ignition
• Fuels ignite because of their moisture content. This is known as the equilibrium moisture content.
• Equilibrium moisture content is a function of temperature, humidity, and exposure.
• Fuels in exposed sunlight and open conditions subject to wind equilibrate in less than an hour.
• Once you get to a certain temperature: usually 30°C and 30% RH, the equilibrium moisture can decrease no further.
• Doesn’t matter how much hotter or drier the air temperature or the soil moisture the fine fuel will not get drier.
• This is the point at which the probability of ignition is 100%.
• This is fundamentally what happened at Slave Lake and Fort McMurray. You do not need to have 50°C temperatures and dry soils to have catastrophic conflagrations.

c) Ignition source
Even without ClimateChange™ human population has increased, land use practices – industrial and recreational – change, and infrastructure has been continuously built into the accumulating fuels of the interface. This increases the number of ignition sources. Human infrastructure and stand structure can also increase the occurrences in lightening interception. You don’t even need to invoke the reprobate behavior arsonists to understand that even without ClimateChange™ the number of ignition sources has increased.

d) Head fire intensity
• Head fire intensity (HFI) describes the heat generated along the flaming front of wildfire.
• HFI is directly proportional to the amount fuel. The heat generated at the flaming front is proportional to the 4th power of the amount of fuel (kg/m³) that is burning.
• Stand succession without stand disturbance results in increasing amount of fuel that can be engaged in a conflagration and increases the heat.
• As surface fuel HFI increases it eventually generates enough radiant energy that the stand canopy can be engaged in a proliferation – a pyroclastic pyre.
• Eventually the combination of HFI, the area actively engaged in a conflagration, and crowning can release enough energy and debris that it generates its own weather systems that further proliferate the pyroclastic pyre.
• One you get to about 8-10,000 kWhr/m of flaming front wildfire suppression direct suppression is no longer physically possible.

4) Review statistical norms of the last 30 years
Now let’s relax the artificial hyper stable conditions of the thought experiment and consider say the statistical normal for the last 30-years.

Remember that head fire intensity is proportional to the 4th power of the fuel load? Basically, small changes in fuel load result in large increases in fire behaviour.

Normal successional increases in fuel load quickly exceed anything that the statistical weather normals. Even under extreme weather conditions, say 95th percentile which is how we plan wildfire abatement here in Canada.

5) Review weather inputs for a century
Finally, the weather. If one refines the weather inputs to deal with the 95th weather percentiles for century long period of records to represent the historical extremes, adding warmer temperatures, allegedly from human-causation, one can still not account for the effects of fuel load.

6) Conclusion
• Fuel rules.
• ClimateChange™ is not just irrelevant. Spending resources and intellectual capital on such considerations is as effective at mitigating wildfire as changing the colour of the paper used in reporting wildfires.

As we have published on our Facebook page:
Facebook factcheckers have been targeting stories claiming they are misleading because they question the anthropogenic contribution to fires. I wonder if they are flagging articles claiming they are because AGW. I doubt it. Stefan Doerr and Emmanuel Vincent the two fact-checkers may want to brush up on the science behind natural variability. Facebook is censoring science they do not agree with. ”Eight megadroughts are identified in eastern Australia including one 39-year drought (A.D. 1174–1212), which occurred during an unprecedented century of aridity (A.D. 1102–1212).”

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GL062447

Aside from the foregoing facts, we find it deeply concerning that Climate Feedback editor Emmanuel Vincent is working with a cognitive scientist to manipulate messaging to the public and that he is not an unbiased or nonpartisan individual, as IFCN and Climate Feedback claim him to be.

Vincent is working with Professor Teenie Matlock, who started the Center for Climate Communications as part of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. Matlock, a cognitive scientist who, in part, studies the semantics of politically charged language, plans to collaborate with Vincent to learn about how scientists’ comments affect readers’ perception of articles’ credibility.

One challenge science journalists face is conveying highly technical information to audiences that have little or no scientific expertise. Scientists can also find it difficult to communicate their work on a level the general public can understand and relate to. Another challenge, Vincent and Matlock said, is that language about climate change naturally includes uncertainty, and even though uncertainty is part of everyday life, some people are uncomfortable with it.

Vincent also employs the abhorrent epithet ‘denier’.

“I don’t think we’re going to change the minds of hardcore believers or deniers,” Vincent said. “My goal is to speak to the people in the middle who might be confused by the amount of contradictory information coming at them and just say ‘I don’t really know.’”

According to his CV, Vincent’s credentials* include: “…studying how the ocean controls hurricanes intensity and how hurricanes can in turn influence the climate via their interaction with the ocean.” It is difficult to see how this qualifies him to edit commentary on wildfires.

In Conclusion

We have shown that fuel conditions in the Australian bush are the most relevant factors in the massive spread of recent, tragic wildfires, and that climatic conditions at present have been seen before and will be seen again due to the ENSO cycle.

Comments may be posted below in the online post – please be civil and argue the evidence.

Updated to capitalize Facebook.

Updated to reflect the CV of the correct Emmanuel Vincent. Thanks to the sharp eyes of a commentator.

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Roman

    Climate change has become an empty rhetorical vessel into which is poured any natural or man-made weather problem on the planet. Keep up the good work in explaining that local weather does not equal climate change, and that many disasters are caused by multiple factors of which climate change may not be one.

  2. wkblair

    More support. What about the Australian fires of 1939 – caused by climate change?
    https://youtu.be/srG7Hy8ySI4

  3. Joao

    There is a mistake on your part when you describe Emmanuel Vincent’s CV: “According to his CV, Vincent’s credentials are in mathematics, acoustics and computer science (telecommunications and electronic engineering).”

    I believe you must have come to that conclusion from the following page belonging to a different Emmanuel Vincent, which can be found here: https://members.loria.fr/EVincent/cv/

    The Emmanuel Vincent that collaborates with Climate Feedback is a different person, who has the following CV:
    http://emmanuel.vincent.earth/
    https://sciencefeedback.co/team-advisors-contributors/

    • fosadmin

      Thank you very much. We apologize to the other Emmanuel Vincent for this error and we will update the blog post. Also, apologies to you for the delay; your comment had bounced into ‘spam’ – only just found. Thanks for your help.

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