CBS’s Pelley Uses Wildfires to Prove Global Warming

With Southern California in the midst of dealing with disastrous wildfires, on Sunday’s "60 Minutes," anchor Scott Pelley used the issue to promote Global Warming ideology. He did a segment on wildfires in the American west and declared in traditional alarmist fashion: "It appears that we're living in a new age of mega-fires, forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing." It did not take long for Pelley to find the culprit for this crisis as he talked to University of Arizona professor, Tom Swetnam:

Swetnam says that climate change-- global warming-- has increased temperatures in the west about one degree, and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the journal "Science," and the world's leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions.

Earlier in the segment, Pelley talked to head of federal fire operations, Tom Boatner:

PELLEY: You wouldn't have expected to see this how recently?

BOATNER: We got records going back to 1960 of the acres burned in America, so that's 47 fire seasons. Seven of the ten busiest fire seasons have been since 1999.

Where is Al Gore when you need him? Of course Pelley himself is well on his way to winning his own Nobel Prize given his belief that "There is virtually no disagreement in the scientific community any longer about global warming." This belief was certainly reflected in the segment as Pelley made only brief mention of the real reason for an increase in the frequency and severity of the fires, "It turns out that the Forest Service is partly to blame, with a policy that it started 100 years ago...The policy was to try to putout all fires immediately." As Boatner explained, "Because we so successfully fought fire and eliminated fire from this ecosystem for 100 years...we've allowed a huge buildup of fuel in these woods." Following that quick glance at a counter argument, Pelley soon resumed his apocalyptic report.

Pelley described how the doom and gloom correlation between climate change and wildfires was discovered:

Swetnam found recent decades have been the hottest in 1,000 years. And recently, he and a team of top climate scientists discovered something else: A dramatic increase in fires high in the mountains, where fires were rare.

Perhaps the saddest moment of the segment was when Pelley and Swetnam mourned the loss of the great Ponderosa Pines:

PELLEY: Two mega-fires here killed nearly everything, even the Ponderosa Pines. You know, I was always taught that Ponderosas were big, robust trees that were built to withstand the fire.

SWETNAM: Yeah.

PELLEY: And that, when everything else burned off, the Ponderosas were still standing. But look at them.

SWETNAM: They... the Ponderosas are able to withstand the low severity fires where you get flames of maybe one to two or three feet high. But now, the behavior of these fires is off the scale.

When Swetnam made the dire prediction that "...maybe more than half of the forest land..." could be destroyed in wildfires, a shocked Pelley tried to wrap his mind around it, "Wait a minute. Did you just say that there's a reasonable chance we could lose half of the forests in the west?"

Pelley finally concluded the segment by asking Boatner, "You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change." To which Boatner responded:

You won't find them on the fire line in the American west anymore, because we've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or 15 years. We know what we're seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought, that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes.

I wonder how Pelley thinks people of Southern California would respond to being told they brought the wildfires on themselves?

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

SCOTT PELLEY: Every year, you can count on forest fires in the west like hurricanes in the east, but recently, there has been an enormous change in western fires. In truth, we've never seen anything like them in recorded history. It appears that we're living in a new age of mega-fires, forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing. To find out why this is happening, we went out on the fire line to see the burning of the American west. Last fire season was the worst in recorded history. This year is already a close second, with two months to go. More than eight million acres have burned this year already. These are the men and women facing the flames, elite federal firefighters called Hotshots. Nationwide, there are 92 Hotshot crews of 20 members each. We found these New Mexico Hotshots in the Salmon River mountains of Idaho. They'd set up camp in a burned-out patch of forest with fire raging all around. They were hitting the day, exhausted, halfway through a 14-day shift.

UNKNOWN MAN: If you guys want to go down and evaluate...

UNKNOWN MAN B: I'll take myself and a couple scouts and we'll go down there and take a look. I'm anticipating a mess today.

UNKNOWN MAN: Oh, yeah.

UNKNOWN MAN C: Sucks.

PELLEY: They found the mess they expected. The valley was engulfed in smoke. The flames blew through the firebreak lines they dug the day before.

UNKNOWN MAN: We were trying to turn the corner yesterday, and that's when it kind of blew out. I think we got more ground over here that's been taken. Any questions?

PELLEY: No question-- this day, the fire won. It surged across the mountain, forcing the Hotshots to evacuate. All across the west, crews are playing defense, often pulling back to let acres burn, but standing firm to save communities. One stand this season came in August at Ketchum, Idaho. Forecasters said it was 99% certain Ketchum would be lost if nothing was done. Fire crews came from across the nation. Local, state, federal-- 1,700, working around the clock from a mountainside camp.

UNKNOWN MAN D: Remember, as the winds come through, the fire wants to move uphill, downhill, wherever the thunderstorms push. It's going to move.

PELLEY: 300-foot flames headed for these homes. Residents evacuated.

PELLEY: We joined up with Tom Boatner, who, after 30 years on the fire line, is now the chief of fire operations for the federal government.

TOM BOATNER: A fire of this size and this intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years. They're commonplace these days.

PELLEY: Ten years ago, a big fire was what?

BOATNER: Ten years ago, if you had 100,000-acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire. And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now, we talk about 200,000-acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change.

PELLEY: And the biggest fires are what now?

BOATNER: We've had, I believe, two fires this summer that have been over 500,000 acres, half a million acres, and one of those was over 600,000 acres.

PELLEY: You wouldn't have expected to see this how recently?

BOATNER: We got records going back to 1960 of the acres burned in America, so that's 47 fire seasons. Seven of the ten busiest fire seasons have been since 1999.

PELLEY: You know what? It's hotter than hell right here.

BOATNER: It's... it's getting pretty damn hot.

PELLEY: Whoa, it is amazing.

BOATNER: So, you can imagine the challenge for young men and women with hand tools like this to come up here and try to put out a fire like this. But there's thousands of people down there with multimillion dollar homes that are counting on them to do that and doing that safely is our big challenge. We'll drop down the hill here.

PELLEY: It was 20 years ago that firefighters got their first glimpse of what was to come. This is Yellowstone in 1988, when a third of the national park burned. Since then, fires have broken records in nine states. Several mega-fires, like this one in Arizona, have burned over half a million acres each. Why are there more of these fires? It turns out that the Forest Service is partly to blame, with a policy that it started 100 years ago.

UNKNOWN MAN E: The forest fire firefighter service stops fires, forest, bush and grass fires.

PELLEY: The policy was to try to putout all fires immediately.

BOATNER: Because we so successfully fought fire and eliminated fire from this ecosystem for 100 years, because we thought that was the right thing to do, we've allowed a huge buildup of fuel in these woods. So now, when the fires get going, there's a lot more to burn than historically you would've seen in a forest like this.

PELLEY: Is it possible that we're going to get to the point where we have these mega-fires and we just can't fight them because they're too large?

BOATNER: Well, we're there already. We have identified numerous fires this summer that we know we can't put out with the resources we have available, because of the severity of the burning conditions and the size of the fires.

PELLEY: The severity of the burning and size of the fires caught the eye of Tom Swetnam, one of the world's leading fire ecologists. He wanted to know what's touched off this annual inferno and whether it's truly a historic change.

TOM SWETNAM: Here is the Giant Sequoia collection.

PELLEY: At the University of Arizona, Swetnam keeps a remarkable woodpile. This is the largest collection of tree rings in the world. His rings go back 9,000 years, and each tree ring captures one year of climate history. And if I'm reading this right, this ring right here is the birth of Christ.

SWETNAM: That's right.

PELLEY: Swetnam found recent decades have been the hottest in 1,000 years. And recently, he and a team of top climate scientists discovered something else: A dramatic increase in fires high in the mountains, where fires were rare.

SWETNAM: As the spring is arriving earlier because of warming conditions, the snow on these high mountain areas is melting and running off. The logs and the branches and the tree needles all can dry out more quickly and have a longer time period to be dry. And so there's a longer time period and opportunity for fires to start.

PELLEY: The spring comes earlier, so the fire season is just longer.

SWETNAM: That's right. The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole western U.S. so, actually, 78 days of average longer fire season in the last 15 years compared to the previous 15 or 20 years.

PELLEY: Swetnam says that climate change-- global warming-- has increased temperatures in the west about one degree, and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the Journal of Science, and the world's leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions. But what was news to the scientists, is something that Tom Boatner has noticed for about ten years now.

BOATNER: This kind of low brush would normally be really moist and actually be a fairly good barrier to fire. But as I look at this, I just see wilted leaves everywhere. There's no moisture left in them. They're dead.

PELLEY: And look how easily it's burning.

BOATNER: Yeah.

PELLEY: Straight up the hill.

BOATNER: Even at the end of August at 6,000 feet in the rocky mountains, this fire is just cooking right along.

PELLEY: Professor Swetnam wanted to show us just how much has changed, so he brought us to the top of Arizona's Mount Lemon. Two mega-fires here killed nearly everything, even the Ponderosa Pines. You know, I was always taught that Ponderosas were big, robust trees that were built to withstand the fire.

SWETNAM: Yeah.

PELLEY: And that, when everything else burned off, the Ponderosas were still standing. But look at them.

SWETNAM: They... the Ponderosas are able to withstand the low severity fires where you get flames of maybe one to two or three feet high. But now, the behavior of these fires is off the scale.

PELLEY: How much have things changed?

SWETNAM: Well, we're seeing century-old forests that had never sustained these kinds of fires before being razed to the ground.

PELLEY: Back at the battle to save Ketchum, Idaho, the day shift was coming off; night shift going on. How long does it take to bring afire like this under control?

BOATNER: Well this fire right now, this particular fire is about 45,000 acres, and they've been working on it for about 11 or 12 days and they've got it about 50% contained. And with any luck, they'll finish containing this fire in another four or five or six days.

PELLEY: Containing it meant fighting fire with fire. Using drip torches, they started a controlled burn around the town, creating a barrier so that when the forest fire hit, there would be nothing left to burn. These pre-burns are risky, though. Trees can torch suddenly and explosively, like these, sending embers up to a mile away. By daybreak on the 18th day, the gamble had paid off. The blaze came within 100 feet of some homes, but not one home was lost. It will take years for this forest to recover, but Tom Swetnam told us that, with these new super-hot fires, some forests may never grow back.

SWETNAM: Used to have forest soil here that might have been this deep. But now we're just down to rock.

PELLEY: You're just down to the rocks here.

SWETNAM: Yeah, yeah. So, you're down to mineral and sort of a rock, sort of armored soil. And that is not a good habitat for trees to re-establish.

PELLEY: Where do you think all this is headed?

SWETNAM: As fires continue to burn, these mega-fires continue to burn, we may see, ultimately, a majority-- maybe more than half of the forest land-- converting to other forest... other types of ecosystems.

PELLEY: Wait a minute. Did you just say that there's a reasonable chance we could lose half of the forests in the west?

SWETNAM: Yes, within some decades to a century, as warming continues and we continue to get large-scale fires.

PELLEY: Swetnam says that this is what we have to look forward to. He estimates that, in the southwest alone, nearly two million acres of forest are gone, and won't come back for centuries. The Hotshots are already planning for the next fire season. In 2006, the feds spent $2 billion on fire fighting, seven times more than just ten years ago. You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change.

BOATNER: You won't find them on the fire line in the American west anymore, because we've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or 15 years. We know what we're seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought, that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC