'By No Means Unusual': Media Used To Treat Wildfires Like They Were a Fact of Life. Because They Are.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
June 12, 2023

Always on the lookout for signs of climate apocalypse, mainstream U.S. media are reacting predictably to Canadian wildfires that last week blanketed their native Northeast in smoke.

But wildfires—and Canadians—have been annoying Americans since before there was an America. What has changed is the media's reflexive attribution of those fires to climate change.

The media trumpet data showing that U.S. wildfires have grown more extensive in recent decades. But the frequency and extent of wildfires have trended downward in Canada over that time, according to the country's National Forestry Database. And, zooming out in time, U.S. Forest Service data show that made-in-America wildfires are a fraction as extensive as they were 100 years ago.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service

A 1912 book, published by the Department of Agriculture, chronicles forest fires in New England and Canada dating back to 1706:

Dark days have been recorded for centuries. Usually there is a gradually increasing gloom until it becomes so dark that artificial light is necessary. This darkness may last a few hours or several days and decrease as gradually as it came. 

We are now able to show that dark days are due to dense smoke in the atmosphere, and that in this country forest and prairie fires have been the causes.

The media used to have some sense of historical perspective about wildfires.

1950, South China Morning Post:

The sun was purple in the Eastern United States to-day and the moon was blue, because smoke from the forest fires in Western Canada continued its world-wide travels on high altitude winds. …

[New York chief weatherman Ernie] Christie said the smoke pall was by no means unusual. Its particular heaviness this week was caused by the coincidental occurrence of wide-spread fires and not by unusual trans-continental winds.

Mr. Christie said reports of black snow were not uncommon and it was caused by similar weather conditions which blew coal smoke and cinders up into the snow clouds. 

1950, the Ontario Sun Times:

But citizens of Ontario, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the Middle Atlantic states watched the sky break out in patches of yellow, brown, pink, purple, and blue-black. …

Major-league baseball parks turned on their floodlights. At Cleveland, where the blackout hit early, an entire afternoon game was played under the lights for the first time in American League history. …

Frank McDougall, [Canada's] deputy minister of lands and forests, said such smoke clouds were not uncommon but were seldom so far-reaching.

But that was then. The harbingers of doom are everywhere now.

Media climate hysteria blots out coverage of factors that directly contribute to wildfires and that could be more readily addressed, including urban sprawl, reckless recreationalists, and poor forest management.