The heat is on: How climate change is making Western wildfires worse


A firefighter climbs a burning hillside at the La Tuna Canyon Fire in Los Angeles County. With 7,200 acres burned, it’s one of the largest fires ever to hit the area.

Let’s look at the other set of natural disasters that is being exacerbated by climate change.

Major wildfires are burning in British Columbia in western Canada and in at least nine states throughout the American West: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. California, Montana, and Oregon are bearing the worst of it. So far in 2017, more than 8 million acres have burned. More than 26,000 firefighters are working on controlling the roughly 80 major fires still burning. Homes are being evacuated or burned to the ground. It often rains in Seattle; it does not, however, usually rain ash.

The state of Montana is being described as a fiery apocalypse. Wildfires have been burning for months across the western half of the state, over 1 million acres have burned, and two firefighters have died. Gov. Steve Bullock has declared a statewide fire disaster, having already declared state fire emergencies in July and August. Bullock has deployed the Montana National Guard as firefighters. “Montana is in one of the worst fire seasons in modern history and on its way to becoming the most expensive,” he said in his declaration.

The smoke has gotten so bad that it is causing health problems. In the worst-hit areas, people with respiratory illnesses and heart conditions are being advised not to go outside. Residents are forced to cover their mouths and noses with scarves and masks to avoid breathing in smoke and ash. In Montana, the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality warned of “unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality and advised all people in western Montana to avoid prolonged outdoor exposure. Parts of the state are described as having air quality as bad as Beijing’s. Even if you live elsewhere, you can still be affected: The amount of smoke is great enough that it’s drifting across the rest of the country.

There are 23 fires burning in California, throughout the entire state. The huge La Tuna fire in the Los Angeles area is now mostly contained, but it might be rekindled if winds pick up. And high temperatures are making conditions worse: At least 15 cities in the state have had their hottest summers on record. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees in San Francisco, where summer usually means wearing a jacket. Up until this year, the average summer temperature in June, July, and August for the entire state was 70.4 degrees. This summer, that average is 73.6.

The National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildfire-fighting, reports that about 500 single-family homes and 32 commercial buildings have been destroyed, and nine firefighters have died overall.

National parks are not immune: Fires have hit Glacier National Park in Montana and are nearing Yosemite National Park in California as well as Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The fires have burned buildings and are threatening Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier and a grove of 2,700-year-old sequoia trees near Yosemite (the trees’ thick bark helped them survive). The Multnomah Falls Lodge, threatened by the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, seems to have escaped destruction only because of heroic actions by a group of firefighters.

Welcome to climate change inferno.

There are wildfires in the U.S. every summer, and they are a natural part of a forest ecosystem, clearing away overgrown underbrush. Just like the catastrophic hurricanes hitting the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and the Southeast U.S., wildfires are not caused by global warming. They are just worse because of it.

Some wildfires are started by lightning strikes, but human activity is responsible for 84 percent of fires. Authorities say the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon, which has burned 31,000 acres and joined another wildfire, started when a teenager threw some fireworks into a dry canyon.

Wildfires aren’t just raging in the United States. Nearly 3 million acres have burned in British Columbia, the most ever lost to wildfire in the province. In Portugal in June, 62 people died as fire swept through the center of the country. A series of wildfires tore through southern and central Chile in January, where a prolonged drought and high temperatures combined to make the fires worse and burn 700,000 acres. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the fires “the greatest forest disaster in our history.”

Today, there are a lot more fires, their severity is worse, and the fire season lasts longer. A study from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute says the increase in fires is due in part to “warmer temperatures, dry summers, below-average winter precipitation, or earlier spring snow melt.” Other points from the study:

  • Large forest fires in the western U.S. have been occurring nearly five times more often since the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Such fires are burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer.

Other factors can be added to the mix:

  • Years of past fire suppression means that fires have more kindling to fuel them.
  • Less logging in the northwest means that more trees are available to burn.
  • Warmer weather means greater survival of the mountain pine beetles that have killed off big swaths of pine forests. Dead trees are more likely to burn than live, healthy ones. At the same time, higher temperatures and drought mean that stressed trees are less likely to survive a beetle infestation.
  • Warmer temperatures mean more evaporation of the moisture that is available, making vegetation and land drier and more susceptible to burning. Even after a relatively wet winter, record-breaking heat still caused enough drying out to create fodder for large fires.
  • Widespread drought, including the unprecedented drought in Montana and the Dakotas, makes fires more likely. And how clueless is it when Donald Trump tells people in North Dakota that at least they’re “better off” than victims of Hurricane Harvey?
  • The amount of carbon released in the air during a huge wildfire means the fires themselves contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • More homes are being built closer to areas prone to wildfires, putting 1.2 million homes in 13 states at higher risk of burning. Fighting fires to save those homes adds to the overall bill.

According to a story in Inside Climate News:

“These unprecedented extreme events, on the daily to the seasonal scale, are exactly the types of events that are more likely due to the global warming that’s already occurred,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. “That’s not so much a future projection, but an observational reality, and that’s something we expect to increase in the future. When we get these extremes, there’s a human fingerprint.” …

Nine of the 10 worst fire seasons in the past 50 years have all happened since 2000, and 2015 was the worst fire season in U.S. history, surpassing 10 million acres for the first time on record. So far this year, wildfires in the U.S. have burned 8 million acres, but the fire season is far from over. (In 2015, 8.4 million acres had burned by early September.) The average fire season is 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s—now nearly seven months—beginning and extending beyond the typical heat of summer.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, every state in the western U.S. has experienced a 75 percent increase in the average annual number of large wildfires over past decades. The extreme heat waves in the western U.S. have only made the problem worse. These points are from a report the group published in 2014, but they’re just as true today:

  • Temperatures in the American West have gone up quickly. Since 1970, they have increased by about twice the global average.
  • Snow melts earlier in the spring. Hotter, drier conditions last longer than they used to. The result is a longer wildfire season and conditions that are primed for wildfires to ignite and spread.
  • This is a recent and dangerous alteration of the natural, long-standing, and necessary role of wildfires as part of the forest landscape.
  • The threat of wildfires is projected to worsen over time as rising temperatures lead to more frequent, large, and severe wildfires and longer fire seasons.
  • Since 1970, regional temperatures have increased by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. By mid-century, temperatures are expected to increase an additional 2.5 to 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

What is the response of the Trump administration, besides climate denial from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt? Trump proposes to cut the budget of the Dept. of Agriculture’s Forest Service, which also coordinates response to wildfires. Its wildfire fighting program would be cut by $300 million. Wildfire prevention efforts would be cut by $50 million. And volunteer fire departments would get a 23 percent reduction.

All of these cuts are proposed despite the fact that fire suppression costs have skyrocketed. The cost of fighting wildfires went from $440 million in 1985 to more than $1.7 billion in 2013.

Rising temperatures from climate change mean more wildfires, longer fire seasons, and a more widespread area affected by fire. Isn’t it time that people started accepting the obvious?

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 10, 2017.

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