Western wildfires have dominated headlines in June — but media coverage focuses only on effects, while ignoring a major cause. We hear about an increase in the number and intensity of wildfires. And separately, we hear about ongoing global warming, like how May was the second-hottest on record globally behind only May 2010. Why aren’t those dots being connected?
There’s compelling evidence that talking about western wildfires without mentioning climate change is like talking about lung cancer without mentioning cigarettes. I want to walk you through what’s happening in the West right now, what the latest science tells us about why it’s happening, how it’s affecting people and wildlife in the region, and what we can do about it.
The latest major fires
The consequences of carbon pollution are immediately apparent to residents of Colorado this week. Tens of thousands of acres of forest have burned since lightning started the High Park Fire on June 9. Smoke has been wafting over Fort Collins, as stands of pines have been going up in dramatic blazes. The fire is already the second largest in the state’s history, exceeded only by the 2002 Hayman Fire. Of course, the High Park Fire is only partially contained, so it may well take the leader spot in the days to come. And conflagrations outside of Colorado Springs and Boulder have erupted this past week as well.
In the meantime, New Mexico is in the midst of fighting the largest wildfire in its history. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire has already burned nearly 300,000 acres, mostly in the Gila National Forest. This fire comes on the heels of the Las Conchas Fire last summer, which ranked as the largest New Mexico wildfire at the time. What’s worse, heavy rainstorms after the fire was extinguished led to major flooding and erosion. Sediment and ash were washed downstream into the Rio Grande, affecting drinking water for Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico.
Climate change is literally fueling these and other major fires in western states.
In fact, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas have all had fires since last year that ranked as one of the two largest in their histories. The frequency and extent of fires in recent decades is unlikely to happen under natural conditions. With one catastrophic fire after another, it is clear that something quite different is happening to our forests.
Climate trends and forest fires
Climate scientists have identified several ways that a warming planet will increase forest fire risk. Not surprisingly, all of these factors are fanning the fires we’ve been seeing recently in the western United States.
Longer fire seasons: Western forests typically become combustible within a month of the snowpack melting, which is happening one to four weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago. This year, an unusually warm and dry winter resulted in one of the smallest snowpacks in Colorado history. As of June 1, the snowpack was only 2 percent of its normal extent.
Drier conditions: Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and more intense droughts to the Southwest, perhaps shifting the area to a more arid climate. As of the end of May, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas all had areas in the grip of severe and extreme drought.
More fuel for forest fires: Widespread beetle infestations have left broad swaths of dead and highly combustible trees in their wake. Higher temperatures enhance winter survival of mountain pine beetles and allow for a more rapid lifecycle. Ecologists in Colorado recently confirmed that beetle populations are able to complete two generations during longer, warmer summers, leading to a possible 60-fold increase in the number of beetles.
Increased frequency of lightning is expected as thunderstorms become more severe. In the western United States lightning strikes could increase by 12 percent to 30 percent by mid-century. Both the High Park fire in Colorado and the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico were ignited by lightning.
Bearing the costs
Communities can be rocked by wildfires. During the last decade, property losses in the U.S. have averaged $1 billion annually. Take the town of Bastrop, Texas, home to just over 7,000 people who braved the most catastrophic wildfire that state had ever seen last fall. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed and two people lost their lives. Insured property losses for the fire totaled $325 million, and clean-up cost another $25 million. That’s on top of the millions spent to put out the fire in the first place. Dealing with these sorts of disasters also takes an emotional toll on people, as discussed in a recent National Wildlife Federation report on the psychological impacts of climate change.
Firefighters are having to adapt to the new wildfire realities. They are struggling to keep up with these longer fire seasons, which in some places are now effectively year-round, leaving little time to regroup and prepare for the next incident. Moreover, they are finding it harder to control fires, in part because fires are less likely to quiet down at night like they used to. Nighttime conditions are hotter and drier, meaning that fires can stay active around the clock.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for fighting these fires. The cost of wildfire suppression — about $3 billion a year — has tripled in the United States since the late 1990s. The majority of these expenses are borne by the U.S. Forest Service, which now spends around half of its annual budget on fighting fires.
Wildlife is not immune to the impacts of increasing fire frequency and intensity. Many ecosystems have evolved so that episodic fires are part of their natural rhythms, but are struggling to cope with the new fire patterns. These mega-fires are trapping animals that would otherwise be able to flee, causing widespread habitat destruction, and even causing wholesale landscape conversion.
Cutting carbon pollution can reduce risk
To prevent wildfires from getting much worse, and to limit the risks to communities and wildlife, we must reduce carbon pollution. Recently a new climate study came out making projections that many areas of the world, including the western United States, should expect even more fires if we continue spewing carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
Amanda Staudt is a Senior Scientist in the National Wildlife Foundation’s Climate and Energy Program. This piece was originally published by NWF.