Like global temperatures, U.S. wildfires on the rise

More 'unpredictable' wildfires slated for future in U.S., Australia and Russia

By Nicholas Nehamas

Forest fires are common in nature. But they’re becoming more common, experts say.

So far this summer, fires have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of forest, forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes and killed a handful of residents and firefighters. In Colorado Springs alone, fires have burnt 18,000 acres of land, forced 36,000 people to evacuate the city and killed two people.

Unfortunately, fires are just a part of the problem — how and where we build houses also determines what’s at stake when flames rage out of control. As scientists warn that extreme, unpredictable weather will be the new normal on a warming globe, Latitude News wondered: Is the U.S. doing everything it can to get out of Mother Nature’s way? Are there countries we can look to for examples of good preparation?

We went to Boulder, Colorado to see what the locals thought.

Don Enlow. (Jim Mimna)

Enlow: “It’s a natural thing for a forest to burn . . .”

Enlow is right that fires are “natural,” but climate change is redefining the word. In the wooded Rocky Mountains, fires have have grown more violent and damaging, a shift experts say should be no surprise.

“Warming in the western U.S. has been higher than the global average,” Anthony Westerling, a professor in the Environmental Engineering and Geography Department at the University of California, Merced, told Latitude News. “We’re seeing earlier snow melt, higher temperatures, worse droughts and, as a result, an extension of the fire season. The period in which fires are seen has grown by a couple of months in the last few decades. That’s a dramatic lengthening.”

Scientists say climate data predicts a trend of more wildfires out West. “You can’t attribute one event in isolation to climate change,” says Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech, in an interview with Latitude News. “But what we can do is look at changes in the frequency of fires, and long term changes in climate like warming that are conducive to fire.”

Hayhoe also points to local problems that interact with climate change, like a pine beetle infestation that’s blighting much of the West. As the winters grow shorter, she says, the beetles live longer, killing more trees and creating more wood for fires to burn.

 Signs left by residents in Colorado Springs. (Reuters)

It isn’t helping that Colorado Springs, home to a fervent anti-tax movement, has cut funding for police and firefighters, Bloomberg News reported. In the absence of law enforcement in the ravaged city, thieves have looted abandoned homes.

Hard science?

Many Americans don’t believe in man-made climate change. All but one of this year’s Republican presidential candidates publicly said global warming isn’t real, despite the abundance of scientific evidence to the contrary. In Boulder, John E.V., who didn’t want us to use his complete last name, provides a representative viewpoint.

John E.V. (Jim Mimna)

Joe E.V.: “2002, look at it people. Smelled just like today . . .”

Hayhoe recently co-authored a study in the journal Ecosphere that showed wildfires aren’t solely an American problem. She and other scientists found that climate change could alter fire patterns in around 80 percent of the globe by the end of the century.

“In some areas like the tropics,” she says, “we’ll actually see a decrease in the risk of fire, which isn’t necessarily a good thing either,” as natural wildfires clean and renew forest environments.

In other places with landscapes like the American West, however, fires will become more common. Both Westerling and Hayhoe point to areas in Alaska, Canada, Mongolia and Russia as likely hot spots, given their current relatively dry climates and dense forest coverage.

Siberia is currently experiencing a 1,200-acre blaze, the BBC reports, that has claimed the lives of eight Russian firefighters. But the threat of forest fires doesn’t seem to have registered with the country’s political leadership. President Vladimir Putin recently fired 70,000 forest rangers who serve as the taiga’s first line of defense against wildfires.

Countries with sweltering, dry climates like Greece and Spain are also vulnerable to fire. Both are experiencing blazes during the long, hot summer of 2012.

You can see a real-time map of global fires compiled by NASA here.

Where there’s smoke, there’s houses

Are we choosing to live in wilderness areas that rightfully belong to the fires? Canada and Russia especially have wide open spaces where wildfires burn freely. But in the U.S., suburban sprawl often means Americans are building neighborhoods where fires are likely to strike.

“If people build their homes in these areas, it makes it harder to fight fires and makes them more vulnerable,” argues Westerling. “You have to change firefighting strategies to protect houses instead of focusing on containing the fire.”

Westerling added that man-made fires — whether arson or accidental — probably aren’t to blame for the increase in wildfires. Lightning causes most blazes, he says.

Jean Strumbos. (Jim Mimna)

Strumbos: “That area wants to burn. But we want to live there because it’s so beautiful . . .”

Land use is hard to change. But the U.S. government is shifting its strategies in firefighting. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. Forestry Service is now experimenting with “prescribed fires,” or controlled blazes that rangers set to clear underbrush and reduce naturally occurring wildfires.

But our government could also do a better job of making sure firefighters are insured and have the best available equipment. The crash of a C-130 tanker plane in South Dakota, for example, is prompting a review of America’s aging airborne firefighting fleet. Four airmen died in the accident.

Max Moritz, a faculty member of the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, says Americans have to learn how to co-exist with fire again. Each ecosystem has its own kind of natural fire, according to Moritz, who was the lead author of the Ecosphere article that Hayhoe also worked on. Some regions have frequent, low-intensity burns, he said. Others rely on sporadic but large-scale infernos.

“When you think about how to manage fire, how to build and live on fire-prone lands, it’s a complicated, difficult issue, especially with climate change on the horizon,” he tells Latitude News. “We’re still building homes in dangerous areas, and we have to understand what the right kind of fire is for a given ecosystem and how we can get it back onto the land.”

Moritz adds that Australia has faced similar problems with housing built in areas where wildfires are common. But he said Australians have been careful to ban construction materials that are most likely to burn. “They have a different set of building codes, a stricter stance,” he says. “They’ve been a little more deliberate and careful about getting that science into their building and planning. In the U.S., we still have some way to go.”

Audio recorded by Jim Mimna in Boulder, Colorado.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a line in this article incorrectly implied that, during the 20th century, higher precipitation in the Rocky Mountains followed by a period drought caused lush vegetation to turn into easily combustible tinder. That is true of the American southwest, not the Rockies.