Ecocentric

Climate Change Plays a Role in Wildfires—But Not the Only One

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Wildfires have burned tens of thousands of acres in Colorado. What's behind the inferno?

The West is burning. The early weeks of summer have been marked by brutal forest fires in states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah and most of all Colorado, where that state is grappling with the worst fires in its history. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of July 3, 45 large active wildfires were burning through 15 states, and since January 1, fires have incinerated nearly 2.2 million acres across the country. And while the weather has calmed somewhat in recent days, allowing firefighters to get on top of some of the worst blazes, the expectations are that flames will continue to burn throughout the long, hot summer of 2012.

So why are so many wildfires blazing out of control? Blame the weather first—the unusually warm winter meant that the fire season started earlier than usual, while the lack of snowfall meant that dry forests literally became tinder waiting for a spark. Add in the brutally hot and dry weather much of the country has experienced so far this summer—the national weather map looks like a U.S.-shaped burn mark—and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for wildfires, often ignited by lightning or even tossed cigarettes, that will burn hot and long, destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee for safety.

If the weather has primed the ground for the wildfires, though, what’s behind the weather? To many scientists and environmental advocates, the answer is simple: climate change. 2012 has been extraordinarily warm throughout much of the country since the first day of January, but that only continues a trend of increasing temperatures and longer, hotter summers. 3,215 daily high temperature records were broken this June alone. So far this summer is, as the climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck told the AP’s Seth Borenstein, “what global warming looks like… The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire.”

But as important as global warming is to the raging fires in charred states like Colorado, it’s not the only factor—and no scientist would go so far as to say that climate change had caused one fire or another. While we’re changing the climate—loading the dice, in the climate scientist Michael Mann’s term, to make extreme weather more likely—we’re also changing the situation on the ground, moving ever larger numbers of people into fire-prone zones. It’s as if we’re adding fuel to the fire on both ends—which means we’ll be doubly burned.

(MORE: Wildfire: Out of Control Flames Force Thousands From Their Homes in Colorado)

The great I-News Network has done an excellent job on the wildfires in Colorado, focusing not just on the immediate weather causes and the severe devastation of the fires themselves, but on the policies that have led so many Coloradans to build houses in what’s known as the “red zone”—territory on the edge of the wilderness that is prone to fire. (Hat tip to Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth for pointing out the I-News coverage.)

Over the past two decades, a quarter million more Coloradans have moved into the red zone, which means that one in four Colorado homes are already at risk from fires:

The growth of population in the red zone slowed some after the giant Hayman Fire near Colorado Springs ten years ago this month. But the 2010 census shows 100,000 more Coloradans – Bozzell and Roth among them – moving into a red zone:

As the number of people in red zones has exploded, so has the number of fires – and the damage each did.

In the 1960s, Colorado averaged about 460 fires each year that burned about 8,000 acres annually, according to Colorado State Forest Service records. In the past decade, Colorado saw an average of about 2,500 fires a year burning nearly 100,000 acres.

(MORE: The Great California Fires)

As more people move into the red zone, that obviously puts more people and more property at risk every time a fire starts. Any individual fire is therefore likely to do more damage, both in dollar value and in the number of people who may be forced to flee their homes. But it’s not just that. Humans are often the direct cause of a wildfire—either accidentally, through a stray cigarette or burning, or even deliberately. Put more people in fire-prone areas, and you’re likely to see more fires started as well—something I wrote about in a cover story for TIME in 2007 about the enormously destructive wildfires in California, a state where a growing number of houses are built on the edge of the wilderness:

Those houses, especially if owners fail to prioritize fire safety, are often more sensitive to fire than are untouched forests, and just a few scattered houses in the woods can amplify a wildfire. “Isolated homes surrounded by natural vegetation are probably the most dangerous combination for fires,” says Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS). Beyond providing fuel for the flames, new dwellings also concentrate the single biggest cause of wildfires: us. The downed power lines, careless barbecues and abandoned campfires that frequently spark fires don’t happen in the absence of people. And then there is the wicked wild card of arson. Perhaps only one person in a community of thousands has a hand in triggering a blaze, but the very presence of those thousands is what turns an otherwise messy event deadly. “The same fires happening wouldn’t be anywhere near as serious without this development pattern,” says Volker Radeloff, a forest ecologist at the University of Wisconsin.

When a lot of houses are built in the red zone—Revkin notes that the population in the Colorado county of El Paso, ground zero for the fires, has quadrupled since 1960—there’s also added pressure to suppress any fires that do break out. This even though wildfires in the West are a natural and sometimes even ecologically beneficial event at times.      That’s one reason why despite the headlines, fire activity in the West has actually been much lower over the past century compared to the previous three millennia. Put simply, we’ve been putting out fires that—in the days before the U.S. Forest Service existed—would have blazed uncontrollably.

But in an article for the Daily Climate, the journalist Tom Yuslman—who lives in Boulder, Colorado—notes that fire suppression may have an unexpected side effect: we may be building up a fire deficit:

Bartlein and his colleagues point to a number of factors for the change, including the introduction of cattle, which reduced fuel loads by eating and trampling grasses; fragmentation of the landscape; and vigorous suppression of any fires on public lands that did break out.

Recent trends suggest the fire deficit is now being paid back. Since the 1980s, fire frequency in the West has increased more than 300 percent, and the annual acreage burned has jumped 500 percent, according to Anthony Westerling of the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

 Again, none of this is meant to downplay the role that climate change is likely having on the frequency and intensity of the fires burning the West right now—and perhaps more importantly, on the fires to come. A June study predicted that wildfires will become more common in temperate zones—including much of the American West—as the climate warms, even as they become less common in the tropics. Wildfire is one more threats we’ll have to grapple with as the planet gets hotter, but it’s at least as important to grapple with the risks on the ground, including increased population and property in the red zone. Especially since the latter will be easier to deal with than the former.
PHOTOS: What They Saved From the Fires
91 comments
Tim Bladon
Tim Bladon

Wildfires are a natural process that has existed since the earth formed.  The author is right when he says that we have built up a deficit by supression of fire.  I support prescribed fire and burning and removing excess fuel that has built up over the years.  Prescribed burning not only eliminates fuel, but also improves wildlife habitat and restores ecosystems.

mememine
mememine

News Flash:

Millions of scientists have signed a “Global Alert” to

climate change crisis from Human CO2 and they say they are now willing to face

criminal charges of issuing death threats if their warnings of deadly crisis do

not happen soon. Here is their statement:

“We and the millions of scientists listed below are

declaring an Earthly state of emergency, for it is in our opinion that we can

say with 100% certainty that the planet will soon spiral into cataclysmic unstoppable

warming caused by Human induced climate change.”

ya like this will ever happen!

wfmc
wfmc

Wildfires are a common enough component of the ecosystem to have evolved

heat resistant seeds that require sufficient heat to germinate.  The

possibility exists that forest management policy, managing wildfires for

obvious social reasons, has provided decades of fuel buildup that

sparked however (lightning, gunfire etc.), will not just pop

fire-needing seeds but sterilize everything, even the soils as well. 

There is more than one anthropogenic influence to consider here.......

=======================================

Why did you remove this post?

wfmc
wfmc

Wildfires are a common enough component of the ecosystem to have evolved heat resistant seeds that require sufficient heat to germinate.  The possibility exists that forest management policy, managing wildfires for obvious social reasons, has provided decades of fuel buildup that sparked however (lightning, gunfire etc.), will not just pop fire-needing seeds but sterilize everything, even the soils as well. 

There is more than one anthropogenic influence to consider here.......

mememine
mememine

Yes, some of Nature's climate variations are not nice. Get over it.

mememine
mememine

26 years of extensive climate change research has produced

literally millions of scientific studies on Human CO2’s “deadly” effects and

since the millions of studies can’t possibly all be saying the same thing,

consensus of climate change being “deadly’ is impossible. We need to doubt and

challenge all authority especially one that condemns our children to a CO2

death. REAL planet lovers don’t want climate change to be deadly and the vast

body of evidence suggests that climate change consensus was exaggerated along

with climate change being “deadly” amounting to the science being just a

consultant’s wet dream and a planet lover’s nightmare.

Meanwhile, the entire world of SCIENCE, journalism and

progressivism had allowed bank-funded and corporate-run “CARBON TRADING STOCK

MARKETS” to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world

education for just over 26 years of insane attempts at climate CONTROL. Nice

job girls! Who’s the neocon now?

Michael A. Lewis
Michael A. Lewis

Hot summers and wildfires in the continental United States are not due to "Global Warming." The United States, despite its monumental ego, is not "global."

The hot temperatures of this summer are local weather phenomenon, not global climate change.

GOPvictory
GOPvictory

El Nino, El Nina, jet streams, oscillations, massive high and low

pressure systems. Hell, where is all the major and numerous hurricanes

the alarmists predicted after Katerina. Central US could use a good

soaking from a good gulf hurricane and move upwards to the interior. So

much for predictions.

RobertBreisch
RobertBreisch

take a look at the HAARP project-very interesting and a possible link to world weather

issues as with super heating a section of the ionosphere creating a bubble the layers beneath it rise into the bubble and eventually alter the jet stream with carries water around the globe as rain,snow,etc.Diversion or tampering with the jet stream can cause dramatic shifts in global weather from severe droughts to excessive dangerous storm fronts-super cell thunderclouds,massive tornadoes etc.. 

John Dyer
John Dyer

I always find it amusing that when the Ecocentric article is about one of the many, many ways mankind is destroying the planet- over fishing, ocean acidification, deforestation, genetic crop modification, species extinction, soil erosion... I could go on and on- there are may be two or three comments.  Post an article that is in any way related to climate change and the arguments will go back and forth pages after page.  It seems like if we can only prove to ourselves that climate change is a hoax, we can sleep comfortably at night assured that we are not wrecking our planet.

idoubt
idoubt

the tax dollars that 99% generate but never get to see will be generously spent to rebuild million-dollar mansions in the same places for the 1%.  

Doubtit999
Doubtit999

1998 National Academy of Sciences Committee produced a report:  The Impacts of Natural Disasters: A Framework for Loss Estimation.  Check it out.  So many resources, yet we remain selfishly foolish.

tiggersean
tiggersean

What was not covered in this is the fact Colorado is for the most part a red state, a conservative, republican state with some exceptions.  My time living there proved that the people living in the red zones can afford the very expensive homes there and as I got to know them, they are vociferous anti tax and anti big governmewnt.  So, riddle me this; why are they crying so loud for state and federally funded fire fighters tocome and put the fires out that threten their fantastic 1% homes?  Why can't they just hire private fire fighters to do this?

cnnnnn
cnnnnn

Why don't all you blood and Gore followers would go kiII yourselves and save the planet?

cnnnnn
cnnnnn

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire.

Revelation 16:8

boofmeister
boofmeister

duh.  finally someone said it.  more people moving where they shouldn't.  im sorry, but seeing a bunch of cookie cutter McMansions burning down did not make me sad.  and then listening to all the people talk about praying to God and that they will re-build just made me mad.  people are so dumb when it comes to this stuff.  its like the dumb rednecks that live in tordado alley...when a tornado comes they are like "why me?"  and then they say god saved them and they will rebuild.  bottome line:  there are too many people on the planet.  mother nature wants to get rid of them.  these fires and tornados and tropical storms are like mother natures hand scratching and biting and swatting away fleas.

norcalmojo
norcalmojo

People who are saying a heat wave is proof of climate change are calling others anti-science?  

That's pretty funny. 

Doubtit999
Doubtit999

SOYLENT GREEN! - 1973 scifi flick

stockbuy44
stockbuy44

Standard New World Order garbage. They are using a solar cycle to implement carbon taxes so the Rothschild family can pollute more and make even more money. And they are using the forest fires to move people to suburban centers so they can rewild entire sections of America and keep us in prison cities.

Doubtit999
Doubtit999

Sprawling into red zones is as reckless as moving directly to hurricane prone coasts followed by the insistent complaints about insurance cost and lack of FEMA response. Irresponsible people!  Simply irresponsible!  Oh yeah, rebuild and create the illusion of new jobs.

USGeoguy
USGeoguy

These are not the worst fires in Colorado history. Get your facts straight!!! Last week an NPR Denver reporter tried very hard to get a Forest Service fire official to make that claim, presumably to make a splashy headline. The Forest Service official steadfastly and calmly refused to do so. These may be the worst fires that have happened in populated areas of Colorado but they are not the worst fires by far. This is a somewhat higher than normal fire season but it is not off the scale. There is a lot of dead wood in the forest from a beetle infestation that has been going on for the last 20+ years and that has certainly contributed to the fire hazard. Mostly, people need to stop building their homes in zones that have a high probability of burning every 40 years. Duh. 

Gyrogearloose
Gyrogearloose

The root cause isn't global warming; nor is it building in the wildland-urban interface.

The root cause is population growth. 

tekelder
tekelder

Folks need to get over their self-importance and belief that they are so significant that they are changing the climate or more to the point can "save" the planet.  we are at the height of the solar storm cycle which means more energy (heat) for the planets in a position to absorb it.  Surprise! warmer weather!  If you build in a fire zone, (or earthquake zone, flood plain, tornado alley, or hurricane area you need to build accordingly.  I have lost sympathy for the folks who live in homes built inappropriately for the known destructive weather/climate/geology and then whine when the inevitable destructive event arrives.  Bryan, shame on you fo writing another agitprop piece that fails to deal with the root of the problem by simplistically focusing on the trama of folks who have endured a tragedy to promote misdirected pop culture stupidity called global warming or is it global climate change. 

mememine
mememine

The scientists promise there will be countless thousands of

detrimental effects from Human CO2 with more droughts, storms, floods, dead

oceans, sea rise etc. Is that not the end of the world and death for all of us?

How could it not be?

Climate change was exaggerated because anything less than

unstoppable warming leaves climate change not being a crisis of any kid. You can’t

have a little tiny catastrophic climate crisis.

oneStarman
oneStarman

 "Again, none of this is meant to downplay the role that climate change" - BS - That is EXACTLY the Purpose of this Article  - To TRY to make you Believe that there is Something OTHER than Burning Fossil Fuels that is DESTROYING Our Grandchildren's Future. 

ClimateTruthIreland
ClimateTruthIreland

Ever noticed a common symptom of the climate extremist syndrome is that they blame every disaster under the sun on 'global warming? Get real.