What’s Behind the Southwest Wildfires

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Remember that inconvenient truth from half a decade ago? Even if you don’t, it seems like most of modern science, politics, and popular culture does – though they are often wildly divided on the issue. These days it seems like everything is in some way linked to “climate change.” There was the extreme rain that may cause a record-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The food woes in the tropics. Even automatic ice makers can’t seem to escape.

So when we talk about the massive wildfires that have been blazing in the Southwest, can we once again pull out the trusty climate change card? Well, yes – though it may not be the full picture. Dissent is getting louder in the Senate on Forest Service policies – poor management is what is really causing catastrophic fires, Energy and Natural Resource Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski told the New York Times.

Murkowski criticized the Forest Service for not implementing the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to its fullest extent. Less than a third of the authorized projects were ever completed, according to Murkowski. “We’re not seeing much as a consequence of that; there’s little to show for it,” she said. “I want to see more healthy forests restoration projects; I want to see more large-scale projects — within this decade.”

The details of the projects Murkowski would have had the Forest Service do are unclear. But Resources for the Future director of forest economics and policy at Roger Sedio thinks her requests are unrealistic. The types of forests in the Southwest – pine – are going to burn regardless of managed maintenance, he said, as pine tree cones need the heat of fire to coax out seeds and thus rely on seasonal fires to survive.

If it’s not poor management policies, perhaps it’s the crazy weather of this past spring. Climate Central writes that the fires would never have grown so large – or maybe even ignited in the first place – without the underlying drought conditions in the Southwest. Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico experienced some of their driest weather since the 1930s, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Parts of Texas didn’t get any rain at all in March and April, and New Mexico’s unfortunate residents have only gotten scattered thunderstorms and gusty winds this spring. And research has linked fires in the southwest to weather events such as La Niña, which can steer storms away and contribute to drought.

But how much does climate change matter in all this? As it turns out, quite a lot. Besides being possibly linked to all these extreme weather events, certain climate conditions lead to longer and larger fires.

“Throughout the country, we’re seeing longer fire seasons, and we’re seeing snowpacks that, on average, are disappearing a little earlier every spring,” Forest Service director Tom Tidwell said at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Tuesday. “Our scientists believe this is due to a change in climate.”

And if recent studies are anything to go by, you should definitely be worried if you live in the Western U.S. A Journal of Geophysical Research study predicts that the average area burned across the entire West will increased by over 50% by midcentury compared to recent values. Meanwhile, the National Research Council reports that 1.8 °F of warming from current conditions will significantly increase land burned by wildfires in the West, compared to average area burned in the last fifty or so years.

But Senator James Risch thinks it is studies like these that are the problem. Climate change proponents deserve some of the blame for literally adding fuel to the fire: causing an overabundance of wood for fire to burn.

“Generally, the people who talk about climate change and wring their hands about the fires are the exact same people that … are the first ones to file a suit to stop from removing that fuel,” said Risch, referring to lawsuits from environmental groups that followed the passage of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The act, signed in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, was criticized for allowing the timber industry to operate without filing environmental impact statements.

It’s still unclear to me whether we should heap most of the blame on climate change yet again, or if we should consider equally the policy wonks and environmental groups, or even just good old Mother Nature. But with 2011 forecast to be one of the worst wildfire years in recorded history – and summer still half a week away – I’m pretty anxious about what’s to come. The possible truth is looking much more than just inconvenient.