The monster 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire consumed 468,000 acres, causing many Arizona communities to evacuate. In a world of unrestricted greenhouse gases, such fires will be commonplace.
Our guest contributor is CAP’s Tom Kenworthy, who reported on the fire for USA Today.
It was late afternoon on a day near the end of June in 2002, and along with a lot of other media, I was in Show Low, Arizona, at a schools complex that had been taken over by the incident management team for the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. That monster fire, the biggest in Arizona history, was raging not far to the west, and we were anxious to hear what fire spokesman Jim Paxon would say so we could file our stories.
In his dispassionate but always quotable way, Paxon told us that the next day a 100-foot high wall of flames a mile wide was going to hit the west side of Show Low and rampage through the town.
Early that evening, before evacuating Show Low with nearly everyone else, I went to the outskirts of town to take another look at the fire. Over my years as a newspaper reporter in the Rocky Mountain West, I covered plenty of big western fires, but what I saw that evening was, on the scary scale, of a totally different magnitude. The fire was crowning through Ponderosa pine a couple of miles away, with flames shooting up a couple of hundred feet, and it was moving so fast to the northeast that when viewed through a television camera it passed from left to right and out of view in just a few seconds.
The following day, Show Low was saved by a heroic stand by the White Mountain Apache Hotshots, an elite 20-man crew that lit a burnout and bulldozed a fire line that kept the fire from crossing a highway into Show Low. The leader of those shots, Apache firefighter Rick Lupe, died the next summer when he was caught in a burnover while supervising a routine prescribed fire.
These old memories, part of a bundle from a memorable fire year in the West, come to mind because another big fire – quite close to where the Rodeo-Chediski burned – is storming through the dry forests of eastern Arizona and threatening the small mountain communities of Eager and Springerville. The Wallow Fire, in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, has burned about a quarter million acres and is likely to continue to grow.
Almost a decade ago, I don’t remember anyone linking the many large fires in the summer of 2002 to the extreme weather that all the models now say is expected with global warming. But that is surely what we are seeing. And much worse lies ahead, as Climate Progress reported two years ago based on a study that predicted a big leap in fires in the West.
We show that increases in temperature cause annual mean area burned in the western United States to increase by 54% by the 2050s relative to the present-day … with the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains experiencing the greatest increases of 78% and 175% respectively. Increased area burned results in near doubling of wildfire carbonaceous aerosol emissions by mid-century.
This year in my state of Colorado, we’ve been having a lot of early season fires, including several in the foothills west of Denver in late March and early April. That’s normally one of our snowiest times of the year, but this year the foothills were free of snow almost the entire winter.
The data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise tell the tale. Nationwide, about 3.5 million acres have burned so far. That’s almost triple what had burned by this date in 2002, a year that set the modern standard for big destructive fires. In addition to the Rodeo-Chediski fire that year which burned nearly 470,000 acres, Oregon and Colorado had their biggest fires ever, the Biscuit at a half million acres and the Hayman at 138,000 acres.
Hot, dry and scary, that’s our future in the Southwest.
– CAP’s Tom Kenworthy [His 2002 USA Today story is here.]
Joe Romm: Let me add to Kenworthy’s post that other research finds even greater increases in wildfires in a warmed world. Back in 2004, researchers at the U.S. Forest Services Pacific Wildland Fire Lab looked at past fires in the West to create a statistical model of how future climate change may affect wildfires. Their paper, “Climatic Change, Wildfire, and Conservation,” published in Conservation Biology, found that by century’s end, states like Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming could see burn areas increase five times.
Here’s a figure from a presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo last year:
For completeness’s sake — and because I remain optimistic that someday the media will routinely make the connection between increased forest fires and global warming — let me note that back in 2006 Science magazine published a major article analyzing whether the recent soaring wildfire trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded:
Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift.
That 2006 study noted global warming (from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide) will further accelerate all of these trends during this century. Worse still, the increased wildfires will themselves release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which will serve as a vicious circle, accelerating the very global warming that is helping to cause more wildfires.
- Science: Global warming is killing U.S. trees, a dangerous carbon-cycle feedback
- Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires
- NOAA: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe.
- NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path
- U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought like that of 12th century — only hotter — this century