Flames from the Las Conchas fire burn in Los Alamos, NM. AP Photo
Climate change is creating the ideal conditions for wildfires — drought and heat. And while only a secondary effect, it is ruining July 4 celebrations around the country, since in many places the risk posed by fireworks is simply too great.
Grant Meyer, a University of New Mexico geologist who studies “what relationships exist between fire, climate and erosion over Holocene timescales” tells the Christian Science Monitor that while severe wildfires have always occurred:
… recent experience down here suggests that what we’re looking at in the last few decades is at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we’ve seen since the last Ice Age,” he adds.
A build-up of fuels from forestry practices that emphasized fire suppression is partly responsible, he says.
“But part of it as well – and the data are very good on this – it’s climatic warming” as human industrial activity and land-use changes have pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, he says.
[For more on the relative contribution of forest management practices and climate change to the recent soaring wildfire trend, see Wildfires in a Globally-Warmed World.]
A long-term average decline in annual snow pack, which provides the bulk of the region’s water, along with rising average temperatures have lengthened the fire season and dried out the fuel.
New Mexico, along with much of Texas (which has had a record fire season), and the southeastern US is in the throes of extreme to exceptional drought conditions
Jerome McDonald of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team said, “As firefighters we’re seeing extreme fire behavior and the kind of growth we haven’t seen in our careers.” Los Alamos fire chief Donald Tucker, “We have seen fire behavior we’ve never seen down here, and it’s really aggressive.”
There will be no fireworks this year exploding over Fort Sill in Lawton [in Oklahoma]. The U.S. Army base’s Independence Day celebration and concert will go on as planned Saturday, but its fireworks have been canceled. A fire that started on a base firing range last week burned across 5,500 acres before it was contained. Thirteen homes were destroyed and 1,500 people had to be evacuated.
In Kansas, fireworks have been banned in Dodge City and surrounding rural areas due to the extreme drought.
In Louisiana, fireworks have been banned in Shreveport and neighboring Bossier because of extreme heat and drought.
In Texas, 170 counties have fireworks bans, including all of metropolitan Houston. Nearly all of Texas has burn bans as well. Because of the extreme drought, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been canceled in Texas towns large and small: San Antonio, Austin, Amarillo, Lubbock, Plainview, Magnolia, Tomball, DeSoto, Woodlands, Roman Forest, and Patton Village.
In Arizona, authorities have banned fireworks from Flagstaff in the north to Tucson, Douglas and Sierra Vista in the south.
In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez (R-NM) has said that there is “absolutely no reason to buy, sell or use personal fireworks.” She has declared a “state of emergency in New Mexico regarding the use of fireworks.” Albertson’s, WalMart, and Smith’s stores have stopped selling fireworks in the state. Taos, with wildfires raging nearby, has canceled its fireworks display.
If folks think it’s bad now, just keep doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (see “USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest” and “NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path”). A 2010 study found that virtually all of Texas will be at high or extreme risk of climate-induced water shortage and drought in 2050.
Here’s a figure from a presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo last year, about conditions projected for mid-century: