A top official overseeing the health of America’s lands is warning about the influence of a climate change on the intensity of wildfires.
With Colorado facing a severe drought, less summer snow pack, and a strong heat wave, the state is experiencing the most destructive wildfire in its history. Scientists are warning that human-caused warming will continue to fuel these factors, increasing the intensity and frequency of wildfires across the western U.S.
The last decade has already brought a major increase in wildfire activity. And Harris Sherman, the nation’s Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, tells the Washington Post that climate change is contributing to the factors driving western fires:
“We’ve had record fires in 10 states in the last decade, most of them in the West,” said Agriculture Department Undersecretary Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service. Over the past 10 years, the wildfire season that normally runs from June to September expanded to include May and October. Once, it was rare to see 5 million cumulative acres burn in a year, but some recent seasons have recorded twice that.
“The climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that,” Sherman said.
Sherman’s comments reflect those made in recent weeks by officials responsible for managing the country’s natural resources. As Colorado and other Western states deal with a persistent drought, pest infestations, and a heat wave fanning the flames, talk of the connection to human-fueled warming has also increased. Speaking at symposium on fire preparedness last week, experts on forestry, water and energy policy all discussed the link between wildfire intensity and climate change. The Colorado Independent reported on the forum:
“If we accept that the world is changing – this whole new normal [of global warming] – why don’t we accept that we have to change?” said Jack Sahl, director of environment and resource sustainability for the Southern California Edison power utility. “I think a lot of our urban and rural planning has just been goofy, and we have to find a way to rethink that.
“How many times do we have to have a flood, or how many times do you have to have a fire burn out a community or how many times do you have to have a hurricane take out a community before you say, ‘There has to be a better way?’”
Almost 1,000 homes have been destroyed by wildfires across the West. Last week, 32,000 people were evacuated due to threat from the Waldo Canyon Fire, which breached fire lines and burned out of control.
“We haven’t been at this demand in a long time, if ever,” said Jim Fletcher, coordinator of the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting command center, speaking to the Los Angeles Times.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the U.S. Senate last year:
“Throughout the country, we’re seeing longer fire seasons, and we’re seeing snowpacks that, on average, are disappearing a little earlier every spring,” he said, as well as devastating droughts. As a result, fire seasons have lengthened by more than 30 days, on average.
“Our scientists believe this is due to a change in climate,” said Tidwell.