Agriculture Undersecretary On Wildfires: ‘The Climate Is Changing, And These Fires Are A Very Strong Indicator Of That’

Photo: US Dept. of Agriculture

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.

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3 Responses to Agriculture Undersecretary On Wildfires: ‘The Climate Is Changing, And These Fires Are A Very Strong Indicator Of That’

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Fire suppression over the last century leading to a build up of fuel loads, plus climate change, equals a very nasty combination.

    The fires in Spain and Russia also look bad.

  2. Geoff Beacon says:

    Fires are one of the climate feedbacks missing from climate models.
    Professor John Mitchell of the UK Hadley Centre has given me two examples of climate feedbacks that are not included in current climate models (indicating that although these things may be important, they are not always easy to quantify, model, initialize and validate):

    melting permafrost – we don’t have [CO2 and CH4 emissions from permafrost] in the GCM [global climate model], but have some simple modelling of. Too early to show any results yet, but we plan to publish later this year. Bottom line is that both CH4 and CO2 will be released as permafrost thaws. The magnitude is uncertain, but likely to be significant.


    “more forest fires – We don’t do yet, but could be important for changing ecosystems response to climate.”

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Is James Watt available to serve as the Stormin’ Mormon’s Secretary of the Interior? He did such a sterling job under Reagan, and, judging from his observation in 1991 to the Green River Cattleman’s Association in Wyoming, that, ‘If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved by the jury box or ballot box, then perhaps the cartridge box should be used’. Sounds like he’s got the ‘Right’ Stuff, still. They understand his recommended methods in Brazil and Colombia, too.