Right on the heels of California declaring a state of emergency over wildfires on Saturday, the Obama Administration has released a video linking the blazes to climate change. In it, White House science adviser John Holdren explains how global warming brings higher temperatures and reduces moisture in the soil, thus increasing the odds wildfires will occur as well as their intensity when they do occur.
“While no single wildfire can be said to be caused by climate change, climate change has been making the fire season in the U.S. longer and on average more intense,” Holdren says in the video — further explaining that, on average, annual wildfires in the west have “increased several-fold in the last decade,” and the eight worst years on record for “area burned” by wildfires “have all occurred since 2000.”
“Climate change is also bringing us more dead trees — kindling in effect — killed by a combination of heat stress, water stress and attacks by pests and pathogens that multiply faster in a warmer world.”
Specifically, the length of U.S. fire seasons has expanded by 60 to 80 days since the 1980s, and the amount of acres consumed by wildfires each year has doubled to more than seven million. This year’s fire season is on track to drain the $1.4 billion Congress allocated to fight wildfires well before the season is actually over, leaving the U.S. Forest Service and other departments about $400 billion short by most estimates. That will force them to engage in what’s called “fire borrowing” — pulling funds away from other activities like regular thinning of forest and brush, and controlled burns that reduce the number and severity of wildfires. This is something the Forest Service has had to do for seven of the last twelve years.
Democrats in the House and Senate, along with the White House, are pushing bills that would open up more funding for wildfire fighting. But the House GOP has ignored the bills, and now that Congress has left for vacation the issue is in limbo.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s emergency declaration mobilized the California National Guard to “support disaster response and relief efforts and coordinate with all relevant state agencies,” and announced he had secured a federal grant to cover 75 percent of the costs to fight a wildfire that’s spread south into California from Oregon.
“We’re seeing fire behavior we wouldn’t normally see until September,” Dennis Mathisen, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the L.A. Times. “With warmer weather conditions, low humidity and some wind, and all you need is a spark, and a series of dry lightning strikes, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
A few days ago, the U.S. Drought Monitor released new data showing California is in the most severe state of drought ever recorded since the monitor began keeping track in 1999, and may well outpace the state’s landmark drought of the 1970s. About 58 percent of California is now in “exceptional drought,” the most severe of five drought categories.
As the Hill reports, about 30 major wildfires are currently scattered throughout California, Oregon, and Washington State.