The Beginning Of Wildfire Season Means More Bad News For Drought-Stricken West

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2015 could be a wild fire season for the West.

Ongoing drought and above-average temperatures threaten to make the 2015 wildfire season a harsh one for Western states. Both the U.S. Fire Service and the National Interagency Fire Center are forecasting above-average fire activity for the Western United States throughout the summer.

Last year, California alone saw more than 5,600 wildfires that burned some 600,000 acres throughout the state. This year, those figures could be matched, if not exceeded, according to the forecasts.

“We anticipate another active fire year as above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States and above normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, calling for more funding for fire suppression.

The Forest Service estimates that it will spend between $1.2 billion this year on fire suppression, above the $1.13 billion average spent in the last 10 years. When county and state spending is taken into account, the total spending for fire suppression exceeds $4 billion annually.

To date, national wildfire totals have been below average — as of June 1, the country has seen 21,648 fires burning across 397,136 acres, below the annual average of 28,906 from the last ten years. In California, however, wildfire activity is already exceeding expectations, with 1,533 wildfires already recorded as of May 26 (well above the five-year average of 969 fires over the same period of time).

According to Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the El Niño weather pattern that is at least partially responsible for record-breaking rains in the middle part of the country hasn’t brought any relief to drought-plagued California, where the recorded level of snowpack has officially reached zero.

“Unfortunately, bottom line is it’s more bad news for California,” Ekwurzel told ThinkProgress.

With low snowpack and continued drought, California’s soils are drying out earlier in the year than normal, something Ekwurzel points to as creating conditions for potentially explosive wildfires.

“If you have good winter rains really saturating the mountains, you can buffer through the summer,” she said. “Now, the soils are too dry, and we don’t have the rains to put [the fires] out.”

Low snowpack is also a concern for Oregon and Washington, both of which are coming off some of the warmest winters on record and are currently experiencing drought conditions throughout some or all of the state. Residual moisture from spring rains might be enough to naturally surrpress fire activity throughout the Northwest in the early summer months, but as the summer continues — and vegetation begins to dry out without additional moisture from melting snowpack — fire activity is expected to increase in both states.

Last year, the Northwest experienced its second-worst fire season on record, fighting fires across some 1.2 million acres and spending more than $446 million in the process. With record-low snowpack and unusually warm temperatures expected across the Northwest this summer, the 2015 fire season could be equally as damaging.

“Drought is the word for nearly all areas west of the Rockies,” John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager at Northwest Coordination Center told the Oregonian. “And that means a greater than typical risk for major wildfires.”

Over the past three decades, the length and intensity of wildfire season has been increasing throughout the West, Ekwurzel said. In the early 1970s, the wildfire season lasted an average of five months — today, the season can stretch across seven months or more.

“The longer fire season has a climate fingerprint,” Ekwurzel said. “Earlier spring, later fall.”

The trend toward a longer, more intense fire season is expected to continue as the global temperature increases. According to the Earth Policy Institute, the U.S. Forest Service projects that a 2.88° Fahrenheit rise in summer temperatures could double the amount of land burned by wildfires in 11 western states. Increased temperatures — and increased drought — are also expected to contribute to tree mortality, creating a larger amount of dry fuel to turn a small fire into a raging one.

“The megadrought potential for [the Western] region will incredibly increase toward the middle or later part of the century, in large part because of climate change,” Ekwurzel said. “We have to prepare for this, we have to plan for this, and we have to build infrastructure to make this century a more habitable century.”

Preparing for fire season is difficult, however, when an increasingly active season means above-average spending on fire suppression. Since 2002, the Forest Service has exceeded its fire suppression budget in all but two years, forcing it to pull funds from areas like fire reduction programs — leaving overcrowded forests that may lead to more fires.

As temperatures increase, the cost of fighting wildfires is expected to increase as well: a joint study released in 2014 by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law, and Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that climate change could increase the cost of fighting fires by as much as $62.5 billion annually by 2050.

“It’s a really urgent problem,” Ekwurzel said. “We’re entering uncharted territory. We’ve never had it so hot.”