by Tom Kenworthy
The vicious 2012 wildfire season now unfolding in the interior West is hardly a surprise. Much of the region has been in a drought for more than a decade. This winter’s snowpack was sparse, particularly in Colorado, and it melted and ran off early. Temperatures have been high, and humidity has been low—making fuels from grasses to trees very dry and flammable.
All of that means conditions ripe for fires, which have come with a vengeance. New Mexico has had its biggest fire ever, and Colorado has seen the most destructive fires in its history, with the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs and the High Park Fire near Fort Collins destroying more than 600 homes combined. Even as firefighters have brought the big Colorado fires near containment, other large blazes have broken out in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.
Yes, it’s looking like a big fire year. And yes, this is part of the new normal. It’s pretty much exactly what climate experts have been predicting and what the data have been telegraphing for some time. While there are various proposals on the table to deal with increasingly destructive wildfires, they are likely to continue and become worse unless we tackle climate change.
More severe wildfires, right on schedule
Numerous studies in recent years have predicted that higher temperatures and drought conditions brought on by climate change will accelerate wildland fire activity in the West.
In 2004 U.S. Forest Service researchers studying past fires in the West constructed a model that predicted as much as a fivefold increase in burned areas by the end of the century.
Two years later a Scripps Institute of Oceanography study looked at the relatively recent spike in wildfire activity and determined it was due to changes in climate rather than forest management practices:
Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift.
Three years ago, in a thorough report on the impacts of climate change across the country, the U.S. Global Change Research Program said that earlier melting of snow and drier soils and plants had already increased fire activity in the West, and that the situation would grow worse: