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Western states lived with a constant reminder of climate change in 2017

One of the biggest climate stories of the year was the seemingly never-ending stream of disastrous wildfires that engulfed the West.

(CREDIT: ThinkProgress / Diana Ofosu)
(CREDIT: ThinkProgress / Diana Ofosu)

On a clear day, a person driving across the Hood River Bridge, which spans the width of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, can see for miles. It’s a beautiful view, looking up the river at the hills and cliffs on either side that form the Columbia Gorge. When my fiancé and I first decided to get married in White Salmon — a little Washington town on the other side of the river — one of the things we were most excited about was envisioning our guests crossing the bridge, and seeing that stunning view, before making their way to our wedding.

Cut by the Columbia River and prehistoric glacial floods, the gorge is an area of such natural beauty that it almost defies description. Flights into Portland from the east cut right over the gorge, and in the waning light of the long summer days, travelers can ogle the massive river and catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood to the south.

That first glimpse of Oregon has always been my favorite part about flying home, but this September, as I made the trip from D.C. to Portland, the view was markedly changed. Plumes of smoke dotted the landscape near Mt. Hood, billowing from the Indian Creek Fire that had been burning since the beginning of July. Farther south, the massive Chetco Bar Fire — the largest fire in the country at the time — raged in Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness, casting a dull haze over much of the state.

Oregonians, like all westerners, are accustomed to the reality of wildfires, which are a natural and necessary component of a healthy forest ecosystem. But early September in Oregon was different. At my parent’s house in the Willamette Valley, normally insulated from the fires that often rage in the eastern or southern parts of the state, ash fell like a light snow on cars under a sky so thick with smoke that the sun was barely visible. Wildfire smoke choked my nostrils and burned in my throat.

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That smoke was coming from the Eagle Creek Fire, which had been sparked by a teenager shooting off illegal fireworks. Overnight, driven by high temperatures, low humidity, and whipping winds, the fire torched through thousands of acres of brittle fuel on its way towards Portland, forcing hundreds of residents throughout the gorge to evacuate and shutting down the major east-west highway that runs through Oregon. When my fiancé and I drove across the Hood River Bridge, there was no expansive view of the river — just smoke that, save for the inescapably acrid smell of burning wood, looked like a dense, unending fog.

We were lucky; the day before our wedding, the winds shifted, blowing the smoke out of the gorge and leaving us with hazy blue skies and a story to tell. But for many Oregonians, the Eagle Creek Fire seemed to signal a fundamental shift in the way the state experienced wildfires. Here was a fire started by humans — like many wildfires — but driven to disaster by a dangerous combination of climatic factors. Here was a fire that dumped ash on major metropolitan areas, that forced schools to close and shut down a major shipping route throughout the state.

The Eagle Creek Fire was one point in a fire season defined by disastrous, fast-moving fires, from the deadly fires that tore through Northern California in October to the fire that decimated thousands of acres of Glacier National Park in Montana this fall. Taken together, however, these fires seemed to prove what scientists have been warning for years — that climate change will tilt the scales of probability in favor of bigger, more destructive wildfires, and that everyone, not just the most isolated rural communities, will start to pay the price.

The Eagle Creek wildfire burning in the Columbia River Gorge. (CREDIT: Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP)
The Eagle Creek wildfire burning in the Columbia River Gorge. (CREDIT: Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP)

In the 1970s, wildfire season in the western United States — roughly defined as the time of year when climatic factors are most conducive to fires — was five months. Today, that season stretches for at least seven months, if not longer, due in part to the general warming happening out west. Average temperatures have increased by about 1.9°F across the western U.S. since the 1970s, nearly twice the pace of global average warming. A study published in October found that rising temperatures can be held responsible for almost half of the increase in acres burned in wildfires since the 1970s.

With reports of wildfires tearing through Oregon, northern California, and southern California, it might seem like the number of wildfires has been increasing in recent years, which isn’t actually the case. The number of wildfire incidents has actually declined in California since the 1980s, but the number of large fires — defined as larger than 100,000 hectares, or about 250,000 acres — has risen substantially. So while the total number of fires might be decreasing, really big fires — the ones that burn through the most fuel and tend to have the largest impact on humans — are increasing.

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Like the longer fire season, the increase in large fires is also likely a result of climate change. As global temperatures increase, the fuel that feeds fires — trees, brush, chaparral grass — becomes drier and drier. Higher temperatures also force evaporation from the soil, leaving the land extremely dry and fire-prone. One study, published last year, found that half of the increase in fire area since 1984 could be attributed to human-caused climate change.

Climate change doesn’t just increase temperatures. It’s not just that it is warm this year, it’s that it has been warmer on average for years,” Leroy Westerling, professor of management of complex systems at the University of California, Merced, told ThinkProgress. “It’s this long-term, cumulative drying that is due to warmer temperatures.”

In this hot, dry new world, wildfires like the Thomas Fire, which currently burning in Southern California, easily shatter records. The Thomas Fire is the first-ever large winter fire, fanned by Santa Ana winds and above-average temperatures. It’s also on track to be the largest wildfire in the state’s modern history, and has already burned through more than 1,000 structures. In October, similar conditions helped fuel an outbreak of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country, burning through more than 14,000 homes, killing more than 40 people, and costing more than $3 billion. In Montana, continued drought fueled fires that burned more than 1 million acres. In August, a fast-moving wildfire destroyed the historic Sperry Chalet, which was built in 1914, in Glacier National Park. A local historian told CBS News that the structures lost were “some of the most remarkable buildings anywhere in the United States.”

These are all places where wildfires have burned for centuries, but it’s the precise condition of hot weather and very dry fuel that wildfire scientists say is consistent with climate change. Add in the fact that global climate change increases the likelihood of having either very dry or very wet seasons — an extreme pendulum that fuels the growth of vegetation only to dry it into brittle kindling — and the future of the West seems to be one marked by fast-growing fires and year-round risk.

Climate is a global system that produces the weather, and we have altered that system with human activity,” Westerling said. “All of this weather we experience comes from this altered system, and what that is doing is changing the probability of the weather we get. The set up we have this fall is something that becomes more and more likely as climate change progresses.”

Flames rise behind a vacant house as firefighters work to halt the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, CA, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames rise behind a vacant house as firefighters work to halt the Detwiler fire near Mariposa, CA, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Noah Berger)

There are a great many dangers that await a West — and a world — where fires like the Thomas Fire or Eagle Creek Fire are increasingly commonplace. Fire is a singularly destructive force that gives no quarter to homes or communities in its path. It’s capable of jumping divides that might seem impenetrable, from Highway 101 in California to the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. It leaves a charred path of loss in its wake, from lives and livelihoods to entire communities. In places like Northern California or the Columbia River Gorge, fires can burn through areas that depend heavily on tourism, scorching sites that used to draw in visitors.

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And as fires grow larger — and as people continue to build closer to the urban-rural interface, placing their homes and businesses closer to fire-prone areas — the cost of fighting these fires is skyrocketing. In 2017, the Forest Service spent $2 billion on fire suppression, making it the most expensive fire season on record. And because wildfires don’t qualify for federal disaster funds, the Forest Service is often forced to borrow money from elsewhere in its budget when fire suppression costs surpass their budgeted level — an act that has becoming increasingly common in recent decades. Since 2015, more than half of the Forest Service’s budget has been spent on fire suppression, meaning projects that can actually help reduce fire risk — like clearing underbrush in a particularly fire-prone area — get relegated to the back burner.

But wildfires — especially big ones — can have impacts that go far beyond the costs of fighting the fires. A recent study by researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Houston suggests that wildfire smoke, which contains tiny particles capable of penetrating deep into the lungs, could be responsible for thousands of U.S. deaths annually. By the end of the century, that number could triple due to climate-fueled wildfire increases. In 2013, a Climate Central study on air pollution and wildfires found that wildfire smoke was routinely responsible for the worst air quality day of the year in affected cities and towns. The October fires in Northern California degraded air quality in the Bay Area to levels comparable with Beijing. The Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon had such a negative effect on air quality that public health officials in the state cautioned everyone in the smoke’s path — not just children or elderly — to try and stay indoors during the first days of the fire.

Beyond fine particles and ash, however, wildfires send something else into the air — carbon dioxide. When organic matter burns, it releases into the atmosphere all the carbon dioxide that it previously stored. The Northern California fires in October released more greenhouse gas emissions than the state’s transportation sector releases in an entire year. It’s enough to seriously undermine climate action, at least on a state level: A 2015 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that all the greenhouse gas emissions released by California’s wildfires could actually prevent the state from meeting its climate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Wildfires, the study concluded, have essentially turned the state’s forests from carbon sinks into carbon sources, creating a kind of feedback loop where wildfires, made larger by climate change, release the very emissions that in turn make climate change worse. Wildfires in Alaska — which has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country — could be even more devastating, because fire leaves the vast expanse of carbon stored in the region’s permafrost more vulnerable to melting.

The sun over downtown Portland, OR, as seen through smoke from wildfires burning in the Columbia River Gorge.  (CREDIT: AP Photo/Don Ryan)
The sun over downtown Portland, OR, as seen through smoke from wildfires burning in the Columbia River Gorge. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Don Ryan)

As of December 17, California fire officials said they did not expect to contain the Thomas Fire — which has burned over 270,000 acres — until January 7. In a sense, its fitting that the fire will burn into 2018; in a year marked by destructive fires, the worst mistake would be thinking that the danger ends when the calendar flips to a new year.

Historically, California’s rainy season begins in October or November, and continues throughout much of the winter. But since the beginning of October, the cumulative precipitation in Southern California has been about four percent of the long-term average. If that holds, then even after the Thomas Fire subsides, the risk of another fire will persist.

There is no new normal, because normal implies something you can predict,” Westerling said. “We’re not going to get that luxury of a new normal.”