Much has been made of the fact that the Beaver Creek Fire currently sweeping through central Idaho are endangering the favorite getaways of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis. Garnering much less attention in the media, however, is the role that climate change is playing in this devastating fire which now covers over 126,000 acres and is only nine percent contained in its twelfth day.
The fire, now considered the top firefighting priority in the nation, despite fires burning in ten other states, was started by lightning on August 8, and has proven itself an erratic and powerful force. The combination of drought-parched land and strong winds have made it nearly impossible to contain, although 1,200 firefighters are hard at work trying to keep the blaze away from the nearly 10,000 homes believed to be currently in danger.
On social media, local residents have captured the staggering damage of the flames:
The link between climate change and more devastating fire seasons in the west is clear. In fact, just a week or so into the Idaho blaze, Michigan State University published a paper showing that “climate change may favor larger and more destructive wildfires in the American West in the future,” and NASA just released a new animation breaking down the connection.
“A 100,000-acre wildfire used to be unusual, you would see one every few years,” Forest Service employee Carl Albury says in a NASA article. “Those type of fires are becoming a yearly occurrence.”
History speaks for itself — wildfires are becoming longer, more acres are burning, and the costs and fatalities are on the rise as well. Climate change is setting the stage for the new age of conflagration, bringing warmer temperatures and extensive, prolonged drought. Insect infestations made possible by warmer winters are also killing off huge areas of forests in the West, leaving acres of dead standing trees, ready to burn.
The seven largest U.S. fire seasons since 1960 have burned in the last thirteen years, and although 2013 may not go on record nation-wide, it has already resulted in the most destructive wildfire in in Colorado history and caused the death of nineteen firefighters in Arizona.
While aware that drought is part of the problem, major media outlets seem to avoid making the explicit connection between climate change and the Idaho wildfires.
Over the weekend, CNN devoted a segment to the fire, without so much as an allusion to the well-understood role of climate change in fires. In fact, climate change wasn’t mentioned a single time on CNN all weekend. ABC has also had quite extensive coverage of the fires, without feeling the need to explain to viewers the reason for the destruction.
Some of the few mentions of climate change and its role in this story were by local Idaho papers — perhaps not surprising, as residents forced to evacuate may well be asking “What’s going on?”
The Idaho Statesman was one such local outfit, writing “A generation of firefighters has been humbled, facing conditions their predecessors never imagined. The fires, driven by a warming climate, bountiful fuels and a growing population living on lands that once were wild, are reshaping the ecosystem and the human communities within.”