Driven by heat and high winds, wildfires are 10 times worse this year than average

Climate change means that there is no such thing as a typical “fire season” anymore.

Smoke rises from a wildfire near homes Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Boulder, CO. CREDIT: Seth Frankel via AP
Smoke rises from a wildfire near homes Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Boulder, CO. CREDIT: Seth Frankel via AP

Wildfire season, or the period between spring and late fall when dry weather, heat, and ignition sources make wildfires more likely, is already off to a devastating start, with fires already burning through a combined 2 million acres across the country — ten times the average for mid-March. According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, more acreage has already burned in 2017 than burned during the entire fire season in 1989, 1993, and 1998.

Record-high temperatures combined with low humidity and high wind have created the ideal environment for wildfires throughout much of the Great Plains and into the West, destroying homes and property and resulting in several deaths.

Late last week, a blaze near Boulder, Colorado, forced hundreds to evacuate from their homes. The fire, which burned 74 acres, was fully contained as of Monday. But the containment comes at a cost — according to the Denver Post, it cost firefighters $500,000 to fight the fire. Officials speculated that the fire was caused by human activity.

Earlier this month, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) declared a state of emergency in 22 Oklahoma counties, after wildfires burned through 400,000 acres in the state. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly three-quarters of the state is currently in drought conditions.

In Texas, an early-March blaze killed three ranchers as they tried to save cattle from a grass fire that eventually engulfed 100,000 acres. Another fire burned 300,000 acres of the Texas panhandle, the third largest in Texas A&M Forest Service history, while another fire burned 25,000 acres and threatened hundreds of homes near Amarillo.

In Kansas, early-March fires consumed more than 400,000 acres, destroying at least 30 homes. The fires forced between 10,000 and 12,000 evacuations, according to a spokeswoman with the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. They were the largest fires in state history.

A recent New York Times article chronicled the devastation wrought on ranchers by the recent Plains fires, some of whom lost hundreds of cattle. One Kansas rancher, who voted for Donald Trump for president, bemoaned Trump’s lack of engagement with the suffering ranchers, telling the Times, “I think he’d be doing himself a favor to come out and visit us.”

Emergency programs meant to help farmers and ranchers recover from catastrophic events — like the fires — are facing a 21 percent cut under Trump’s recently proposed “skinny budget.” Some ranchers told the Times they could be facing losses as high as $10 million.

The influence of climate change on wildfires is well-documented. Rising temperatures, combined with prolonged drought throughout the West, has prompted wildfires to spread across 16,000 more square miles than the otherwise would have — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. And over the last three decades, wildfire season has also gotten longer — as global temperatures have increased, wildfire season lasts on average 78 days longer.

Longer and more widespread fires mean more danger to humans, who are increasingly building homes and communities closer to forests, grasslands, and other fire-prone areas. But the increase in burn acreage and fire season also comes with economic costs to taxpayers.

The 2015 fire season, which burned through more than 9.8 million acres, cost the U.S. Forest Service $1.71 billion for the year — well above the $1.3 billion average usually spent on fire suppression. The cost of fighting fires has been steadily rising in recent years, meaning more of the Forest Service’s budget has been siphoned into fighting fires, rather than non-fire services like watershed management or road maintenance. Even services that can help prevent fires, like forest management, have seen their budget decline at the expense of fire suppression.

And those costs are only expected to increase as climate change continues to fuel record-breaking temperatures, feed extended droughts, and encourage pests like the pine beetle to ravage forests. According to a Forest Service report from August 2015, “the U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago, and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.” By 2025, the report concluded, fire-fighting costs could regularly exceed $1.8 billion annually.

While all signs point to an increased demand for fire suppression and preparedness, Trump’s proposed budget funds both wildfire at $2.4 billion annually — the average demand over the past 10 years.

Trump’s proposed budget also cuts any domestic climate research, as well as programs housed within the Department of Energy aimed at expanding renewable energy throughout the country. When asked about these cuts, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that climate funding was “a waste of [taxpayer] money.”

Yet without taking actions to significantly curb carbon emissions and fight climate change, fire season is only set to grow longer, more destructive, and more expensive in the coming years.