When firefighters speak out on climate change, we ought to listen up
Climate change is worsening the fires that ravage many parts of America each year. Grime-streaked firefighters battling one of the 167 active wildfires currently scorching portions of the US west will tell you as much. What they have encountered on the firelines in the past few years is evidence that everything has changed as a result of global warming.
In mid-August, the day after a quick-moving fire first exploded southwest of Boise, Idaho, the blaze more than doubled in size to nearly 79,000 acres in one four hour stretch. Along the way, it sparked a “firenado” that rained hot ash and dirt on firefighters.
Or consider the disturbing talk surrounding the still-smoldering fire named Rocky that this month scorched 70,000 acres near Napa, California: “This fire wants to do whatever it wants,” Jason Shanley, a Cal Fire spokesman, observed, adding “It’s defying all odds. 30 year, 40 year veterans have never seen this before.”
Last year, a raging wild land fire blasted into Yosemite National Park, propelled by a self-generated micro-climate that intensified its unpredictability. Even the idea that there is a definitive fire season has gone up in smoke. The calendar doesn’t matter when flames scoot across a Colorado snowfield in December, as happened in 2012, or blackenfoothills in Southern California’s rainy months.
But what firefighters believe is abnormal is just a new normal driven by climate change. Temperatures that spike above long-held norms, record-breaking low-humidity levels, multi-year droughts, tinder-dry vegetation and fierce winds are among the factors fueling these new, more massive infernos. The sooner that firefighting agencies, public officials, policymakers and citizens acknowledge the impact that climate change is having on the frequency, intensity, duration and behavior of fire, the sooner that they will begin to develop new responses to wildland fire in the US west.
Doing so will mean admitting that climate change is also disrupting the capacity of firefighting organizations to respond. They were created to snuff out fires based on what were perceived to be static weather patterns – the old normal.
Today’s powerful conflagrations have also exposed the conceit that we must fight all fires, everywhere. That commitment is made doubly dangerous given how dried out the US west has become due to the mega-drought that has been wracking the region since 2010.
Factoring climate change into our calculations about what fires we’re able and not able to fight will be a hard concession for firefighters and the public to accept. Still, we will have to let some fires burn, particularly those distant from populated areas.
Yet making such tough choices must come coupled with an increase in spending at national, state and local levels for fire-prevention measures. The US Forest Service is now spending more than 50% of its budget on firefighting alone, which is seriously undercutting its ability to conduct more cost-effective thinning of forests that can diminish a fire’s intensity and speed.
More money is also needed for educational outreach to those inhabiting fire zones – dubbed the wildland-urban interface – to ensure that their dwellings are more fire safe and defensible. This investment is particularly imperative in California, where more than two million people live in these zones, putting themselves directly in the path this new fire regime.
The extreme situations wildland firefighters now regularly encounter are warning signs. How bad it gets depends on how quickly we can read and respond to them.