San Diego, CA, USA — Some scientists fear global warming could stoke ferocious wildland fires in parts of the world, disrupting fragile ecosystems and hampering efforts to protect communities.
Recent studies have tied rising temperatures to an upswing in widespread forest fires, particularly in the Western United States, which has experienced an unusually high number of severe wildfires in recent decades.
“There’s really no happy side to this,” said Thomas Swetnam, who heads the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.
Battling wildfires is an arduous and expensive task that has been complicated by thick forest undergrowth and the increasing encroachment of people near forest land.
“You add on climate change and it’s going to make things that much worse,” Swetnam said.
Scientists are already seeing a change in wildfire behavior due to rising temperatures. Fire seasons have grown longer or more severe in parts of the Western U.S., Siberian taiga and Canadian Rockies. If the trend continues, some predict frequent wildfire outbreaks that will be harder to put out.
“We are facing a new reality,” said Robin Wills, the president of the Oakland-based Association of Fire Ecology, a professional group.
Approximately 1,000 scientists and forestry officials who gathered in San Diego for an international wildfire meeting that began Monday and lasts through the week urged policymakers to consider the effects of global warming when managing wildfires.
Future fires, they warned, could drastically alter the land and convert vegetation from one type to another. That, in turn, could put native animals and plants at risk of extinction. Increased wildfires could also adversely affect the environment. When fires burn, they emit tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing to planet-warming greenhouse gases.
“There’s a lot of concern,” said Melanie Miller, the meeting’s chairwoman and a fire ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont.
Scientists suggest, among other things, that regions most at risk be pinpointed and that dead wood be reduced through increased controlled burn programs.
This past wildfire season in the U.S. was the most severe – and expensive – on record with more than 89,000 fires scorching 9.5 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The U.S. Forest Service spent a whopping $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2006 fighting wildfires – about $100 million over budget.
Wildfire season typically peaks in late summer and early fall, depending on the part of the country. Climate change is already being blamed for a longer fire season and some even predict the possibility of a year-round fire season.
“We may need to go to a more permanent work force to manage fires,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.
The Forest Service has used a number of fuel management techniques since the 1960s to lower the risk of wildfires. One of the most common is prescribed burns that involves intentionally setting fires before and after peak fire season under controlled conditions to reduce undergrowth.
Scientists say an explosion of wildfires will increase fire costs and old techniques may have little effect in controlling fires.
“With the types of fires that we’re going to be seeing, it’s not going to be humanly possible to put all of them out,” said Ingalsbee.