USA: According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, there are 137 large wildfires currently raging across the American West, burning a total of 7,8 million hectares. This is already the third-worst year for wildfires in the last decade. It’s already way ahead of the previous 10-year annual average of 5,4 million hectares burned. The fires in the Columbia River Gorge, Glacier National Park and the Los Angeles suburbs are only a small part of the overall picture. As of 11 September 2017, there were 13 active wildfires in Washington, 26 in Oregon, 23 in Idaho, 46 in Montana, and 38 in California. Smoke from these fires currently envelopes an area stretching north to the Queen Maude Gulf in the Canadian Arctic, west to Seattle, south to Waco, Texas, and east to Columbus, Ohio. This year has also brought record heat to the US. High temperatures bake out the moisture absorbed by forests during the extremely wet winter. Because heat leads to drier fuel, the relationship between each additional degree of temperature and the likelihood and severity of fire has been found to be exponential. Every additional degree of temperature is more likely to lead to fire than the last.
While the historic drought that afflicted the US over the last five years officially ended this winter, its effects are still being felt. In the Sierra Nevada mountains alone, the drought claimed an estimated 26 million trees. Statewide, 102 million have been killed. Most of those have not been cleared, and their dried out husks clutter forest floors, and still stand on mountain sides, creating perfect fuel for wildfires. Forests that once had open ground under the trees are now so cluttered with dead logs that it’s become impossible to walk off-trail across much of the western Sierra.
All this winter’s rain also led to huge growth for grasses and underbrush, which this summer’s record heat then dried out, turning it into massive amounts of tinder. Stack dry grass under a dead log, and you have the perfect recipe for a campfire. Scale that across the entire west and you have our ongoing disaster.
According to an analysis by the insurance industry, 60 percent of new homes constructed since 1990 are located in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface Area. In short, we’re building our homes in areas that naturally burn. More than $500 billion of homes exist across the 13 western states in areas categorised as at extreme or high risk of wildfires. And that construction is making it more difficult to proactively head off massive fires in those areas with controlled burns.
The other big factor limiting wildfire prevention right now is budget. All these huge fires cost tons of money to fight, and that money is coming out of prevention budgets. Every time a state or the Forest Service has to fight a fire, its financial ability to prevent other fires diminishes. As the Forest Service spends more money fighting fires, it has less money to spend preventing them. As it has less money to spend preventing fires, it has to spend more money fighting them. Something has to change.
Climate change is also bringing wildfires to new areas and to a degree never before seen. Since the 1980s, the area burned annually in the northern Rockies has increased by 3 000 percent. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a 5 000 percent increase over the same period. Between 1978 and 1982, the average burn time of a fire was just six days. Between 2003 and 2012, it was 52 days.
“Warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt have contributed to drier conditions,” reads the research behind those figures. “But cooler, moister forests, such as those in the northern Rockies, have seen the greatest drying due to changes in the timing of spring, and the greatest changes in forest wildfire.”
“Observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favourable fire environment across forested systems,” reads another study. “Human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest-fire area since 1984.” By the end of the century, the US is projected to warm by an additional 3,5 degrees Celsius. Given the exponential relationship between temperature and wildfire, that’s bad news.
To pay for part of this season’s suppression budget, $300 million for the Forest Service has been written into the Hurricane Harvey relief bill. But the agency is desperately in need of a major new source of funding. If it doesn’t get one, it’s estimated that the budget for other activities, like fire prevention, could shrink by $700 million annually between now and 2025.
This is not a problem we can afford to neglect. The solution to this funding shortfall is obvious. Fires need to be treated like the disasters they are and fighting them needs to be paid for in the same way we deal with other natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes.
Now, state lawmakers are calling on Congress to revisit the bill. “Congress needs to act,” Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney wrote in a letter to Congress on 8 September 2017. “This is no time for politics. It’s time for action. My state is on fire.”