January 18, 2016 — There’s no doubt that most wildfires are sparked by human activity, but thanks to warmer temperatures and extreme drought conditions these disasters are lasting longer and becoming more difficult to control. As the ongoing climate crisis continues to exacerbate these deadly events, the record-breaking 2015 wildfire season may be a signal of worse years yet to come.
In 2015, fires destroyed property in California, Idaho, Montana, Texas and Wyoming, and burned a total of 10,125,149 acres according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Although there were actually fewer wildfires in 2015 than in 1960, more land is being destroyed with the severe wildfires today than in years past. In Brazil’s Amazon, for instance, more than 11,000 forest fires were reported in 2015, an increase of almost 50 percent from the year before. In the United States, more than 15,000 wildfires burned from 2000 to 2013.
Temperatures across the globe are rising with 2015 easily eclipsing 2014 as the hottest year on record. This unprecedented temperature increase has led to historic drought conditions throughout the United States, creating a drier terrain that serves as fodder for wildfires. By 2050, the amount of land burned nationally is expected to double.
Although nine of the ten worst wildfire seasons have occurred since the year 2000, the 2015 wildfires were much longer and more relentless. In fact, last year’s wildfires lasted almost five times longer than those that occurred twenty years before. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wildfire seasons in 2015 lasted on average more than two months longer than they did in 1970. More than 15,000 wildfires burned in the continental United States from 2000 to 2013.
These intense wildfires are also leading the government to spend hundreds of million dollars on firefighting efforts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that more than 50 percent of the budget went to fighting wildfires in 2015, compared with just 16 percent in 1995.
In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Forest Service paid out an unprecedented $200 million each week to fight wildfires. National costs to fight wildfires have average $1.8 billion over the last five years. As wildfires become more and more severe, firefighting efforts often come at the expense of preventive measures
“The current method isn’t working, and it’s very disruptive,” said Jennifer Jones, Spokesperson for the Forest Service. “When we start depleting our firefighting funds, we have to go out to the field units and say stop spending — we take money away from wildlife projects and road projects, and it hurts long-term efforts to reduce fire risks on the front end.”
In response to the 2015 wildfire season report, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack again urged Congress to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that would see the Forest Service’s budget used for its original intent, not to cover the costs of extensive firefighting.
“Last month I directed our staff to end the practice of fire borrowing and slow the consuming growth of fire as a percentage of the Forest Service budget and, instead, ensure that all resources in the 2016 budget are spent in the manner intended, such as the important forest restoration work that helps to minimize wildfires in the first place.
“Today’s disquieting report should serve as a powerful call to once and for all fix how the Forest Service pays for firefighting. With a predictably long fire season on the horizon in 2016, lives, property, and the future of our forests and grasslands hang in the balance. Congress must fix this issue once and for all.”
Scientists now agree that there is a definitive link between the global climate crisis and increasingly prolonged and more-severe wildfires. The world’s forests and ecosystems are changing and not for the better. Drier conditions have turned expansive forests into piles of kindling just waiting for human carelessness or the random lightning strike to occur.
“We do see a climate change signal in the fire seasons we’re having,” says Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s climate change, it’s hazardous fuel buildup, it’s nonnative species invasions, it’s insect infestations. Climate change is part of that, but in any given season, it’s impossible to know how much.”
Effects of Wildfires
It’s obvious that wildfires can significantly damage property, changing ecosystems and driving people out of their homes, but the damage caused by these mega-fires goes beyond scorched earth. The wildfires that burned through Oregon and Washington last year killed three firefighters and displaced hundreds of residents. They also destroyed prime ranching land, damaging the local economy and forcing farmers into financial devastation.
Wildfires threaten everything from pristine recreational areas to the very water that we drink. “Forests are for you … if you drink water,” reads the Pacific Forest Trust headlines as they highlight the importance of forests. Without forests, more than 180 million Americans will lose drinking water. Without forests, communities lose jobs and a place for citizens to enjoy their leisure time.
These forest fires can affect individuals’ health as well. In Indonesia, forest fires were considered to be responsible for 500,000 respiratory infections in 2015, and, at least, ten people died from illnesses related to the smoky haze that infiltrated the cities.
Six Indonesian provinces had to declare a state of emergency as regional haze from the wildfires shut down schools, grounded flights, and crippled the local economies. According to the Indonesian government, the cost of the fires cost the country more than $30 billion.
“This is a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions,” said Sutopo Puro Nugroho, a spokesperson for Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), during the crisis. “ Now is not the time to point fingers but to focus on how we can deal with this quickly.”
Stopping the Wildfires
In a recent journal article, researchers revealed that “Over the past 100 years, high northern latitude regions have experienced more rapid warming than elsewhere on Earth.” Scientists believe that as fires begin to thaw the permafrost, huge amounts of carbon are released.
To successfully address the problem of forest fires we must first address the global threat of climate change. Otherwise, the fires will continue to get worse, and firefighting expenses will continue to skyrocket.
Already we’re seeing a tremendous push to better understand and mitigate the risks, but it still may not be enough. NASA, for instance, has put together ABoVe, a $100 million initiative to look at how ecosystems in North America’s boreal region are affected by catastrophic forest fires.
“I think we have the tools, but having the many different kinds of conversations we need to have and accepting we can’t put out all fires will be tough,” said Penelope Morgan, a professor and fire ecologist at the University of Idaho. “It’s probably going to lead to different ways of managing where we live and how we live as people.”
The Staff | Revolve Solar