Climate Change Making Western Wildfires in U.S. Worse

These conditions are punishing the West’s forests. Not only has the drought killed millions of trees, it has made the rest more vulnerable to attack from beetle infestations. And the beetles are faring better in the warmer climate. More of them are surviving the milder winters. The result is nearly 150 million dead, flammable trees over nearly 4 million hectares in California alone in 2018, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Human Factors
Humans are making the situation worse in a number of ways.

Fire is a natural part of Western ecosystems. Fires would burn on the forest floor, clearing out vegetation between larger, fire-hardy trees. But for decades, residents and industries in the region have worked to tamp fires down as much as possible.

The forests have grown denser as a result, and also more vulnerable to drought, because the trees are competing for water, Westerling said.

When a fire breaks out, it can spread more easily from tree to tree, burning more intensely and more destructively than fires that burn on the forest floor, he noted.

Plus, a growing number of people are living in vulnerable areas near wilderness, raising the risk of loss of life and property.

And more people means more fires, whether from power lines, campfires, cigarettes, fireworks or, more rarely, arson.

More to Come
And this is just the beginning.

A fire season like this one is “becoming more common, and it is projected to continue going in this direction” in the coming decades as climate change ratchets up, according to Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

Temperatures are expected to continue rising. Total annual precipitation might not change much, but it is expected to come in fewer, larger storms, she said.

Summers are predicted to be drier. “We already got very little (summer) precipitation, but we’re expecting even less,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Northwest Climate Hub Director Jessica Halofsky.

Add to that the lessening snowpack, she said, and “there’s going to be more fire in the Pacific Northwest, and a kind of ballpark (estimate) is maybe two to three times the annual area burned in the future than we’ve had in the past.”

Predicted Decades Ago
With dozens missing in Oregon and at least 19 dead in California this year, Western officials are calling out the effects of climate change.

“This is not an act of God,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

We’re in the midst of a climate emergency,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday. “We’re experiencing what so many people predicted decades and decades ago. But all of that now is reality.”

It’s little comfort to the scientists who predicted it.

It’s really not satisfying being correct,” Oregon State’s Fleishman said. “You wish that you were not, in these cases, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Steve Baragona is a multimedia journalist covering science, environment, and health. This articleis published courtesy of the Voice of America(VOA).