Experts: Expect bigger, fierce wildfire in US West (Update)

Jul 05, 2013 by Alicia Chang
This aerial photo shows Yarnell, Ariz. on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire that claimed the lives of 19 members of an elite firefighting crew on Sunday. The wildfire has burned structures and forced evacuations as hundreds of firefighters work to contain the blaze. (AP Photo/Tom Tingle)

There's a dangerous but basic equation behind the wildfire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters and other blazes raging across the American West this summer: More heat, more drought, more fuel and more people in the way are adding up to increasingly ferocious fires.

Scientists say a hotter planet will only increase the risk.

More than two dozen wildland fires are burning from Alaska to New Mexico, fueled by triple-digit temperatures and arid conditions. In the Arizona mountain town of Yarnell, a blaze apparently sparked by lightning killed 19 members of an elite firefighting squad who had deployed their emergency shelters Sunday when erratic monsoon winds sent flames racing in their direction.

While no single wildfire can be pinned solely on climate change, researchers say there are signs that fires are becoming bigger and more common in an increasingly hot and bone-dry West.

"Twenty years ago, I would have said this was a highly unusual, fast-moving, dangerous fire," said fire history expert Don Falk at the University of Arizona at Tucson, referring to the Yarnell Hill fire. "Now unfortunately, it's not unusual at all."

Wildfires are chewing through twice as many acres (hectares) per year on average in the United States compared with 40 years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a Senate hearing last month. Since Jan. 1, 2000, about 145,000 square miles (375,550 square kilometers) have burned, according to federal records.

A draft federal report released earlier this year said climate change is stressing Western forests, making them more vulnerable to fires.

What's happening now "is not new to us," said climate scientist Don Wuebbles of the University of Illinois, one of the main authors of the federal report. "We've been saying this for some time."

Compared with decades past, the traditional fire season now lasts two months longer and first responders sometimes find themselves beating back flames in the winter.

Rising temperatures all over the West, for one, have created dangerous, dry conditions.

Over the past 35 years, Arizona has seen dramatic warming, with the state's 10-year average temperature jumping from 59.1 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius) in 1977 to 61.4 degrees (16.33 Celsius) last year. Experts say every little spike in temperature makes a big difference.

"Even a degree or so warmer, day in day out, evaporates water faster and that desiccates the system more," said fire ecologist Steve Running of the University of Montana.

In many places, decades of aggressively snuffing out wildfires also have led to a buildup of fuel ready to ignite. On top of that, more people are living in fire-prone areas near forests, grasslands and shrub lands, which complicates firefighting logistics.

Climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona said unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, huge, fierce wildfires will become the norm.

Governments also need to rethink the way they deal with fires, which could mean just letting some burn rather than sending fire crews into increasingly intense and unpredictable situations, said University of Montana fire scientist and elite firefighter Carl Seielstad.

"I think it's inevitable," he said. "We're going to have to accept defeat when we're defeated."

As residents across the West learn to cope, scientists point to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 predicted that warmer summer temperatures were expected to increase fire risk.

Six years later, "we keep seeing more and more amazing fire dynamics," the University of Montana's Running said. "And there's just no reason to believe overall that this is going to go back ... We better be ready for more of it."

Explore further: Increase in reported flooding a result of higher exposure

More information: National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov
Draft National Climate Assessment: ncadac.globalchange.gov
Arizona State Climate office: azclimate.asu.edu/index.php

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User comments : 17

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rwinners
3.4 / 5 (10) Jul 05, 2013
"Climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona said unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, huge, fierce wildfires will become the norm."

Well, at least until the worst of the dead standing growth is removed by fire. And then the ecology will adjust ... one could say, it is adjusting even now.
deatopmg
1.2 / 5 (17) Jul 05, 2013
If this model projected, human caused warming and the "expert" proclamed increase in wild fires does NOT take place, say w/in 20 yrs, will Overpeck and the other so called experts sic renounce their titles as "expert" and give back the money that they received for being an "expert" hawking disaster after disaster over those 20 yrs?
ryggesogn2
1.2 / 5 (17) Jul 05, 2013
Maybe the forest service should stop attempting to put out fires.
Or maybe the US govt should sell of all the land they own in the west, pay down some debt and dissolve the Dept of Interior.
How many fires occur on private forest lands?
Porgie
2.1 / 5 (10) Jul 05, 2013
And if necessary they will set them themselves. Geological warming is not a political football. Some think progress and jobs are terrible things.
alfie_null
4.5 / 5 (8) Jul 06, 2013
Maybe the forest service should stop attempting to put out fires.
Or maybe the US govt should sell of all the land they own in the west, pay down some debt and dissolve the Dept of Interior.
How many fires occur on private forest lands?

Don't be disingenuous. How much privately owned forest is in the affected area?

And what problem are you addressing? The national debt? How much market is there for that much land? How much money would it bring in? Vs. the amount of the debt?

Would you consider foreign ownership? From countries that have lots of money and can't figure out what to do with it? Probably bring in higher profit.
ryggesogn2
1.2 / 5 (18) Jul 06, 2013
Would you consider foreign ownership?

Why not? What are they going to do with a forest, take it back home?
Why does the US govt own so much marginally productive land in the west? Why shouldn't it be sold to the highest bidder?

A Japanese company bought Pebble Beach golf course and later sold it at a loss. Did they take the golf course back to Japan?
How much money would it bring in? Vs. the amount of the debt?

How much does the land COST the US govt? When its sold, the owner would likely be taxed.
deepsand
3.7 / 5 (19) Jul 07, 2013
Rygg obviously believes that wilderness areas have no value unless and until they are ravaged by man.
VendicarE
4.7 / 5 (12) Jul 07, 2013
I have been told by Libertarians like RyggTard that animals have no value unless they are dead at which point they can be converted into products for consumption.

Such is the nature and extent of Libertarian Immorality.
VendicarE
4.7 / 5 (12) Jul 07, 2013
A little note on RyggTard's latest source of Republican Faux news concerning Obama.

Public records and court filings reveal that he has a 27-year criminal record, with a specialty in crimes involving deceit. The record includes forgery charges in two states, one of which drew Sinclair a 16-year jail sentence. The Pueblo County, Colo., Sheriff's Office also has an outstanding warrant for Sinclair's arrest for forging an acquaintance's signature and stealing her tax refunds.

So we have RyggTard - a congenital liar, using another Congenital liar as a reference to slander his own president.

That is what Republicans do. That is what Republicans are.

Republicans are deceit.

antigoracle
1.2 / 5 (17) Jul 08, 2013
The desperation of an AGW Alarmist cult, that knows no shame, preys on human suffering, just to propagate their lies and agenda.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (15) Jul 08, 2013
Where there sufficient browsing animals to keep down the underbrush?
If not, import some goats from the middle east to keep it down.
Usually the govt puts to many restrictions on BLM land its not worth keeping cattle, sheep or goats on the land.
ValeriaT
3.7 / 5 (9) Jul 08, 2013
deepsand
3.7 / 5 (12) Jul 09, 2013
The desperation of an AGW Alarmist cult, that knows no shame, preys on human suffering, just to propagate their lies and agenda.

One wearies of your constant pecking at one aspect of a subject like an insane woodpecker looking for a grub in a block of concrete.
ScooterG
1 / 5 (13) Jul 09, 2013
"researchers say there are signs that fires are becoming bigger and more common"

Sadly, the forests in the USA are now the sacrificial lamb used by enviro-idiots solely for the furtherance of the AGW agenda.

The enviro-idiots refuse to effectively manage the forests, knowing full-well the forests are (someday) going to burn like Hell.

And so when fires happen - and we all know they will - the enviro-cop-outs simply blame AGW, which (they hope and reason) will further edify the AGW agenda. Round and round they go, happily using our forests as cannon fodder.

Maybe the enviro-idiots should be held accountable for the deaths of those 19 firefighters?

deepsand
3.4 / 5 (13) Jul 10, 2013
That, Scooter, is one of the dumbest posts I've seen from you.
ScooterG
1 / 5 (13) Jul 11, 2013
That, Scooter, is one of the dumbest posts I've seen from you.


Maybe you have a better explanation for the idiocy that allows deadwood to pile on top of deadwood year after year after year? Any studies out there that show this to be good forest management practice?

Or are you gonna claim the deplorable forest condition is the result of AGW?
deepsand
3.2 / 5 (9) Jul 26, 2013
That, Scooter, is one of the dumbest posts I've seen from you.

Maybe you have a better explanation for the idiocy that allows deadwood to pile on top of deadwood year after year after year?

Is that not what Nature does? Are you claiming that Nature is an idiot?

Or are you gonna claim the deplorable forest condition is the result of AGW?

Are you arguing that global warming has no effect on forests?