Longer and Longer

This year, we saw a rise in intense wildfires across the United States and around the world. While every region has different factors playing into the causes of wildfires, climate change cannot be ignored as the overarching contributor, touching all regions.

Unfortunately, the situation is only expected to get worse. According to a 2013 study conducted by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, wildfire seasons will last about three weeks longer by 2050. Rising global temperatures help create conditions that make wildfires more common. Let’s examine what this means for firefighters, vulnerable communities, and future preparation.

Factors Driving Wildfire Increases

The increasing temperatures around the world mean that soil and vegetation have less moisture throughout the year. Dry conditions earlier in the spring and later into the fall cause an increase in flammability, putting many areas at an increased risk. Rising temperatures are also contributing to an increase in droughts, which deprive regions of needed moisture throughout hot summer months. In mountain regions, high temperatures speed up the loss of snowpack, which lower elevations rely on for moisture into the summer.

We also can’t dismiss the roles of land use patterns, forest management practices, and population growth when it comes to wildfire increases. Land managers, through aggressive firefighting, are believed to have limited the natural process that previously thinned out wildfires. In other words, the practice of putting out wildfires as fast as possible has negative effects; in not allowing these wildfires to burn, forests quickly overgrow, filling the area with aging, dead, and extremely flammable plant life. When a larger, more dangerous wildfire sparks, these overgrown forests are at high risk for total devastation.

One of the main factors leading to overgrowth comes from the uptick in people abandoning urban environments for a life closer to the wilderness. The growing remote workforce is giving more people the freedom to work where they want - and live where they want. Local governments like the idea of expanding their tax bases into previously uninhabited areas. Yet, as people set up homes and neighborhoods deeper and deeper into forest regions, fire management is forced to put out more wildfires quickly and abruptly, saving human lives and property, yes, but hindering the forest’s natural way of strengthening itself against large fires.

As our weather patterns and climate grow more erratic, fire seasons will become more difficult to predict and prevention will become crucial. (Photo by Shutterstock.)

Wildfires Around the Nation

From region to region, we see various factors contributing to stronger, longer-lasting fires. Wildfires in the Rocky Mountain forest are best predicted by the amount of moisture on the forest floor, which is affected by humidity, rainfall, and temperature. For wildfires in the Great Basin area, located in Nevada near the Utah border, relative humidity is the primary factor. Fire suppression is believed to be the most significant contributor to wildfire increases in the Southwest. Southern California tends to have wildfires in September and October because of the very dry conditions and strong winds.

Some regions are expected to be affected more than others by this pattern of wildfire increases. Experts believe the overall length of the wildfire season will increase in the western states, lasting from late April to mid-October. The Pacific Northwest could see a 65 percent increase in area burned during the month of August. California may see a doubling of its amount of area burned. Even areas traditionally not at risk for fires, such as the White Mountains in New Hampshire, are now at risk because of snow melting faster than ever before.

Wildfire increases aren’t limited to forests. Findings from a recent study by Sierra Nevada Research Institute, University of California, show there has been an increase in frequency and size of wildfires occurring in nonforest locations. For these fires, no significant trend in human cause was found.

Issues Facing Wildfire Management

What do these wildfire increases mean for our nation as we move into the mid-21st century? Air quality will suffer, as smoke is expected to increase by 20 to 50 percent by the 2050s. The cost for fighting fires was $2 billion in 2015 and will only rise with the increase in wildfires.

There are different approaches for tackling wildfire management. Alaska and a couple of Canadian provinces moved up the official start dates of their fire seasons, giving them more influence over management. Fire departments can increase their staff. Educating the public on how to avoid accidentally starting fires will become ever more important. Some argue that letting wildfires naturally burn is the best option. Yet this could put many people in danger as retirees and others are migrating to quieter areas closer to - or directly within - the wilderness.

For many states and national agencies, the issue comes down to funding. The United States Forest Service spent more than half of its budget in 2015 on fighting forest fires. This spending limited the agency’s ability to fund fire prevention, where money is more typically spent. Hawaii spent all the money it had set aside for fighting wildfires for the whole year by February.

As wildfires continue to increase in strength and frequency, governments need to change their thinking when it comes to funding. The Washington State legislature, for example, approved $6.7 million in increased funding for wildfire management efforts - when $24 million was requested. Peter Goldmark, public lands commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources who requested the funding, said it’s hard to convince people to approve funding during the wet winters. In other words, fire management is struggling to request these resources in advance when the implications can’t readily be seen in the moment. While cutting costs is an overarching priority for governments, the goal of decreasing spending needs to be weighed in comparison to the potential harmful and expensive consequences of more powerful wildfires.

Supporting wildfire management with increased funding will only become more important for protecting our land, our property, and ourselves. (Photo by Pixabay.)

Preparing for the Future

The increasing length of wildfire seasons is just one way to look at the bigger problem. Fire ecologist Randi Jandt told The New York Times she’s concerned about the “runaway fire season,” referring to fires that could burn out of control. This is important to consider as boxing the threats of wildfires into seasons (the way we currently do) may not be as applicable in the future.

Those who doubt the existence of global warming need to put aside debates and differences of beliefs and recognize that, regardless of the root cause, wildfires will grow in power and frequency in the near future. Supporting wildfire management with increased funding will only become more important for protecting our land, our property, and ourselves. Funding does more than just purchase the resources to fight active wildfires; funding is necessary for training firefighters, improving prevention efforts, and spreading education. As our weather patterns and climate grow more erratic, fire seasons will become more difficult to predict and prevention will become crucial.

Shannan Mills was hired as an administrative assistant in 2002 and quickly moved into a new role as marketing coordinator. Throughout the years, she learned that the wildland firefighting market and customers were her true passion and in September 2013 was promoted to division manager for National Fire Fighter Wildland Corp. In her role as division manager, Mills focuses on helping the company best serve the wildland firefighters who protect our lands and homes and growing the wildland firefighting market.

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September 2016
Volume 11, Issue 9
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