A detailed look at the 2015 wildfire season in the U.S. West, one of the worst on record. Graphic: John Grimwade / Rolling Stone

By Tim Dickinson
15 September 2015

(Rolling Stone) – In May this year, the nearly unthinkable happened in the Pacific Northwest: The rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, one of the wettest places on the continent, caught fire. By August, an inferno was stirring in the forests east of the Cascades. A wind-whipped blaze near the mountain town of Twisp, Washington — a "hell storm," to quote a local sheriff — claimed the lives of three Forest Service fire scouts. That blaze soon exploded into the worst wildfire in state history, charring more than 300,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes.

As they raged, the wildfires in eastern Oregon and Washington devoured an area nearly the size of Delaware. The states called up more than 1,000 members of their National Guards, and the Army mobilized 200 active-duty troops to the fire lines. Ten Blackhawk helicopters and four C-130 Hercules aircraft deployed to help fight fire from the skies. With Gov. Jay Inslee calling the blazes an "unprecedented cataclysm," Washington even deputized citizen volunteers to fight the fires, where they joined professional crews from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

This is the present, and the future, of climate change. Our overheated world is amplifying drought and making megafire commonplace. This is happening even in the soggy Pacific Northwest, which has been hard-hit by what's been dubbed a "wet drought." Despite near-normal precipitation, warm winter temperatures brought rain instead of snow to the region's mountains. What little snow did hit the ground then melted early, leaving the Northwest dry — and ready to burn in the heat of summer.

In 2015, winds blew acrid smoke from Western wildfires as far as Atlanta, creating hazardous air quality. Graphic: John Grimwade / Rolling Stone

The national data is as clear as it is troubling: "Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970," according to a Forest Service report published in August. In the past three decades, the annual area claimed by fire has doubled, and the agency's scientists predict that fires will likely "double again by midcentury."

The human imprint on the bone-dry conditions that lead to fire is real — and now measurable. According to a major new study by scientists at Columbia and NASA, man-made warming is increasing atmospheric evaporation — drawing water out of Western soil, shrubs and trees. In California alone, the epic drought is up to 25 percent more severe than it would have been, absent climate change. And this impact doesn't respect state borders. The study's lead author, Columbia scientist Park Williams, tells Rolling Stone, "There's the same effect in the Pacific Northwest."

Standing near fire lines in late August, Inslee vowed to extinguish the blazes in his state. But the governor also called on Americans to confront an enemy fiercer and more insidious than fire itself. He declared, "We've got to attack this at its source: carbon pollution."

The fiery future is upon us. Pervasive drought and record temperatures — July was the warmest month ever physically recorded on planet Earth — have turned forests from Fresno to Fairbanks into tinderboxes. In Alaska, more than 5 million acres burned — surpassing the 10-year average for the entire country. With months left in the fire season, the blazes of 2015 have already scorched more than 8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center — a record pace, likely to top the 9.8 million acres that burned in 2006. "Some of these fires that are in these forested areas could burn until it snows," said NIFC spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto. [more]

What Megablazes Tell Us About the Fiery Future of Climate Change

2 comments :

  1. Tom Harris said...

    I suggest you have a look at this letter to the editor debunking the forest fire/lobal warming connection: http://www.kelownacapnews.com/opinion/letters/328553581.html  

  2. Jim said...

    Hi Tom, thanks for dropping by. Recent research shows a strong correlation between wildfires and global warming, e.g.:

    Recent burning of boreal forests exceeds fire regime limits of the past 10,000 years – ‘This suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity’

    Study finds climate change is increasing length of wildfire seasons across globe – ‘Climate change isn’t a future projection, it actually started around 1980’

    Almost certainly, 2015 will be the warmest year on record, and it's also turning out to be the first or second year (behind 2006) for area burned by wildfires in the U.S. (2015 fire season is second ever to break 8 million acres burned in U.S. by September).  

 

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