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Q&A: The Wildfire/Climate Change Connection

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Wildfire season is in full swing, with more acres burned than average in the Northwest so far. Scientists are studying the connections between climate change, drought and wildfire.  And policymakers and fire managers are trying to keep pace with new demands on resources as firefighting costs continue to rise.Jes Burns of our EarthFix team spoke with JPR’s Liam Moriarty about the latest thinking on these issues.

LIAM: Here in the State of Jefferson, we’ve literally been surrounded by fires since late July. And we’ve all been suffering through really bad air quality from all the burning. So let me ask: Is this a result of climate change?

JES: So I’m going to bust out a word that can be a bit difficult for some - ready?  It’s “nuance.”  There is no easy answer to this question.

Temperatures are trending hotter – we do know that.  Parts of the Northwest are in drought.  We know that.  But weather is not the only factor in how widespread and how intensely fires burn.

You also have to consider things like geography and vegetation type.  We’re coming off a century of fire suppression in the West – and consequently there’s a lot of built-up fuel in the forests.  There’s also the effect humans have - how and when they fight the fires.  

But is there a connection?

I would say the consensus is “yes.” There’s a growing body of science supporting climate change as a contributor to drought, which contributes to wildfire activity. South Dakota State University Climate Scientist Mark Cochrane has been studying this very thing – this is what he’s found.

Mark Cochrane: “The West in particular has the worst combination going for it.  We have significant rises in temperature.  We have significant drops in relative humidity, which dries out fuels.  We have increases in the number of rain-free days, so even if the amount of rain is the same the number of days where we have no rain is increasing.  And then, not so much on average, but from year to year, we have a higher frequency of high-wind years.  When we have high wind, this is when we can actually make a significant fire into a very large fire. ”

So more winds? And that’s a result of climate change?

Well, Cochrane says with temperatures rising, we’re essentially putting more energy into the atmosphere.  And when we have storms, more energy is released.  No one windy day can be attributed to climate change, but when you start looking at longer periods of time with more windy conditions, links can be made.

What don’t we know about the connection between climate change and wildfire at this point?

Apparently, it’s actually really difficult to study wildfire – I mean think about it.  Wildfires are often large, unpredictable, complex and diverse and science is all about controlled experiments and repeatable results.   Columbia University climate scientist Park Williams says there have been experiments in the lab setting and in small controlled burns – but getting at the nuts and bolts of a big fire as it’s happening is practically impossible.

Park Williams: “When it comes to large wildfires, really you can only look back in time and tease apart what was the cause.  And there’s so many things going on at once, you’re really never going to get two fires where there’s only one difference, and then you can really isolate the effect of that difference.”

So there’s a myriad of unanswered questions – especially when it comes to understanding how all these disparate factors – like geography, fuels and weather – interact.

Have firefighting tactics changed to meet these climate challenges?

One factor that’s forced some changes is the availability of water for crews to use in fighting these fires.  We’ve all seen the image of a helicopter dipping giant bucket into a lake to dump on fires.  Well doing this requires that there be water in lakes and reservoirs, not necessarily the case in a year of drought and virtually no snowpack.  Here’s Retired Fire Captain Lou Paulson – he’s President of the California Professional Firefighters.

Lou Paulson: “Especially in the upper elevations, where we would see year round lakes and streams.  Potentially we know they’re not there now.  We’re sending up more water tenders to the on-strike teams than we ever have before.  Kind of the concept of bringing your own water along.” 

Of course, wildfire crews are constantly adjusting tactics depending on the specific situation.  And this is just another factor that has to be considered.     

Is any of this science moving out of the lab and into policy?

So what’s the saying – if you want to get someone’s attention, hit them in the wallet? Policy makers may not be focusing directly on curbing climate change as a way to manage wildfire, but they are really taking notice as the price of fighting wildfires continues to rise.

There’s been a big shift.  For example, now more than half of the Forest Service’s budget is directed toward fighting wildfire – up from about 15% just 20 years ago.  There is a movement in Congress to fix this funding model this session.   

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.