Climate change fuels bigger wildfires in the United States

• August 27, 2013

Rim fire in California, Creative Commons: US Dept. of Agriculture, 2013

As the Rim fire scorches northern California for the eleventh day, the US is experiencing a prime example of how climate change fuels more severe wildfires.

High temperatures and drought in the American West, both linked to climate change, lead to the dry conditions and tree deaths that enable more frequent and intense wildfires. The American wildfire season is getting longer, and the number of very large fires has doubled in California and many other states since the 1970s.

As carbon emissions continue to pour into the atmosphere and cause the climate disruption that creates drought and high heat, these wildfire trends are projected to get even worse.

As of 3pm (EDT) on Tuesday August 27, the massive wildfire in California known as the Rim Fire has engulfed nearly 161,000 acres and is threatening San Francisco’s key water and power sources. Work is being done to protect both communities and nearby Yellowstone Park, where unique giant sequoias and wildlife stand at risk.

The wildfire, which is 20% contained, is spreading primarily to the east and threatening to grow amid dry, hot weather. As many as 20 helicopters and air tankers are aiding the efforts of 3,600 firefighters. Unfortunately, however, it is only one of 11 fires currently burning in the state.


Smoke from the Rim Fire, Creative Commons: California National Guard, 2013

Persistent drought year-round — seen in reduced snow and rainfall — leads to prime conditions for rampant summer wildfires. Dead and dying trees and underbrush increase the risk of sparking a wildfire, and raise the likelihood that small fires will grow quickly in size.

Not only is the drought responsible for the dead and dying trees, but warmer temperatures are also contributing to prolonged insect infestations that are killing large swathes of vegetation that become perfect tinder for wildfires.

The wildfire season used to span only three months, from June to September. Now, firefighters are dealing with fires from May to October, causing more extensive damage and straining their limited staff and financial resources.

Already, the US Forest Service has spent $967 million in 2013, and was recently forced to divert money away from other activities to pay for continued fire fighting as the season intensifies.  This is the sixth time since 2002 that the US Forest Service has had to scramble to find additional funding in its budget to perform essential firefighting duties.

Bigger wildfires and longer fire seasons are signs that climate change is endangering livelihoods here and now. The US has the tools to address the causes of climate change, including clean energy solutions and shutting down major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. As firefighters continue to put out fires today, decision-makers and political leaders must take forward-thinking action to cut emissions and reduce the future risk of severe climate impacts.

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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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