The wildfires in Colorado, which have burned more than 430,000 acres so far, are only a continuation of the worst fire season the American Southwest has ever seen. Tens of thousands of people in Southern California alone have been forced to evacuate their homes as raging wildfires tear through the landscape. Over 30 people have died from these record-breaking wildfires as millions of acres of California, Oregon and other parts of the western U.S. burn.
Not only are the wildfires destroying homes and livelihoods, but they are also leading to some of the most unhealthy air on the planet, as air pollution hits historic levels in several cities. Meanwhile, our politicians have argued over the root of the problem: Is it forest management or climate change? While lack of proper forest management certainly plays a role in wildfire occurrence, climate change is the key factor that will only worsen the problem by increasing the intensity of wildfires and making forest management more difficult in the future.
Many scientists have linked the intensity and frequency of wildfires to climate change. There are several factors that affect the behavior of wildland fires, including temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and vegetation (which serves as the fuel). Anthropogenic climate change has led to warmer temperatures and drier soils, priming the landscape for wildfires. Research has demonstrated that increased drought coupled with warmer temperatures and longer fire seasons is leading to more wildfires.
Even though fire has been a natural and beneficial part of many ecosystems throughout history, humans are altering the process. In Alaska, forests evolved with fire, but the rapidly rising temperatures (which are increasing at twice the rate as the rest of the country) have caused wildfires to increase in size and frequency. As temperatures increase from climate change, wildfires become more rampant. It is undeniable that climate change plays an important role in the frequency of wildfires, even when examining the issue of forest management.
Forest management definitely affects the risk of wildfires, but climate change can make it harder to properly manage our forests. Prescribed burning is incredibly important within a forest to reduce the amount of vegetative fuel that can facilitate the spread of a wildfire. Fire suppression has harmed the health of our forests, and it is important to understand that controlled fire is necessary to protect these forests, along with the ecosystems that evolved with fire. Research has shown that previous thinning and prescribed burning helped forests survive a wildfire that occurred in Washington in 2014.
Nevertheless, there are many challenges associated with properly managing forests as human density increases, and climate change will only make forest management more challenging.
In order to conduct a prescribed burn, land managers need suitable weather conditions as a part of their “burn window.” If temperatures are too high, the burn window will close, and trained fire specialists cannot safely conduct a prescribed burn. Recent research has shown that climate change will reduce the number of suitable prescribed burning days in the Southeastern United States, preventing forest managers from conducting controlled burns and increasing the risk of out-of-control wildfires. Using two climate prediction models, researchers concluded that elevated temperatures will lead to fewer burn windows as the percentage of suitable burning days in the summer dramatically decreases. Even the amount of burning days in the spring will become more unpredictable as the temperatures get hotter earlier in the year.
These factors will make it difficult for land managers to plan and obtain the necessary resources to conduct a prescribed burn. Thus, while forest management is clearly a key player in wildfire occurrence, climate change leads to hotter and drier conditions that increases the frequency of wildfires and makes proper forest management more difficult.
Clearly, it is important that we address climate change for a variety of reasons. We are not removed from the problem of wildfires in North Carolina, where our mountains were burned in 2016. In fact, a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested that the risk of very large fire weeks in the Southeast will increase 300% by mid-century. We need to turn to our leaders to make change, both regionally and globally. The Climate Reality Project at NC State is leading an effort to divest the $43 million that the university has contributed to the fossil fuel industry. We must address our dependence on fossil fuels if we hope to solve the issues that climate change causes. Advocate for change by imploring NC State to divest in fossil fuels, and remember to vote for officials who make our environment a priority.
Courtney Smith is a third-year studying fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. Smith is a member of the Climate Reality Project.