Future fires

Warm, dry winters, early springs, hot summers heighten wildfire risk

The debate about climate change has centered around etiology, but among the other sides to the story is the ways in which Colorado’s climate apparently is changing have heightened the risk and behavior of wildland fires.

Hotter summers, including this one, mean that more moisture is needed to grow crops and maintain forests. Milder winters reduce beetle mortality, and more beetles means more beetle-killed trees. Earlier snowmelt, sometimes accelerated by windborne dust and perhaps containing less snow to start with, results in drier forest and fire seasons that begin earlier and last longer.

According to Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer, this fire season is “a window into what global warming really looks like: It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster.” (Oppenheimer is also an advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the board of directors of Climate Central.)

If that’s true, it has serious repercussions.

The safety of the wildland-urban interface — those forested places where so many Coloradans love to live — will grow even less safe as time goes on. Neighborhoods such as those that burned above Colorado Springs, have been considered relatively safe because they were suburban blocks with paved streets and fire hydrants, not remote homes tucked here and there in the forest. In the Waldo Canyon Fire, at least, that margin of safety was not sufficient.

Some activities — personal fireworks, summer campfires — no longer may be supportable.

The costs of preventing and fighting fires will continue to increase, and funding should increase ahead of the need, not on an emergency basis.

Regardless of what anyone believes should have happened in years past, if westerners really want their public lands agencies to manage forests with techniques such as numerous controlled burns (which have become much harder to control) and discounted or subsidized timber sales to remove beetle-killed trees, their budgets will have to grow dramatically.

Likewise, the hiring, training and equipping of firefighters will need to be ramped up. By the end of June, the shortage of air tankers had become obvious, especially when more planes were pulled from the force after a C-130 crash killed four North Carolina Air National Guard crew members in South Dakota over the weekend. The availability of military equipment and personnel is a boon to fire crews needing assistance, but National Guard crews are not trained primarily as wildland firefighters. (It’s worth noting that fire danger, and firefighting demands, have increased in eastern forests as well.)

Forests capture carbon and contribute oxygen to the atmosphere; as they shrink, CO2 levels will accelerate the warming trend. Those trees may not be coming back. In a growing number of places, the climate is no longer hospitable to forests and may transition to smaller trees or sage and rabbitbrush.

Finally, fire behavior will change, becoming less predictable and more dangerous. The Waldo Canyon Fire and even the Weber Fire provided evidence of that. Fire science will catch up quickly, but the bottom line will be that fires which grow in unexpected ways and burn actively all night will be harder to combat.

Westerners and politicians cannot afford to let their distrust of climate science deter them from making sound decisions about forests and firefighting. If all of these changes are quickly reversed, wonderful. Until then, the lives of both firefighters and residents depends on the ability to acknowledge reality and deal with it appropriately.