Wildfire season

| 4th July 2019
Fire fighters at forest fire
Quarrie Photography
The causal relationship between climate breakdown and wildfires is a dangerous Catch-22.


The Camp Fire was the most damaging wildfire in California's history, ravaging infrastructure as well as human life.

The fire in 2018 coincided with several of the hottest years on record. But as scientists began drawing the connection between burning countrysides and global climate change, many were left wondering: what's the reason for the connection — and what does it mean for us in the long term?

Given that we're heading into "wildfire season" — although scientists are now saying wildfires have become a year-round problem — it's worth taking a look ahead at what is in store for us. 

Climate assessments

As the average temperature across the globe climbs, trees and forests become drier, more brittle, and less able to withstand the conditions that give rise to wildfires.

It's not a secret that the leadership in America right now wants little to do with climate action. Nevertheless, bodies within the present administration continue to release National Climate Assessments unabated.

The most recent and most comprehensive assessment arrives at several conclusions and lays out several consequences: factories, automobiles and other sources of greenhouse gases cause climate change and make wildfires more likely, more frequent and more destructive; we will see a greater frequency of fires measuring 12,000 acres or more in the near future; wildfires, while once a quintessentially "western" problem in the US, will become a wider and more urgent concern.

The most recent National Climate Assessment drew on existing research to build its case, including a study that modelled wildfires under current conditions and under conditions without anthropogenic climate change.

In the "no human warming" model, fully half as much forested areas succumbed to wildfires than burned in the "human-caused warming" model.

Self-fulfilling prophecy 

Additionally, the annual season during which wildfires occur is growing ever longer. Certain areas of the country are now on fire watch well into November — a historically unheard-of month to watch for wildfires, when they tend to peter out in August or September.

Scientists point to warmer winters in much of the country, which reduces the amount of snowpack in mountainous areas. This is unfortunate, because it reduces the amount of available water in the area come spring and summertime.

That means a higher risk of wildfires in areas that previously experienced them only rarely, thanks to the abundance of snowpack in the mountains.

Unfortunately, the news gets even worse. The relationship between the warming of the planet and the frequency and geographical distribution of wildfires is a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point.

As climate change makes wildfires more frequent across a greater area, extreme wildfires will precipitate climate change in turn.

Vicious cycle

Published research indicates that of all the carbon emitted by the state of California between 2001 and 2010, two-thirds of it came from just 6 percent of the land that burned during wildfire events in that period.

California's ecosystems in fact became net emitters of carbon emissions, since some forested areas and grasslands released more greenhouse gases than they removed from the atmosphere.

Similar research suggests that, as a result of this vicious cycle, forests are having a harder time rebounding and restoring themselves after major wildfire incidents.

Scientists have witnessed a sharp decline in the number of forested ecosystems returning to full functionality between the 1990s and today. What this means for the nature and makeup of these ecosystems is something of an open question.

What happens to a forest when it can't regenerate? The answer could be that it becomes shrubland, grasslands or something else, according to professor John Abatzoglou of Idaho University. The truth is, we don't really know what happens when forests reach that point on a such massive scale.

Social awareness

What can we do about this perilous cycle through social campaigns and legislation?

Californians can voice their concern at the ballot box. A survey of California voters by Action for Wildfire Resiliency indicated that 80 percent of citizens want state laws to acknowledge and provide action plans for the increased risk of wildfires and how climate change influences that. 

As a result, Action for Wildfire Resiliency has organized a grassroots campaign to compel the state legislature and the governor to take action in the form of new laws.

These laws would hold utility companies to higher standards when trimming brush and accounting for other fire risks, build newer and higher-tech weather monitoring stations, increase state investments in emergency response services, improve worker training programs for frontline responders, form a wildfire recovery fund, create a cleaner electricity grid and much more.

It's worth repeating that the situation in California could soon be the situation in much more of the country. The Californians who lost their homes and lives during the Camp Fire found themselves facing a situation most of us don't want to imagine — but we all helped to create it. 

Now that we know the stakes, let's make this one of the last annual reminders that wildfire season only stands to get worse the longer we leave the health of our planet to chance.

This Author

Kate Harveston is a vegan health and sustainability writer and the editor of women's wellness blog, So Well, So Woman.

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