How Climate Change Is Making Wildfire Season Worse

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"Land on Fire," by Gary Ferguson. (Jackson Mitchell/Here & Now)
"Land on Fire," by Gary Ferguson. (Jackson Mitchell/Here & Now)

This summer there have been dozens of fires burning in the West, which has been experiencing record-high temperatures.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Gary Ferguson (@GaryAFerguson), author of the book "Land on Fire," about why wildfires have been getting hotter and burning longer in recent years.

Interview Highlights

On how much worse wildfires are because of climate change

"The most comprehensive study to come out last year, kind of a collaborative effort between Columbia University and the University of Idaho, suggested that when you pull out all the natural climate change factors — things like ocean circulation patterns and whatnot — human-caused climate change is probably responsible for doubling the number of acres burned since 1985. So it's a very, very fast change, and it looks like from all the evidence out there that this is just simply going to be worse before it gets better."

On whether humans moving into new areas has exacerbated wildfires' impact

"Absolutely, and that's part of the perfect storm going on. There's something that land use planners refer to as the 'wildland-urban interface,' and that's exactly what it sounds like: People moving into the edge of large swaths of vegetation, and pretty fire-prone areas. And remarkably, a billion acres are now in the wildland-urban interface, so that's about 40 percent of the land mass in the United States. And 200 million acres of that — about 70,000 communities — are living in land that has been designated as high risk for wildfire in the coming years."

On whether it's always been hard for forests to come back from a wildfire

"Not so much. And while there have always been the occasional big fires, they have gotten much, much more common since roughly 2000. Typically, in the days of thousands of years before Europeans and Anglos arrived in the West, there were what were called stand-maintenance fires burning through, and they were fairly low temperature, smaller fires, 6- to 8-foot tall flames, and they would actually be very healthy. They are very healthy for the forest. And so by eliminating those stand-maintenance fires, we allowed the fuel load to build up to an incredibly high degree. We've got about 300 million acres in the West now with unnaturally heavy fuel loads. And so now when the fires go through, they hit these accumulated fuel loads, and that's what makes them hot — that along with climate change — and that's what's sterilizing the soil to a degree and creating these hydrophobic soils to a degree that simply wouldn't have happened with this kind of regularity 50 or 100 years ago."

"While there have always been the occasional big fires, they have gotten much, much more common since roughly 2000."

Gary Ferguson

On humans overdoing it by trying to put out too many fires

"Back in 1910 — that big burn ... where 3 million acres went up in smoke, tremendous amount of timber loss — a fledgling agency called the U.S. Forest Service, that was created by Teddy Roosevelt in 1905, was trying to get its feet on the ground, trying to convince Congress there was a reason for it to be in existence at all. And it took it upon itself to become the firefighting agency, and it did a beautiful job. It even came up with a slogan which in hindsight was ridiculous, called 'the 9 a.m. rule' — that if any fire broke out, they would be on it and put it out by 9 o'clock the next morning. Of course, that didn't always happen. But it gives you a sense of how excited and eager they were to battle fire.

"Fire was really thought of as an enemy. We went to war with wildfire, and we put out fires that, in truth, in hindsight, should've been allowed to burn, in wilderness areas where structures weren't threatened or human life and safety wasn't compromised. Those fires should have burned, because they would have done the same kinds of good work that those stand-maintenance fires had done for a long time: cleaning the forest floor, limiting disease and returning the nutrients to the soil so that new flushes of even more nutritious life could be available for the wildlife of the forests."

On how pyro-forensic experts determine how and where wildfires originate

"It's interesting because a fire will burn in a sort of triangular pattern. So what the fire researchers and the pyro-forensic experts do first is try to find the point of that triangle, if you will. And they comb the ground down to a matter of a few square feet, and from that investigation, they can find where it actually began. As it burns it moves ever outward and generally in one direction, and you can piece together the ferocity of the fire, the direction it was moving, from the kind of char on one side of the tree versus the other, the way leaves can be sort of frozen by flames in one direction or another. And also by the winds created by the fire. So using all these clues there they become very, very good at pinpointing the fire ignition cause, and that's one reason we know how many of them are actually started by humans as opposed to lightning strikes."

"Fire was really thought of as an enemy. We went to war with wildfire, and we put out fires that, in truth, in hindsight, should've been allowed to burn."

Gary Ferguson

On new technology helping to suppress wildfires

"We've got an increasing capacity for satellite imaging, to the point where we can see actually areas through thermal imaging that are so hot and dry they can actually pinpoint the amount of heat coming off a forest even before a fire starts, and then as soon as one does start, that thermal technology allows us to see pretty much where it started and narrow it down very quickly."

Book Excerpt: 'Land On Fire'

By Gary Ferguson

Across my thirty-five years of writing about the natural and cultural history of the American West—logging nearly a quarter million miles of highway and some 30,000 miles of trail along the way—wildfire has been a common companion. I’ve seen its handiwork all around my longtime home in southern Montana; how it’s driven new generations of aspen and lodgepole forests in the Beartooth Mountains; and farther to the south, in the outback of Yellowstone, the way it’s cleaned and pruned the Douglas-fir and Engelmann spruce forests. Flames at my back have sent me scurrying like a startled mouse out of the lonely folds of Hells Canyon, while big burns have eaten beyond recognition some of the landscapes I roamed in my youth: slices of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, the southern uplands of Utah.

When I first came to the West as a young man in the late 1970s, wildfire was still seen largely as a destructive force, which of course at times it can still seem today. But across the decades I’ve also come to know it as a powerful agent of healing, a mighty wand that wipes the land free of disease and insects and fallen timber to create a stage for healthy, altogether magnificent new flushes of life. By returning essential nutrients to the soil, fire allows a flush of grasses that can provide especially nutritious graze for elk and bison, not to mention food for dozens of species of ground-foraging birds. At the same time, small mammals who feed on the seeds of those grasses tend to increase in number after a burn, in turn providing food for hawks, owls, coyotes, and the like.

Lately, though, I’ve also been witness to this land changing, increasingly being wrung dry by severe episodes of drought. And as a consequence, wildfire is establishing itself as a far bigger, much more forceful presence than ever before. In many recent years my neighbors and I have choked on smoke from burning forests, have turned our heads up to the August sky looking for rain until our necks hurt, and on several occasions have packed up a few precious belongings and evacuated our homes, hearts in our throats, in the face of advancing flames. Despite the hubris humans have so often brought to our relationships with the natural world (in the case of wildfire, once believing we could all but eliminate it), fire has proven awfully good at dealing blows to swagger.

What will we do as tens of thousands of acres of conifers, stressed by drought, succumb to infestations of beetles and disease, creating fuel loads that sooner or later will feed massive infernos? How do we control the invasive grasses and shrubs flaring across western landscapes, not only diminishing grazing values but also serving as flash fuses for the rapid spread of wildfire? With annual costs of fire suppression already in the billions, how do we fund not only future firefighting but also the prescription burning and forest-thinning operations needed to reduce the risk of major conflagrations? And even if we do find money for things like prescribed burns, will communities allow them, given growing concerns about air pollution as well as the possibility (though small) that such burns can now and then get out of control? And finally, how will the astonishing webs of life that are now strung across these great landscapes—encompassing salamanders and grizzlies, pikas and pinyons—be changed by the conditions that today allow wildfire such a heavy hand?

Like it or not, today seventy-five million people find themselves living in the western United States in a time of fire. And fire—like other big forces of nature—doesn’t suffer fools. It has no patience for our stubborn refusals to acknowledge the realities of our time. If we expect to minimize loss and suffering in the decades to come, we need to start making some serious changes to get along better with wildfire, not to mention living in ways that minimize the climate shifts that are making fire an ever more dangerous force.

Maybe the first step is simply to ask questions. To learn—from the men and women whose lives turn around wildfire, as well as from the land itself. To educate ourselves toward some deeper understanding of how to live intelligently, even gracefully, in what has clearly become a land on fire.

Excerpted from the book LAND ON FIRE by Gary Ferguson. Copyright © 2017 by Gary Ferguson. Republished with permission of Timber Press.

This article was originally published on July 27, 2017.

This segment aired on July 27, 2017.



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