The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change



And the wildfires continue. At least thirteen states host wildfires at present, with Idaho, Washington, Northern California, and Arizona being the hardest hit. The smoke from these fires is mostly blowing north and causing serious air quality problems in Canada. And for the first time ever, the US forest Service is spending 50% of its budget on wildfire suppression alone–the agency is now pulling funds out of its other programs in order to pay for fire suppression.

And yes, climate change is officially involved. There is a strong relationship between climate at fire: in Montana, every one degree on temperature increase doubles the area that burns. Other areas have different figures. More wildfire is part of the prediction for many areas of the country in coming decades–warmer temperatures, more intense droughts, and more electrical storms (plus more insect damage of trees, thanks to the warmth) add up to more fire. This year has been hot, and this fire season obviously isn’t anything the Forest Service was prepared to handle–we’re in a new normal, as they say. There just aren’t enough firefighters.

And firefighters themselves say they’ve never seen wildfire do this before.

I have just watched the excellent short film, Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change. You can watch it online, here. In this mini-documentary, firefighters in Colorado’s Front range talk about how different wildfires are now, at least in their area. Colorado once rarely had large fires. Now, fires last for weeks or months. Fires can occur almost year round, can grow dramatically at night (when cool temperatures used to make fires die down–the greenhouse effect does not so much heat up the planet as keep it from cooling down, so it’s more obvious at night), spread downhill, and flare up in December. It’s not just weird–firefighters rely on their knowledge of fire behavior to plan attacks, make decisions about resources, and keep their people safe. None of that works anymore. As one man interviewed in the film says “it’s surprises that kill people.”

These are just personal experiences, anecdotes and observations shared by individuals. It’s possible to present any message you want to by choosing the right people to interview and then editing appropriately–personal experience can be extremely misleading, which is why we invented science. But at the same time, when someone as familiar with fire as these people are says fires have changed, that’s important to look into.

And in this case, where we know fires are changing, anecdote can tell us what that change really looks like on a human level–and it looks terrifying and sad.