The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Cost of Fire

So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?

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Fire

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.


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Last Call

California, Oregon, and Washington State are on fire at present. As are Idaho, Montana, and Nevada. This past week, the number of active wildfires rose to over a hundred. 1.1 million acres have been burned. Exhausted fire crews can no longer respond to all the blazes and for the first time in almost ten years the US Army is being sent in to help. 71 fire experts from Australia and New Zealand are on their way. Towns have been evacuated, houses destroyed, people have been killed. This appears to be the big one.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that much of the region is still in a multi-year drought that has certainly been exacerbated by climate change and that July was Earth’s hottest month since record-keeping began.

I have written about the connection between climate change and wildfire before, here and here and here. I could write the same article again, about how drought and heat work together to change fire behavior and about how human activity and natural variation work together to create increasing disaster. But why? Next year there will be more fires and I’ll have another opportunity to say exactly the same things.

A day or two ago I watched an interview on TV with the parents of a fallen firefighter. I have been unable to find a transcript, or even proper attribution of the broadcast anywhere online, but the father of the young man said something along the line of “They’re saying he was a hero. And he was a hero. We’re proud of him. But we were proud of him before. We wish he wasn’t a hero; we wish he were still here with us.”

That stuck with me.

There is a human cost to climate change, and that cost is on the individual level. When we talk about increased danger from forest fires, this is what that means–an increased chance of news like this. We’re not just talking about numbers–these people have names, histories, families.

Some sources have mentioned as many as 13 firefighters dead so far this year, a somewhat high but not extraordinary number, but several of them died during training or from other circumstances not directly related to the fire. At least five were actually killed in the line of duty, although I am not certain my information is complete–there may be more, and in any case the season is not over.  When a firefighter dies, his or her companions sometimes say “she/he answered the last call.” A call being a call to duty, like a pager going off in the night, a fire. You can’t refuse to go.

Here are the names I found.

Dave Ruhl, of Rapid City, South Dakota, died on the Frog Fire in the Modic National Forest, in California. He died on Friday, July 30th , while scouting a fire zone by vehicle. His body was not found until the following morning and the specific cause of his death was not initially announced.

Ruhl, 38, was a veteran firefighter who normally worked as an engine captain for the Black Hills National Forest. He had been at Black Hills for 14 years. Earlier in life he had served with the US Coast Guard. He also used to work as a correctional officer in South Dakota. He was originally from Wisconsin. He had a wife and two children. Friends and coworkers describe him as a passionate and professional firefighter and a quiet, highly respected leader.

Michael Hallenbeck, of Shingle Springs, died Saturday, August 8th, on the Sierra Fire in El Dorado County, California, when a tree fell on him during initial attack.He is survived by his parents and his sister.

Hallenbeck, 21, was working on his first fire. He loved being a firefighter and his parents describe him as very excited about his new job. He was an avid sportsman and outdoorsman. He snowboarded, hiked, and played football, basketball, golf, and other sports. His parents are devastated, but very proud of him.

Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died on August 19th in a wildfire near Twisp, Washington. While scouting a large fire that had already triggered widespread evacuation orders, their vehicle crashed and the fire overtook and burned them. Several other men who were with them survived but with severe injuries; one of the survivors was in critical condition at the time of the report.

Tom Zbyszewski, 20, was a physics major at Whitman College. This was his second summer as a firefighter. His parents worked for the Forest Service as well—his mother still does. His father is a retired firefighter and has said publicly that he wishes it were him, not his young son, who died that way.

Andrew Zajac, 26, wrestled and played football and the cello in high school before attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then the University of South Dakota, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. He was in his second year as a firefighter when he died. He leaves behind a spouse as well as friends and family who remember him as a hard worker, an athlete, and a man who loved the outdoors.

Richard Wheeler, 31, was a fourth-generation firefighter. He is from South Haven, Michigan, and graduated from Grand Valley State University.


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Alaska Burning

Alaska is on fire at the moment.

Well, not all of it, but the state’s wildfire Preparedness Level is at 4. The scale only goes up to 5, so PL 4 means the state is starting to have real trouble dealing with its fires and needs help from other states. For a state, or region to go to Level 4 is not all that unusual–the state and regional wildfire response systems are not designed to be self-sufficient–but the fires are not inconsequential, either. In recent weeks, both forests and tundra in Alaska have burned–and some of the fires have been quite large and dangerous.

Fires are not exactly a new thing in Alaska, but there are more of them now, for a variety of reasons including the current successional stage of previously logged forests, the effects of fire-suppression policies, and, yes, climate change. Alaska’s climate is changing much faster than that of more temperate areas, becoming both hotter and drier. And the fires, in turn, might be causing dramatic changes to both the climate and ecology of the region.

In forests

Recent research suggests that larger, more intense and frequent fires might dramatically alter forest compositions that have been stable (despite repeated natural climate changes) for six thousand years–although the forests themselves could then act to slow further changes.

In the interior of Alaska, there are essentially two main types of forest; most areas are dominated by black spruce, berry bushes, and moss, but there are forests of aspen and other deciduous trees as well. Both types of forest burn, perhaps every hundred years or so, but after the fire, the same type of forest eventually grows back. The result is a mosaic of different forest communities that has kept the same pattern since before the pyramids were built. Basically, each forest type produces its own distinctive type of forest floor. Because spruce forest floors are very thick and wet, they don’t burn down to bare soil, whereas the thin deciduous leaf-litter layer does. After a fire, the two different forest floor types guide ecological succession in different directions so that, in time, black spruce and aspen each return to the areas where they grew before.

As Alaska dries out, however, the black spruce forest burns more intensely and more often, destroying its distinctively thick duff. Once the soil is bare, the deciduous trees can move in–and there they stay.

The neat thing about ecology, though, is that nothing is simple–as the number of deciduous groves in interior Alaska increases, it seems likely that the situation will stabilize itself because the deciduous trees do not burn as easily and may act to slow down and break up large fires. These trees are paler in color, too, and they release more water back into the air and so may act to cool the region somewhat. Both effects may act to protect the remaining black spruce forests, at least for a while.

All by itself, changes in the composition of Alaska’s forests is not necessarily a disaster, although we don’t know for sure that it isn’t, either. Both the human cultures in the region and much of its wildlife have developed ways to use both types of forests in different ways, and it is not obvious what changing the proportion and distribution of the two types is going to do. Change is not automatically bad, but the fact that we are changing something this old should certainly give us pause.

Of more obvious, clear-cut concern is the fact that black spruce forests, with their thick, slowly-decaying duff, are a carbon-sink. That is, they take in more carbon than they release and thus are one of the reasons global warming is not worse than it already is. The loss of these duff layers, either because forests convert to deciduous communities or because spruce forests can no longer build up as much duff between more frequent, more intense fires, is already starting to convert Alaska’s forests into a net carbon source.

That’s a problem.

In the tundra

Much of Alaska is still treeless tundra, plant communities dominated by shrubs, mosses, grasses, and lichens. The tundra, too, is a net carbon sink, because huge amounts of organic matter build up in the soil and do not rot. The layers of ligroundving and dead organic matter also insulate the soil, helping to keep the permafrost from melting. The permafrost, in turn, keeps groundwater close to the surface and keeps buried methane trapped. As permafrost melts, some lakes are actually draining away, destroying important habitat for fish and for migratory birds. And, of course, that methane is bubbling up–methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is.

Alaska’s forests have permafrost as well, but it is discontinuous–rather like big, underground boulders of ice. Beneath the tundra, the permafrost is more like bedrock.

The thing is, when the tundra burns–as it may be doing more often now, in part because northern Alaska is getting more lightening strikes because of its warmer weather–it’s not just the thin living laying but also the soil that goes up in smoke. A tundra fire can release as much carbon dioxide as a forest fire can. Without as much insulation, and given the much darker color of the charred surface, the permafrost beneath can then melt all the faster.

Positively problematic

I have written before about how positive feedback loops are anything but positive in the colloquial sense of good or happy. A positive feedback loop is a self-intensifying cycle, such as where rising temperatures melt permafrost, releasing methane, which makes temperatures rise faster, melting more permafrost….

The really scary thing here is that initiating these loops–pushing systems to the point where they start releasing greenhouse gasses–means that even if we stopped burning fossil fuel tomorrow, climate change might continue to get worse. We are losing the option to save ourselves.

That isn’t an argument to give up, of course–no situation is so bad that it cannot be made worse, and that means no situation is so bad that we  cannot make things better by our restraint. But it does mean that the hour is later than we might think. The Earth is a live thing, and it has been protecting us from ourselves to some extent–but it won’t do so forever. To those of you who are doing the equivalent of calmly reading the paper while your house burns around you; it is time to get up, now.