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Expert Advice on Climate Change: Get Used to Wildfires

With climate change generating way more wildfires, a new Interior Department strategy calls for people to learn how to “live with fire.”

by Thor Benson
Apr 11 2014, 5:00pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

America is burning. Wildfires in California, the state with the most wildfires per year, are expected to increase by 50 percent by the end of the century — if trends continue. Terrible droughts, higher temperatures, and more extreme weather are some of the causes of the increase in wildfires and the increase in their severity. The climate is a complex thing.

“What has changed a lot is the severity — the intensity and effect — that the wildfire actually has,” Jenna Sloan, an Assistant Director at the Department of the Interior, told VICE News. “That has increased, due to fuels building up on our landscapes, climate change, hotter weather, drought, and tree mortality.”

Not only are more fires projected, but the ones we’re having now are worse than they used to be. According to experts, wildfires burn twice as many acres as they did 40 years ago. Events like Arizona’s Wallow Fire in 2011, which burned over 500,000 acres, are evidence of the increased scope.

Sloan is part of a group that just released the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy this week. The report focuses on how the Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture will start combating growing fire problems by implementing the strategy in their operations and in the operations of forestry services. The strategy has three tiers: how to restore and maintain landscapes that are less susceptible to fire, how to prepare communities for fires, and how to help officials decide when and where to combat fires.

The strategy will help combat existing problems, but it doesn’t solve the overlying issue. Climate change is happening, and it’s not going anywhere soon. Sloan told us about carbon sequestration, which is something she believes could help things from getting worse. However, she tells us, “Fire has a real role as we look into things like carbon sequestration.”

Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and transporting CO2 emissions coming from power plants or other industrial sources and injecting the CO2 into the ground. There is a layer of porous rock about a mile beneath the crust of the earth that can trap the CO2 and thus keep it out of the atmosphere. However, the associated technologies cannot currently be used for emissions from forest fire — whether naturally occurring or man-made.

“This isn’t a federal issue only, this isn’t a state issue, this is an everybody issue,” Sloan says about the fires. That is true about wildfires, but it is also true for climate change as a whole. One of the key tenets of the USDA and the Department of Interior’s new strategy is learning to “live with fire.”

As climate change occurs, concentrations of ground-level ozone will rise. As the presence of the inorganic molecule O3 increases, not only will it affect people by increasing lung disease, but it will damage plants, killing crops we rely on and boosting rates of tree mortality — providing even more fuel for fires. Already it is believed that wheat and soy production have fallen 10 percent due to this problem. According to MIT, all crops could be reduced by 10 to 12 percent by the year 2100, if current trends continue.

The drought situation isn’t getting any better either. California is experiencing its driest year on record, a record that dates back 119 years. According to the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), each of the next 80 years will be drier than the dry period seen between 2000 and 2004. Things are not getting better; they’re only getting worse.

The heat, too, will continue to rise. According to the IPCC report and a report by Princeton University, even if carbon emissions completely stopped right now, temperatures would stay high or increase for hundreds of years due to the amount of carbon dioxide and other long-living gases already in the atmosphere. Heat-related deaths are expected to rise by 257 percent by 2050. The number of “hot weather” days will likely triple by 2080. Crops and animals do not react well to unusual seasons and changes in regional temperature, so there may be many other unanticipated consequences of such changes in weather.

Wildfires are a natural occurrence, but human activities are certainly compounding their prevalence and intensity. America is burning, and we’re just going to keep pouring coal into the fire.