For years politicians, environmentalists, the timber industry and the forest service have argued over forest management. Should old growth cutting be allowed? Should all wildfires be suppressed or should naturally occuring fires be allowed to burn out? This issue has become increasing urgent as the number and intensity of fires has increased. This week the new philosophy of controlled burns was implemented for the first time in the Boise National forest with the “eight mile ridge” fire near Lowman.
While the concerns of policy makers has been on coping with the dramatic increase of wildfires in both numbers and intensity over the last two decades, little attention has been given to the reasons for the tremendous increases. While some fires are cause by human activity, most wildfires in National forests are lightening caused.
As the latest fire season begins in the Intermountain West, a new study conducted by scientists from The University of Arizona and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography been published in the Journal Science. The study shows a direct connection between global warming and wildfires. The researchers used the files of the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to analyze 1,166 fires of more than about 1,000 acres. Beginning about 1987, there was a change from infrequent fires averaging about one week in duration to more frequent ones that often burned five weeks or more, they reported. The length of the wildfire season was extended by 78 days.
The researchers said the changes appear to be linked to annual spring and summer temperatures, with many more wildfires burning in hotter years than in cooler years. They also found a connection between early arrivals of the spring snowmelt in the mountainous regions and the incidence of large forest fires. An earlier snowmelt, they said, can lead to an earlier and longer dry season, which provides greater opportunities for large fires.
This has been described as the melting ice cube effect. Although temperatures have risen gradually, around 1987 they reached the tipping point. The results have been much like an ice cube that remains frozen until temperatures rise above 32 degrees fahrenheit. Then, the ice cube melts rapidly.
According to Thomas Swetnam, one of the researchers from The University of Arizona:
I see this as one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States. We’re showing warming and earlier springs tying in with large forest fire frequencies. Lots of people think climate change and the ecological responses are 50 to 100 years away. But it’s not 50 to 100 years away, it’s happening now in forest ecosystems through fire.
For those of us who hoped global warming would not have an immediate impact on our lives, this should be a wake-up call. We need to put pressure on politicians to begin immediate action. The Idaho congressional delegation is beyond hope. Craig, in particular, is so deeply indebted to the logging and extraction industries and to the corporate polluters that he will never do what is necessary to protect the environment. They have to be replaced with politicians who use science to inform policy.