Experts: Climate change adding to fire problems

Climate change is playing a key role in contributing to wildfires that have become uncharacteristically large and severe, a high-level U.S. Forest Service official said today.

Those warming temperatures will add significantly to the fire problems in Colorado, according to a researcher who also joined in a media conference call conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Dave Cleaves, the climate agency advisor to national Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, said fires aren’t occurring independently, but are related to other forest disturbances such as insect infestation, disease and drought, which themselves are being connected more closely by the impact of climate change.

“The change in climate is not only accelerating the intensity of these disturbances but is also linking them together,” he said.

Anthony Westerling, an associate professor of environmental engineering and geography at the University of California in Merced, said research that he and others are involved with indicates that the expected continued increase in warming likely will result in “very large increases in area burned over coming decades” in Colorado.

He said more fires have been occurring in the Greater Yellowstone area and other parts of the northern Rockies because they had been close to a critical threshold where larger areas could melt out in the spring and significantly extend the fire season.

“It did not take much warming over the past few decades to put us right at and then above that threshold on a regular basis,” he said.

It used to be that the climate was too cool for widespread fire in the northern Rockies, but rising temperatures are eliminating that limitation there and elsewhere, he said. While the southern Rockies have been somewhat buffered from fire by higher elevations, the region is expected to become more susceptible to fire in coming decades, he said.

Firefighting, fire management and related programs now consume nearly half of the Forest Service budget. Elizabeth Reinhardt, assistant director for fire and aviation management at the Forest Service, told reporters the agency’s adaptive strategies for living with fires and reducing their devastation remain the same, and include not just suppression but things such as engaging in fuel-reduction and prescribed-fire projects. But climate change has added to the urgency of implementing them, she said.

Reinhardt said there is a lot of public interest in harvesting of timber and use of biomass to reduce fuel loads. That can be a good solution in areas with enough accessibility, volume and access to nearby infrastructure to use the products, she said.

“Unfortunately at a landscape scale the cost of harvesting and transporting biomass often makes it economically unfeasible,” she said.


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