The West Is Burning Up


John Upton flags a recent study showing that wildfires are affecting more and more of the Western US each year:

The numbers of big fires that strike annually are on the rise throughout most of the region, from the Rocky Mountains’ pine forests to the wind-whipped deserts that border Mexico. Worsening droughts are taking searing tolls, helping to nudge vast biomes into combustion. The only region spared seems to be coastal California—and, even there, in the relative respite of a Mediterranean climate, the amount of land affected by large fires continues to grow.

Researchers recently pored over satellite fire data and climate data before concluding that monster wildfires—the types of uncontrolled blazes that tear through at least 1,000 acres of forests, parched grasslands, and neighborhoods—increased at a rate of seven every year throughout the region from 1984 to 2011. That helped push the amount of area that burned in such blazes up by an average of nearly 90,000 acres every year.

Becky Oskin talks to the study’s lead author, geographer Phil Dennison of the University of Utah:

“There are a lot of different causes for fire and a lot of different things that contribute to a fire regime, and those vary tremendously across the West,” Dennison said. But because the bump in wildfires seen in the study is so widespread, Dennison thinks one main factor likely underlies the trend: climate change. “This is over too short of a period to say this is definitely climate change, but it does point in the direction of changing climate having an impact on fire,” he said.

And Ari Phillips looks at the attention this problem is getting in Washington:

In February, President Obama called for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. The move is intended to allow the U.S. Forest Service to avoid using their mitigation and prevention budget to pay for the costs of massive, and extremely costly, western fires.