Are extreme fires the new normal in fire country?

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Almost every summer since 1992 my wife and I have driven up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to Grants Pass, Oregon to visit her family. It’s usually cheaper than flying – honestly, anything is cheaper than flying into nearby Medford, Oregon from Southern California in the summer – and there is also something kind of magical about road tripping past places like The Olive Pit, Mt. Shasta, and a town called Weed. But what we don’t love are the wildfires, and almost every year since 1992, they’ve gotten worse.

In fact, when we passed through Redding a couple of weeks ago the flames from the devastating Carr Fire were so intense that they actually generated their own weather system.

With active large fires currently burning in 14 US states, and the deadly Mendocino Complex Fire near Ukiah officially becoming the largest wildfire in California history earlier this month, one has to wonder, what the holy hell is happening? And perhaps more importantly, why now?

“There have been ups and downs in fire seasons over the last few decades, but generally we’re seeing more area burned in many regions of the west,” explains Meg Krawchuk, Assistant Professor, Landscape Fire and Conservation in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University’s (OSU) College of Forestry.

“Winter snowpack provides a buffer for moisture in higher elevation ecosystems, and we’ve seen numerous years with low winter snowpack meaning these landscapes dry out sooner and are drier by the time we reach the July/August fire seasons. We also seem to be seeing some record-breaking temperatures in summers, with little rain, which contributes to the warm/dry conditions that support widespread fire.”

Or, as John D. Bailey, the Maybelle Clarke MacDonald Professor of Teaching Excellence, Silviculture and Fire Management at OSU’s College of Forestry puts it: “Double whammy! The climate pattern we are currently in is clearly hotter and drier and maybe windier. Plus [there is] more fuel than we have ever had in that landscape – the native peoples regularly burned to keep down the fuel loads and create the environment they wanted – so all you have to do is get an ignition that probably wasn’t a big deal 20 to 50 years ago, and certainly not 400 or 4,000 years ago, and away it goes.”

President Trump, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and others in the administration are quick to blame “bad environmental laws” and liberal “environmental terrorists” – who care more about endangered species than people – and literally anything except climate change for the escalating wildfire situation in the west.

But experts are “not saying that climate change is literally causing [these events to occur”, said Dr. Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University during a recent PBS News Hour innterview.

“What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme. And it’s not rocket science. You warm up the atmosphere, it is going to hold more moisture, you get larger flooding events, you get more rainfall. You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worst drought. You bring all that together, and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

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Krawchuk seems to agree with Mann’s assessment. “We are on a trajectory of change through climate: climate affects fire directly, climate affects plants and ecosystem structures directly, and these interact,” he explains, suggesting that burying our heads in the sand on climate change science isn’t helping anyone.

“Fire is an inevitable part of our lives and we can’t pretend ourselves out of it,” he says. “Even though the administration very clearly acknowledges wildfire is a serious concern, the refusal to acknowledge climate change is dangerous because it dismisses one of the key drivers of fire that will continue to contribute to active fire seasons regardless of what we do with the fuels in our forests and rangelands. The fire behavior triangle includes fuels, topography, and weather — by ignoring climate/weather changes we’re ignoring one critical facet.”

Though some experts bristle at the overuse of the term “the new normal” to describe our current extreme fire era, Bailey says he is fine with it, to a point. “The ‘new normal’ works for me in the sense of ‘we need to accept this reality,’ but not that the current condition is stabilizing to something new,” explains Bailey. “The new normal is that things are getting worse and we don’t know how ugly it is going to get.”

That’s a pretty scary thought considering how ugly things have already gotten. And with the National Weather Service recently reporting that smoke from the western wildfires has traveled as far east as New York City, it’s apparent that the fires and ensuing smoke are already changing the way many people live their daily lives, and have wide-reaching repercussions.

An expansive study on the subject released in January by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute found that while news headlines were quick to capture the ‘cost’ of firefighting, suppression represents only a fraction of the true cost of wildfire. There are huge impacts to air quality and health, school athletics, travel and tourism, employment and the economy, transportation, and iconic economic sectors.

Aerial firefighting is also in overdrive, with reports suggesting that the US Forest Service will likely use significantly more chemical retardants in 2018 than in 2017.

I recently joked with my pre-teen daughter and her cousins when we were in Oregon that staying indoors and playing video games all day was simply preparing them for the harsh realities of the post-apocalyptic world they will inherit. But on staring out the window at an otherworldly noon day sun obscured by thick, brown smoke, I realized that future is not as far off as it might seem.

“On the smoke issue, I tell my students that there is no future without fire and smoke, so it is just a matter of how/when you want it and the steps we can take to minimize the impacts on sensitive populations and businesses,” says Bailey, who suggests a three step plan of attack for individuals, rural communities in the hot zone, and even decision makers in Washington.

“Step number one: admit the new reality.  Step number two: identify the common ground [which is] we want to survive as a species for our children and grandchildren. Step number three: start working collaboratively on some new ideas to sustain the planet, the landscape, ecosystem services that we all need, communities, and individuals.”

He adds, “If we follow some semblance of the above approach – try new things, listen to others and trust the professionals – the radicals on either/all ends of the spectrum with their conspiracy theories and baggage from fights long ago will be marginalized, and the rest of us can move forward and drag them – and the flat earthers, the white supremacists, and the Neanderthals – into the future.”

But whether we follow Bailey’s roadmap moving forward or not, Krawchuk insists that cutting through the noise and divisiveness right now is key.

“Currently we’re stuck in a reactive politic of finger-pointing … we need to have more open and honest conversations about fire, community collaboratives that involve private and public lands, talking honestly about what people want from their lands, the risks, the alternatives, and think about how we can work proactively to get there,” says Krawchuk.

“We can’t pretend there is a simple solution here. Our ecosystems need fire to be healthy and support native biodiversity. We need to learn to coexist with fire, but this is a tricky problem. It’ll take us decades to figure out our pathway of coexistence, through trial and error in management options. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can stop wildfires.”

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