What Washington state’s wildfires tell us about climate change

Source: By Michael Sainato, contributor, The Hill • Posted: Friday, September 11, 2015

Wildfires are increasing and wildfire season is getting longer in the Western United States. As the global climate warms, dry areas are becoming drier due to higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelts facilitating drought. These conditions have increased the intensity and long-burning wildfires currently occurring throughout Washington state. This disaster should serve as a wake-up call to everyone who refutes the existence of climate change.

Washington state has already broken the record for acres burned this year and last year the state had the single largest wildfire on record. “The conditions this year were against us; spring and summer this year were exceptionally warm and dry. This set the stage for a potent one-two punch; first, widespread thunderstorms without much rain followed by high winds, resulting in the ferocious wildfires the state is currently facing,” said Dr. Nicholas A. Bond, research meteorologist at the University of Washington. “These wildfires may be a dress rehearsal for what the future may hold, with the decks stacked against us from Mother Nature; we may have to learn how to deal with a greater threat of large scale wildfires as the norm.”

In May 2015, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee released a graph showing that the number of wildfires larger than 100,000 acres has increased from less than five annually on average in the 1990s to between 20 to 40 a year since 2000. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Wildfires in the [W]estern United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long (comparisons are between 1970-1986 and 1986-2003).” The organization also cites that wildfire seasons have increased in length from five to seven months in the Western United States since the 1970s.

President Obama declared a state of emergency in Washington state on Aug. 21, 2015, citing 12 counties and four Indian reservations in Washington that were under catastrophic threat from the wildfires that began on Aug. 13. The state called for volunteers to mobilize, with over 30,000 currently battling fires across the Western United States — the biggest number mobilized in 15 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The National Preparedness level is at a “five,” the highest on the scale that calls for as much federal and state mobilization as needed to combat the large wildfires. So far this year, over 7 million acres have burned in the United States, with merely the suppression costs of the fires nearing $2 billion, with possibly even more in property damage.

These disasters across the United States are stark reminders of the impact climate change is having on our environment. Visibly, these wildfires have a lot to do with climate change, but politicians continue to ignore or deny its existence to avoid having to use a portion of the national budget to deal with it. So far in Washington state, over 600,000 acres have been burned by 16 separate wildfirescovering 374 square miles. The evidence for climate change is overwhelming, with NASA reporting that “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” As disasters such as wildfires are growing in intensity and prevalence, the time for all politicians to admit climate change is real and begin working on nonpartisan policies to address it is long overdue. If no action is taken very soon that involves both political parties working together for solutions, disasters such as the large wildfires currently afflicting Washington state and much of the Western United States will become regular occurrences.

Sainato is a freelance writer.