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Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty

The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey St. Clair’s & Joshua Frank’s new book, The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink.

As my wife Chelsea and I drove through Arizona on our annual pilgrimage from California to Montana, orange smoke billowed along the darkened horizon, signals of hearts shattered and landscapes scorched. Days earlier nineteen hotshot firefighters died together as they battled the intense blazes near the mountain town of Yarnell. It was the most lethal wildfire America had witnessed in 80 years.

The Yarnell flames were so erratic and intense the team became suddenly trapped, and despite each of the men deploying their individual fire shelters, all fighting the flames that day perished.

The lone survivor was out fetching a truck for his crew, only to return to the gruesome scene. It was the single deadliest incident for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Fires like the one that charred the small Yarnell community are only growing in size and ferocity in the West. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of wildfires every year in the U.S. has remained relatively steady, but their size has increased dramatically. In 1987, a little over 2.4 million acres burned across the country whereas 2012 saw over 9.3 million acres go up in flames.

That’s more than the size of Rhode Island and Maryland combined and it’s a trend many see as only increasing as more droughts plague Western states and climate change continues to rear its ugly head.

“Today, western forests are experiencing longer wildfire seasons and more acres burned compared to several decades ago,” says Todd Sanford, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The greatest increase has occurred in mid-elevation Northern Rockies forests, which are having higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. These conditions are linked to climate change.”

Seven of the largest fires since 1960 have occurred over the last twelve years. As these fires get larger more homes, particularly those built in fire zones, are being lost. For example, this year’s Black Forest Fire in Colorado consumed over 500 homes, while last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, only a few miles away, burned almost 350 houses. Even the U.S. Forest Service is beginning to hone in on the real culprit behind the intensified flames.

“We’re seeing more acres burned and more burned in large fires,” says Dave Cleaves, climate-change adviser for the U.S. Forest Service. “The changing climate is not only accelerating the intensity of these disturbances but linking them more closely together.”

Rising summer temperatures are exacerbating drought conditions and increasing pests like mountain pine beetles, which are ravaging Western forests and killing trees that in turn provide fuel for wildfires. Drought conditions in Arizona have been so bad over the past twenty years that trees like evergreens, manzanitas, oak and mahogany are drying up, becoming increasingly susceptible to fire.

“Even a degree or so warmer, day in day out, evaporates water faster and that desiccates the system more,” says University of Montana fire ecologist Steve Running.

Professor Running knows his numbers. Over the past 10 years, temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit across the continental United States, with certain states out west seeing an even larger jump. Arizona’s average annual temperature, for instance, has risen 2.3 degrees. Yet, even as it gets warmer and fires burn hotter, people are continuing to build homes in fire-prone areas.

And no real entity is putting a stop to it. Banks are not evaluating loans based on the potential for wildfire and homeowners are having little trouble ensuring their properties despite being built in the path of potential flames.

Arizona is no doubt partially to blame for its own warming climate. The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, pumps out 2250 megawatt coal-fired power every year and all the carbon that goes with that amount of dirty energy production. Arizona also imports coal from New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, producing nearly 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from its 16 operating coal-fired power units.

As climate change increases fire activity, it is also contributing to the Forest Service’s efforts to battle fires. In the last ten years firefighting staff at the agency doubled. Currently, 40% of the Forest Service’s annual budget is allocated toward battling wildfires at over $2 billion a year. The agency’s staff has a lot of ground to cover, about 231 million acres of public forest land alone has a moderate to high fire risk. Of course, most of the focus is on protecting areas where homes are vulnerable.

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell reports that the number of houses built within half a mile of national forests exploded from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000. That’s a lot of property to protect at taxpayer’s expense.

According to the Fannie Mae Foundation, which is not exactly a foe to development, Denver ranked fourth in the country for urban sprawl in 2000, trailing only Atlanta, Miami and Detroit. Fannie Mae cited these cities as spreading outside their urban centers at a dangerous rate. Strip malls line the Denver suburbs, where the housing developments are reminiscent of the endless tract homes of Orange County, California. Much of this vast expansion has pushed communities into fire-prone habitat that is affected by pine beetle infestations.

Winter temperatures aren’t as cold as they used to be in the Rocky Mountains, glaciers are melting and snow packs are decreasing faster than normal. As such, insects like the native pine beetle are surviving the winter months and thriving once spring rolls around, which is becoming earlier every season. The Forest Service estimates that areas in Colorado affected by pine beetles is around 3.4 million acres, which almost matches the combined 3.7 million that presently impact Wyoming and South Dakota. The Forest Service notes that the pace has slowed somewhat, but that’s only because mature trees in the outbreak hotspots have already been killed off.

Having grown up in and around Western forests, the epidemic is apparent at first glance. Discolored trees pepper forest landscapes with brown and orange hues. It’s as if these coniferous pines have somehow turned deciduous. It’s certainly a spooky climate change omen.

Colorado’s ritzy Beaver Creek Resort, 100 miles west of Denver, is one of the many places where the pine beetle has left its deadly mark. “We can’t stem the tide,” Tony O’Rourke, executive director of Beaver Creek’s Home Owners Association told Newsweek in 2008. The solution to protect Beaver Creek’s multi-million dollar homes O’Rourke represents? Clear-cutting. No trees means no fires. Of course, allowing fires to burn would be a healthier way to manage the problem, but O’Rourke and others aren’t about to risk losing their mountain mansions.

According to a study by CoreLogic, Colorado is number three of 13 Western states for the most high-risk homes insured, trailing only California and Texas. The study indicated there are over 121,000 homes in Colorado that were built in or near forest land.
A whopping 2,000 structures have been burned in these so-called “red zones” since 2002. However, this hasn’t staunched development. From 2000 to 2010 almost 100,000 new homes were built in wildfire-prone areas of Colorado, bringing the total number
to 556,000.

Colorado, aside from refusing to put the brakes on home development in red zones, is also not doing much to combat the very problem that is making their fire seasons longer and more intense. In 2006, Colorado ranked seventh in the nation in coal production, with over 36 million short tons of coal produced. The burning of coal in Colorado produces around 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every single year. Like Arizona, you could call Colorado its own worst enemy.

***

After traversing state highways out of Colorado and north through Wyoming’s coal-country, stopping off in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, Chelsea and I head on up to my hometown of Billings, Montana. A dozen hours on these lonely highways and it is easy to see that the coal barons, developers and their allies are the West’s biggest menace. No longer is the air fresh, Wyoming’s unfettered gas drilling has made parts of the state’s air quality worse than Los Angeles’ on its worst days. Endless streams of coal trains roll past, piled to the brim with black rock bound for incinerators here and abroad. Wyoming’s Black Thunder mining pit, operated by Arch Coal, is the first mine to ship out 1 billion tons of coal. It’s a disgusting sight to see.

Author William Kittredge calls Montana the “Last Best Place,” but I often wonder how long his phrase will remain apt. The majestic ice formations of Glacier National Park have been in retreat for years, victims of a warming climate. Some of the very glaciers I enjoyed in my youth, less than twenty years ago, are no longer around. Fish too may soon be casualties of a climate in peril.

Casting a fly in the Beartooth Mountains, which rise above the largest highest elevation plateau in the contiguous United States. Photo by Renee Chartier.

On the Madison River, where I cast my first fly, the number of days where the water temperature is dangerous for trout species (around 70 degrees) increased from six days a year in the 1980s to 15 per year over the past decade. It’s a sad reality for those that make their living entertaining wealthy Hollywood producers and Wall Street brokers on weeklong fishing expeditions along Montana’s mighty rivers: if trout numbers decline so will tourist dollars.

Pine beetles, as in most other Western states, are also destroying trees in Montana along with a staple food source for threatened grizzly bears. As author Doug Peacock has written, “During 2008, the bears suffered a double disaster: grizzlies died in record numbers and global warming dealt what could be a death blow to the bear’s most important food source. Some 54 grizzly bears were known to have died in 2008, the highest mortality ever recorded … Related to the high mortality of 2008 was the massive die-off of whitebark pine trees, whose nuts are the bear’s principal fall food. Mountain pine beetles killed the trees; the warm winters of the past decade allowed the insects to move up the mountains into the higher whitebark pine forests.”

Wildfires in Montana have also increased over the past several decades. Over 2 million acres of forest land burned in 2007 and nearly 2 million more in 2012, a significant increase from the worst years of the 1980s and 1990s.

As humans continue to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the world’s climate will continue to be altered. In fact, as many scientists believe, there may already be no turning back. Warmer winters, hotter summers, drought and burning forests (and the homes built in them) may soon be the new norm for the Western United States. The signs are already all around us. If you don’t believe me just take a little road trip through the Rocky Mountains to see the travesty first hand. Just remember to take your camera, it’s all going fast.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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