Tom Boatner, U.S. BLM Chief of Fire Operations
“You won’t find [climate change skeptics] on the fire line in the American West anymore. We know what we’re seeing and we’re dealing with a period of climate that’s different from anything ever seen in our lifetimes.”
Tom Wittemore, Colorado Firefighter
“On a day-to-day basis, we’re being surprised. And in this business, surprise is what kills people.”
Firefighters & Climate Change
A warmer climate is setting the stage for more intense wildfires. Hotter temperatures dry out trees and plants faster, making them more flammable. These conditions leave forests drier than usual, making them more susceptible to catching fire, even outside of summertime.
The federal government now regularly spends multiple times more fighting fires than it did just twenty years ago. Firefighters are gearing up for the task by mobilizing more resources and manpower and improved forest management. Additional warming is expected to increase wildfire activity.
times more money is spent fighting wildfires than in the 1990s
day increase in wildfire season since 1970
of U.S. freshwater comes from forest land
Heard Around the Country
When lightning sparked a big fire in the tundra of Alaska's Arctic North Slope nine years ago, scientists were stunned. The Anaktuvuk River fire grew to more than 400 square miles and burned for months. It was bigger than the cumulative total of all prior North Slope...
At the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County, where new homes have been creeping into the wilderness for decades, Derek Webb barely managed to save his ranch-style resort from the raging fire that swept through the area last October. He spent all night fighting the...
Predicting the future of western forests, which are under increasing assault from various forces, presents a challenge. “Uncertainty may mean that not all news is good news, but we’re not certain about that,” said Daniel Tinker, associate botany professor at...
How are climate & weather different?
Climate means the long term behavior of weather. Weather is local and short-term; climate describes the average weather for a region at a given time of year based on historical patterns. Climate change means the average temperature and precipitation is not following those old patterns.
Where is there scientific agreement?
The world’s leading scientific organizations, including MIT and NASA, agree that human-caused climate change is happening and just a few more degrees of warming will increase the risk of intense storms, sea level rise and other extreme weather events.
How much warming has happened?
People have caused about 1.5ºF of unnatural warming by putting greenhouse gases into the air since 1889. While it may not sound like much, the extra warming has been linked to some natural disasters such as wildfires in the U.S. and drought in the Mediterranean.
In a Flash
- Many complex factors cause or contribute to wildfires, but climate change increases the risk
- Hotter temperatures due to global warming increases the risk that fires will be more intense
- Firefighters face more challenges than ever before in managing fires at an unprecedented scale and at an ever-growing cost
Sources and Citations
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Climate Change: Impacts. www.climate.nasa.gov
- CBS. The Age of Megafires. www.cbsnews.com/news/the-age-of-megafires/
- National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Statistics. www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html
- U.S. Global Change Research Program. Fourth National Climate Assessment. https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/
- Lance Cheung, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- The New York Times. Climate Change Is Fueling Wildfires Nationwide, New Report Warns.
- The Story Group. Unacceptable Risk — Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change.