Firefighters & Climate Change

How are they connected?

Climate 101 > Groups > Firefighters

In a Flash

  • Firefighters face more challenges than ever before in managing fires at an unprecedented scale and at an ever-growing cost in the billions of dollars per year
  • Hotter temperatures due to global warming increases the risk that fires will be more intense, frequent, and widespread

The Climate Connection

Many complex factors cause or contribute to wildfires, but climate change increases the risk that a fire will start and spread: hotter temperatures dry out trees and plants faster, making them more flammable. Hotter temperatures also result in more snowmelt that happens earlier every year. These conditions leave forests drier than usual, making them more susceptible to catching fire, even outside of summertime.

“Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change”

“On a day-to-day basis, we’re being surprised. And in this business, surprise is what kills people.” So says Don Whittemore, a career firefighter who has battled many of Colorado’s epic fires over the past two decades.

Source: The Story Group

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute

“The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

“The question today is no longer if climate change is happening, but how we can confront the social, economic and health challenges it presents.”

Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Ford

“The time for debating whether climate change is real has passed. It is time for a conversation about what we, as a society, intend to do to address it.”

Effects and Consequences

Firefighters in California are now being asked to fight fires they have never seen before, with the fire season extending through the entire year rather than just during summertime. The strain is financial, physical, and emotional. The federal budget fighting fires has increased from a $200 million per year just twenty years ago to more than $1,500 million in 2018. Thousands of people in California have been evacuated in 2018 alone due to massive wildfires.

Increasing wildfires 

One study found that climate change effectively doubled the total area burned in the Western United States over the past few decades.

Source:  The New York Times

People face a number of problems when drought occurs. Water scarcity, the lack of available water to meet the water demand in a region, is predicted to worsen in the future due to global warming and population growth. Droughts often disrupt the most essential uses of water, like daily cleaning, eating, and drinking. Water stress on crops, livestock, and managed lands could put financial stress on individuals and the overall economy. For example, the 2010-2013 Texas drought cost farmers and ranchers about $8 billion in lost profits.

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.

Adapting to the new normal

In places that rarely had wildfires in the past, a warmer world means that wildfires may become a regular occurrence. In places that already experience severe wildfires, firefighting must adapt to keep up with bigger blazes.

Sources and Citations

  1. NASA, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  2. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  3. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.

Photographs

  1. Fred Hotchkins, NASA.

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