Climate Change Has Doubled Area Hit By Forest Fires in US (Part 2/2)

Dr. John Abatzoglou and Dr. LeRoy Westerling talk about how climate action, public awareness, and adaptation planning could lessen the impact of California forest fires

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Story Transcript

Dharna Noor: Welcome back to the Real News. We’re here speaking about the deadliest wildfires in California’s history, which have claimed at least 40 lives, and another 75,000 people have been displaced. Again, we’re joined today by two experts. Dr. John Abatzoglou is an associate professor at the department of geography at the University of Idaho, and Dr. LeRoy Westerling is an associate professor of management at UC Merced and co-director of the Center for Climate Communication at the University of Idaho. Thank you both so much for joining us again.

L. Westerling Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Dharna Noor: Dr. Abatzoglou, let’s continue. Forest fires, as they’re commonly understood, are started by lightning, but I understand that there are studies that look at data that shows that many of the wildfires we’re seeing today in the U.S. don’t actually start that way. They’re caused by humans. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

J. Abatzoglou: Sure. This is particularly the case in California. If we look at much of the western United States, our forest fires in the interior western United States, in our mountains, especially when we’re talking about burned area and some of the increases we’ve seen, those are primarily lightning-caused fires. If we think about fires that get a lot of attention that tend to be closer to people, especially if we go to places like California, most of the fires are caused by humans, a variety of activities from a stray cigarette butt, vehicle fire, power line sparks, and etc. Around 95% of the fires that require some sort of agency response in California are human-caused, and in Napa County, it turns out that that number is closer to 99%. These fires that we’re seeing here over this past week are clearly human-caused fires of some origin.

Humans are certainly adding to the fire burden across the United States. They’re adding fires in areas that typically we wouldn’t have natural fire, and when they happen close to infrastructure or regions at risk, clearly a lot of the disaster that we’ve seen this past week, we’re talking about those sorts of fires. Those are what we usually think of as being bad fires. Not all fires are bad. Some of the fires that occur in our mountains from lightning are part of a natural process.

There is something that we could potentially do about these fires through public awareness, implementing some policies as well to try to reduce some of these less desirable fires on the landscape.

L. Westerling: What John said about lightning ignitions is really true. I just wanted to add that in my work, what we’ve seen is that the vast majority of the increase in area burned and in the number of large fires around the western U.S. has been driven almost exclusively by larger lightning-ignited fires. When you look at California and so many of the fires are ignited by people, that’s also true, but the vast majority of fires that are ignited by people or that are ignited overall are small and don’t attribute that much to the total area burned. Those ignitions are not as responsive to climatic conditions as the large fires are.

Southern California, also, most of the area burned increase is coming from lightning-ignited fires in the Sierras. Most of the people in California don’t live by those forests. Those are federal forests up at higher elevations. Most of the people are in the coastal area or the central valley, much lower elevations, and they’re not actually most of them living next to forest areas. They’re next to chaparral and grass-type ecosystems. Almost of all those [inaudible 00:03:56] are human-caused. It’s just a very different system.

Dharna Noor: California Governor Jerry Brown said on Wednesday said that, the “warming climate, dry weather, and reducing moisture” contributed to these fires. Dr. Westerling, your work also focuses on seasonal forecasting for wildfire management and mitigation. Could we be doing a better job at anticipating these fires and adaptation planning? Then also, is the Trump administration’s climate change denial going to impact our ability for wildfire disaster events?

L. Westerling: That’s quite an agenda. Yeah, the warmer temperatures overall, you can think about it this way. We’ve already said in the previous episode that warmer temperatures lead to more evaporation. The thing to keep in mind is that temperatures on average have been warmer for a long time. The students in my classroom at UC Merced, every month of their lives, their entire lives, the temperatures globally have been warmer than the long-term average. They’ve never lived in what used to be considered a normal climate.

The effects of that over time are, in a place like the western U.S., where climate change is not increasing precipitation that much, you end up with drier ecosystems over time. In the wet years, you’re evaporating more moisture, so less of that carries over into the dry years. In the dry years, you’ve got less moisture carrying over the previous years than you would have had, and you have the drought, and the dry years are exacerbated by warmer temperatures during that period as well.

That is really driving changes in fire all around the western U.S., including in these lower elevation, warmer, drier places with a lot of chaparral and things like that like we’re seeing in southern California and like we’re seeing in Napa and Sonoma. It’s harder to see the climate signaling that data because we just don’t have enough data for something that has that many different influences affecting it, the timing of the Diablo winds in the fall, the long summer drought that you have every year, and then the cumulative impacts of climate change, as well as building houses in the wildland-urban interface and the human landscape.

Dharna Noor: Dr. Westerling, talk a little bit more about the specifics of the state of California.

L. Westerling: California has a very proactive approach to dealing with climate change. This is true under Governor Brown, and it started under Governor Schwarzenegger. We’ve had four statewide climate impact assessments looking at vulnerability and adaptation across a broad range of sectors, so not just wildfire but flood, coastal, sea level rise, a variety of issues around agriculture, and water resources. Every community in California and every set of major statewide infrastructure, energy infrastructure, transport infrastructure has to have adaptation plans in place, how they’re going to deal with climate change. Those govern a lot of things including what kinds of development are allowed into the future, what kind of investments we undertake.

I’m currently the contractor for the state of California developing all the fire simulations for the next century [inaudible 00:07:44] looking at the impacts on different types of infrastructure and insurance markets. California has this huge wealth of information about how climate change impacts different sectors in California because they have funded their own research initiatives for the last almost [inaudible 00:08:05] years. It’s really a tremendous resource for the state in terms of their ability to make informed decisions for adapting to climate change.

Dharna Noor: John, is the Trump administration’s climate change going to impact our ability to plan for wildfire disaster events?

John Abatzoglou: We have pretty good indicators that suggest that the increases that we’ve seen in fire activity are partially attributed to a warming climate. The longer we wait to do something to mitigate climate change, the bigger this burden is going to be. There are things that can be done to mitigate fire losses and fire activity. These things, though, require taking I think a proactive view in terms of how we manage forests, how we manage fires. There are things that we can do, including implementing more prescribed fires, allowing fires to burn during years where we have otherwise relatively cool, moist conditions. We’re really good at suppressing fires during those years, by the way, and that’s amplifying the signal during the really warm years like we’ve seen more of lately.

Efforts that can be done on the landscape, I know there has been some thought given to some of the Interior Secretary’s plans for implementing practices in our forests, whether that is logging. There’s some really detrimental things with that, but there also may be some things where we take a more aggressive view on a prescribed fire. I know that that could be a way that can move us forward. However, it ignores the long-term view in that as we move forward, we’re going to see more years like this, where we have really, really dry, dry fuels out there. We’re not going to see a decline in population, so we’re going to see just as many ignitions in the landscape. We’re just increasing the opportunity for these fires to occur, and more and more people living in the wildland-urban interface, that’s just setting up a recipe for these catastrophes and disasters.

Dharna Noor: Okay. Dr. Westerling, Dr. Abatzoglou, thank you so much for joining us today on the Real News Network.

John Abatzoglou: Thank you.

Dharna Noor: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.