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New Approaches Needed as Blazing Hot, Dry Conditions Lead to Longer, More Intense Wildfires

U.S. average monthly temperatures reached new record highs every month for the first six months of this year, according to NASA researchers. Monthly averages well in excess of anything seen in previous years prompted the NASA research team to produce their first ever mid-year assessment of climate trends July 18.

A helicopter fighting yet another raging wildfire

The extraordinary rapid rise in temperatures coincides with rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and shrinking Arctic sea ice cover, NASA climate researchers highlight in their mid-year assessment.

CO2 levels reached new highs this spring and have exceeded 400 parts per million every day this year as measured at the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory in Hawaii. Record low levels of Arctic sea ice were recorded in five of the first six months of 2016.

Raising wildfire risks and costs

Adding to this, the rate of increase is accelerating. “It’s exceedingly high and it’s going exceedingly fast,” said Pieter Tans, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It’s truly extraordinary.”

Combined with El Niño conditions, high temperatures brought about an early start to what’s shaping up to be a more intense wildfire season in the U.S. West. The first wildfire in Alaska started in late February, a couple of months earlier than usual, which is April or May, the U.S. Department of the Interior highlights in a July 19 blog post. Authorities are expecting a busy, dangerous and more costly fire season.

2015 was a record year for wildfires. Wildfires burned across more than 10 million acres in 2015 – twice the area of Massachusetts. A record high $2.1 billion was spent to contain and put them out.

So far this year, more than 29,000 wildfires have burned across more than 2.6 million acres.

According to Interior:

“The thing that these wildfires have in common: They’re exhibiting an all-too-familiar pattern. They’re starting earlier and burning longer at greater intensity because of persistent drought, record high temperatures and the spread of invasive weeds.”

Global average annual temperatures have risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit in the last decade and winter snow packs have been melting up to four weeks earlier than they have in previous decades. That leaves landscapes hotter and drier, which raises the risk of fires breaking out, Interior explains.

Investing in wildfire resilience

USFS fire risk climate change - Wildfire resilience

Interior is investing in preventing as well as suppressing wildfires. “We need to do a lot more to improve the health of our landscapes,” Interior says.

The federal agency has spent more than budgeted by Congress six times in the last 15 yeas to suppress wildfires. While accounting for just 2 percent of all categories of wildfires, suppressing catastrophic wildfires consumed 30 percent of Interior’s suppression costs.

According to Interior: “The President’s new wildland fire budget framework includes funding for predictable suppression costs but would meet the unpredictable costs of extreme fires by funding them from national disaster accounts. It’s similar to how this country funds other disaster needs, and that’s how we should think of wildfires.”


*Image credits: U.S. Department of the Interior

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