As of September 2nd, 2015, over 8.2 million acres in the United States had burned from this year’s wildfires. That puts the nation on pace to set a record for number of acres burned. This year’s total could exceed the record setting year of 2006, when over 9.8 million acres were charred by wildfires. In the 55 years that records have been kept, all six years that exceeded 8 million acres burned, have been in the 21st century.
On September 2nd, there were 56 active large wildfires burning in the United States. All 56 were in the American West, with the three states of Idaho, Montana and Washington accounting for 45 of the fires. The 8.2 million acres already burned is more than fifty percent higher than the decade annual average. With more fire season still ahead, climate change may be making major fires more frequent and more devastating than ever before. A rough fire season may become the “new normal”.
The fact that the six worst fire years have all occurred in the 21st century suggests that climate change is a significant factor. The Union of Concerned Scientists outline the problem as follows:
Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the Western United States.These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and long-burning.
The increased size, intensity and duration of wildfires has put a major budget strain on the U.S. Forest Service. In 2015, they have spent over 50 percent of their budget on preparing for and fighting wildfires. Twenty years ago, in 1995, just 16 percent of the Forest Service budget was spent on firefighting. The Forest Service projects that by 2025, a full 2/3rds of their budget will be consumed by fire fighting efforts.
People in coastal areas like Florida and Louisiana should be concerned about climate change because warming oceans and rising sea levels can increase the dangers of severe hurricanes and of coastal flooding. However, the risks posed by human-caused climate change are not limited to people living at sea level.
The threat of more and larger wildfires is something that poses a greater danger to people in the interior West than in any other part of the country. If nothing is done to address the environmental consequences of man-made climate change, large sections of the American West will ignite every summer. Fires burning out of control will just become part of the new normal.