Climate Change Not Making Researchers Sound Very Optimistic About Future of Wildfires

If you're beginning to notice that wildfires are popping up more frequently, in Arizona and elsewhere, you're not alone.

And according to many researchers, climate change is among the chief causes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists hosted a conference call this morning with scientists, researchers, and Forest Service officials, as they explained what seems to be a dire future of wildfire activity.

Ray Rasker, executive director of a Montana-based research group called Headwaters Economics, cited research that a one-degree increase in the average temperature during seasons in California seemed to be associated with fires burning more than 300 percent more land.

Dave Cleaves, the U.S. Forest Service's climate change adviser, said fire, invasive insects, disease, and other "disturbances" in forests -- are all being linked more closely by climate change.

Elizabeth Reinhart, the assistant director of the U.S. Forest Service's Fire and Aviation Management Staff, noted that 98 percent of forest fires are suppressed during what are called "initial attacks."

That success rate might not continue. Reinhart noted that the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in Arizona history, ate a huge chunk of the Forest Service's fire-management budget in 2011. Others noted that it keeps costing more and more over the years to fight wildfires -- which isn't great news for an agency that's seen recent budget cuts.

As for the recent Yarnell Hill Fire -- which wasn't exceptional in size but claimed the lives of 19 firefighters -- there was nothing that really stood out to these researchers, from the climate-change side of things, other than the observation that more fires, and more severe fires, are occurring.

What these researchers are seeing is that climate change is affecting the fire behavior in the country -- now.

"We're finding more and more that it's an issue of the present and the future," said Cleaves, the Forest Service climate change adviser.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has said some of this same stuff. Just last month, he told a Senate committee that the average wildfire burns twice as many acres as it did 40 years ago. He noted that big fires last year coincided with increased temperatures.

The point is, don't think all these wildfires are going away any time soon.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley