Western Wildfires and Climate Change?

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’ve heard about it on the news, and if not, you’ve probably read a related post or status on Facebook regarding the wildfires raging through Colorado and other western states at the moment. More than 32,000 people have been evacuated from the Colorado Springs area, while hundreds of homes are destroyed and many big cities are threatened by the flames of the Waldo Canyon Fire. The High Park Fire, located in Fort Collins, CO, is also turning into one of the worst wildfires on record for the state.

Utah and New Mexico are also dealing with wildfires at the moment. Dozens of homes have been burned and there have been several casualties.

Considering this is an environmental blog, the obvious question is: to what extent are these wildfires related to climate change? Turns out, quite a bit. A wildfire in and of itself is a naturally occurring phenomena that is actually vitally important to the forest ecosystem. It serves to regenerate the habitat, and some species even depend on the fire to fluorish. But there is still such a thing as too much fire, and this summer, like the one before, seems to show that these natural wildfires can get out of hand and go beyond the desired scope.

There are certain conditions that cause wildfires to start in the forest. First off, the presence of a hot and dry summer, which creates lots of vegetation that’s ripe for burning (dry wood burns more easily than soggy wood). Secondly, you need a spark, which could be a natural thing like lightning or someone’s cigarette butt. Another helping factor is the wind, and out in the west, they’ve got plenty of it. Combined, these forces create wildfires that grow and spread at largely uncontrollable rates.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a 2007 report linking the increase in global temperatures to various factors that could contribute to a greater prevalence of wildfires. Factors such as decreased snowcover areas (which prevent vegetation from getting too dry over the winter and less susceptible to burning) and increased droughts and heat waves combine to create prime wildfire conditions.

So what does the western U.S. need to quell the fires? RAIN! Firefighters are currently fighting the blazes, but it’s hard to contain something so powerful and large. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much rain in the forecast for CO, NM or UT. If only Boston could have sent its rainy gray weekend out west! For the time being, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a prompt reprieve.


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