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Climate Change & Fire

     While wildfires seem to be burning over larger landscapes and more acres than we can remember in our lifetimes, overall fewer acres are burning today compared to that estimated to have burned in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Yet the impact that drought and climatic changes are having in lengthening the wildfire season in the West is undeniable. The West has moved from an average fire season of five to seven months, and the number of large wildfires over 1,000 acres has nearly doubled.  Average annual temperatures have risen by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970s and winter snow pack has declined.  Increases in acres burning is attributed, in part, to climate change and the increase is expected to continue in many areas with additional warming, leading to even greater suppression costs and loss of life.

            Fire is an emotional issue with deeply rooted cultural beliefs that hamper our ability to challenge conventional wisdom and chart a rational course. Will applying more money to fire suppression make us more or less safe? Given that many of our biggest fires burn through grasslands and shrublands is it possible to alter fire behavior by removing trees? Or are there simpler and more effective ways to protect the tens of millions of homes that are currently in fire prone areas? 

            When we see huge clouds of smoke billowing up from the woods, we worry that wildfires release lots of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But scientists have determined that the plumes are mostly harmless water vapor. Forest fires only release an average of an average of 5% of the carbon in a forest, and rapidly uptake that carbon after a fire. The larger the tree, the lower the % of wood lost from combustion. To face the challenges ahead, scientists recommend we increase efforts to restore our forests ability to store carbon as a buffer against climate change and fire.