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July 8th, 2013

Mega Wildfires Blamed on Changing Climate and Landscape

A raging wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona, killed 19 elite firefighters in one of the deadliest firefighting incidents in American history. There are fewer fires burning this year than last, but their deadly nature is raising many questions about weather conditions, land use and forestry practices.

A memorial of flowers and flags for the 19 fallen firefighters forms outside of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Fire Station 7 in Prescott, Arizona.

A memorial of flowers and flags for the 19 fallen firefighters forms outside of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Fire Station 7 in Prescott, Arizona.

Temperatures in Arizona have warmed more than any other state.  The small town of Yarnell, where most of the firefighters lived is devastated.

“We grieve for the the family, we grieve for the department, we grieve for the city,” said Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. “We’re devastated.  We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”

This is the greatest number of firefighters killed in a fire since 29 died in the 1933 wildfire at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.  The greatest number of firefighters killed in action was not due to a fire, but the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which killed 340 firefighters.

Wildfires in 2013

According to the Forest Service’s Active Fire Mapping Program, the national fire activity includes 185 new light fires and 9 new large fires happening now.

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service says wildfires are burning twice as much land for two months longer than they did in the 1970s, which he attributes in part to climate change.

Map of active fires in the U.S. from the USDA Forest Service. Click for an updated map.

Map of active fires in the U.S. from the USDA Forest Service.

Full list of wildfires in 2013

Fire news by region 

Climate change and development worsen fires

The increased severity and frequency of wildfires has stoked the debate over global climate change.

While most scientists agree our global climate is changing, climate change skeptics say that it is all part of natural variability, and that human actions don’t play a role.

In a speech he gave in Georgetown, President Obama voiced his frustrations.

“I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies the challenge is real,” Obama said.  ”Those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it — they’re busy dealing with it.”

Studies show that a combination of low precipitation levels and high temperatures dry outtrees and vegetation which results in deadlier fires.

Another factor is new housing being built in forested areas.

“We have thousands of people moving into forested and flammable landscapes. And that adds fuel to the forest, the houses, the propane tanks and things like that,” author Michael Kodas explained on the NewsHour.

“It also brings a lot of sparks into the landscape. There’s all kinds of starts of fire that occur when people move into the forests, you know, from everything from sparks from vehicles on roads to arcing power lines to serve those communities.”

Residents in fire-prone areas face tough choices

And each time the forest service puts out a fire, it increases the potential for a bigger one.

“We have been putting out fires in the United States for more than a century,” Kodas said. “The problem is that, in many landscapes, that has made future fires worse.”

If you have a landscape that normally had fires every 30 years and you put out those fires for a century, then you have three times more fuel in that forest, he explained.

The federal government has been trying to put fire back into these landscapes with controlled burns, but this strategy can be dangerous to communities and worsen air quality. Residents in fire-prone areas are encouraged to remove all dead and dry vegetation, but that policy is hard to enforce.

The combination of more development and changing climate conditions worries scientists and environmental reporters like Kodas.  “We end up with kind of a vicious circle of many more people at risk in the forest and the risks in those forests increasing.”

– Compiled by Elizabeth Jones for NewsHour Extra

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