Global warming makes firefighting more dangerous

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by Paul Johnson,

from Billings Gazette,

As former Montana smokejumpers we are increasingly alarmed by the severity, size, and expense of wildfires. The weather this year in Montana might give false hope to those who think weather and climate are the same. But climate is about trends and scientists say that those trends are proving what our guts have told us for a long time: Climate change is an increasing problem for firefighters who are facing increasing risks as a result.

Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.”

479 homes destroyed

Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.

Roughly 24,000 wildfires have burned over 5.6 million acres in Montana since 2000. Already this year wildfires in drought-stricken Washington, Oregon, and California have consumed hundreds of square miles and 479 homes.

As Montana’s population grows, more homes are being built in high-risk wildfire areas. Fighting fires near structures precludes the use of tactics such as back fires and burnouts that starve a fire of fuel. This raises costs, increases the chance of uncontrolled wildfires, and threatens lives. Near term we can help prevent fire damage with defensible space; ultimately we must mitigate climate change.

In the last five years, Montana estimates it spent over $93 million fighting wildfires – with more than $57 million in 2013 alone.

We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.

Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources — coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property, and jobs in doing so.

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