Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wildfires, once confined to a season, burn earlier and longer - in part due to policy choices

The first Alaska wildfire of 2016 broke out in late February, followed by a second just eight days later. New Mexico has had 140 fires this year, double the number in the same period last year, fueled by one of the warmest, driest winters on record. And on the border of Arizona and California this month, helicopters dumped water on flames so intense that they jumped the Colorado River, forcing the evacuation of two RV parks. Fires, once largely confined to a single season, have become a constant threat in some places, burning earlier and later in the year, in the United States and abroad. They have ignited in the West during the winter and well into the fall, have arrived earlier than ever in Canada and have burned without interruption in Australia for almost 12 months. A leading culprit is climate change. Drier winters mean less moisture on the land, and warmer springs are pulling the moisture into the air more quickly, turning shrub, brush and grass into kindling. Decades of aggressive policies that called for fires to be put out as quickly as they started have also aggravated the problem. Today’s forests are not just parched; they are overgrown. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons, and you can say it couldn’t get worse than that,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said. “We expect from the changes that it can get worse.” The 10.1 million acres that burned in the United States last year were the most on record and the top five years for acres burned were in the past decade. The federal costs of fighting fires rose to $2 billion last year, up from $240 million in 1985...more

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