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Wildfires have been scorching California, Arizona and New Mexico for two weeks, fueled by sweltering summer heat. As of Tuesday, at least two were dead and 250 structures had been destroyed by fire, with one blaze — the 43,000-acre Erskine Fire north of Los Angeles — still only 40 percent contained.

Backstory

Intense and early summer fire seasons may now be the new normal as persistent hot, dry conditions compound years of drought to worsen seasonal wildfires. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dead trees in the region are fueling the tinderbox conditions. Another round of triple-digit temperatures expected this week could aggravate the fires.

Adaptation angle

Climate change is producing conditions ripe for wildfires. Rising temperatures reduce snowpack — or melt it earlier — and cause more extremely hot days, which dry out grasslands and forest. According to Climate Central, which has put together a new wildfire tracker, the previous 2015 wildfire season was already the worst on record in the United States, with more than 10 million acres burned.

Suppressing forest fires is costly and a drain on the U.S. Forest Service budget:

  • California Gov. Jerry Brown has called for federal assistance “to expand the practice of prescribed burns, which reduce fire risk and avoid significant pollution from major wildfires."
  • U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack advocates classifying wildfires as “natural disasters,” which would allow him to fight fires using federal emergency money instead of Forest Service funds.

Questions to ask

  • What should local residents do to prepare for fire, including establishing protected space around their homes or preparing for evacuation?
  • What are the human health impacts of wildfires? For instance, studies have shown worsening air quality from western fires. Are local or even distant fires harming health in your community? Here are examples from Las Vegas and Aspen, Colorado.
  • How have building homes and developments on the wildland-urban interface exacerbated wildfires?
  • What effect will future heat waves and drought have on wildfires?
  • How are controlled burns used to clear dead trees and otherwise prevent larger, out-of-control fires? Here are examples from Florida (more) and the Pacific Northwest.
  • What’s the status of funding from the Forest Service to fight the forest die-off that is helping fuel wildfires?
  • How does vegetation and wildlife change after wildfires?
  • What is the source of beetle and caterpillar infestations that have killed off millions of trees in the Southwest, and in Southern New England as well?

Reporting resources

Dig deeper on the wildfire story using more than a dozen fire-related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

  • For California-specific information, check Cal-Adapt for wildfire risk maps and case studies, and see the state's latest Climate Change Assessment for infographics on the history of wildfires and wildfire projections to the year 2085.
  • U.S.-wide information and data on wildfires can be found at the U.S. Forest Service Climate Resource Center, which includes links to database tools and research about likely changes and options for management; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s site on climate change indicators, under “ecosystems”; and at the U.S. National Park Service’s climate and wildland fire resources pages.
  • Check state-by-state wildfire preparedness plans through the “States at Risk Report Card.”
  • Check Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program to see if your city is one of the half dozen that face wildfires. Use the Selected Cities database and search for wildfires under “challenge.”
  • Read about the connection between climate change, development and wildfire in the West in the Union of Concerned Scientists 2014 Playing with Fire report.
  • Watch a brief video explainer on climate change and wildfires.

Know of other wildfire-related resources we should have in our database?

A. Adam Glenn  
 



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