Thursday, July 24, 2014

Western wildfires burn through firefighting budgets

Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor: As 26 major wildfires currently rage across the American West – 18 of them in Oregon and Washington – they’re rapidly burning through firefighting budgets as well.

As a result, experts warn, firefighting agencies such as the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior have to raid other fire-related programs – forest management and fire preparedness, for example – to battle the blazes.

The reasons for this are multiple and complicated: Years of fire suppression instead of letting fires burn naturally allowed fuel levels to grow dangerously; climate change has brought on changes in weather patterns; and housing and other development pushed into what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface” – some 60 percent of all new homes built since 1990, according to environmental economist Ray Rasker.

 “Changing climate is a dominant driver,” says Jason Funk, senior climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), noting in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that the typical fire season has grown from five months to seven months.

For one thing, changing climate has meant smaller snowpacks. That makes for more dry fuel, as well as stressed trees vulnerable to disease and insect damage. For example, the acreage damaged by bark beetle infestations around the West and therefore less fire resistant amounts to an area about the size of Colorado. “Effectively, we have a tinderbox the size of Colorado just waiting for a spark,” Dr. Funk says...

NASA image of smoke plumes from multiple wildfires in Washington state. Wildfires include the Carlton Complex and the Chiwaukum Creek Fire, part of the Mills Canyon Complex. Image taken on 07/18/2014 at 20:30 UTC by the NASA Aqua satellite using the MODIS instrument. 

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