In California, smoke plumes spun into twisters made out of soot and flame, prompting the first-ever “fire tornado” warning. In Oregon, blazes advanced on towns so rapidly that even fire crews had to flee. Never in memory have so many fires burned so much land in so many places over such a short span of time. The smoke has enveloped the whole continent, dimming the sun in cities 2,000 miles away.
“Science knows very well what is going on here,” said Monica Turner, fire ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Extreme climate change has arrived in America, and it burns.
Fire experts say the nation needs new strategies to cope with the escalating threat.
But the country’s top fire science budget has been slashed — cuts that began in the last year of the Obama administration and have only accelerated under President Donald Trump, who has twice tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it altogether. States, which are struggling under the coronavirus-induced economic crisis, have run short of funds for the scientific work.
Trump has repeatedly said “forest management” — harvesting trees to reduce fuel for fires — is the key to preventing wildfires. But scientists agree no amount of “forest management” can stop disasters in an ever-more-flammable world.
“There are no climate change denialists on the fire lines,” said Tim Ingalsbee, a veteran wildland firefighter who serves as executive director of the group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “Now we really need science to play a role in the solutions.”
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The link between fires and climate is basic physics: Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures trap more water in the atmosphere, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.
This was predicted. The first National Climate Assessment, published in 2000, forecast that the West would experience increased risk of fire as a result of global warming and called on states to prepare. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050.
The scale of this year’s fires have horrified even those who saw them coming. As of Tuesday, 3.2 million acres in California have been incinerated — almost double the previous record of 1.9 million, set in 2018. In Oregon, blazes have erupted in parts of the wet Western Cascades that have not burned in years. On a single day last week, red-flag warnings on fire weather stretched along the entire West Coast from the U.S. border with Mexico to Canada.
“It really is a shocking escalation,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Characterizing it as a phase change, a new era of megafire — as dramatic as that sounds, ultimately I think it’s accurate.”
It is not just the scale or frequency of fires that has changed — it is their behavior. Extreme heat, such as the record-setting August and “kiln-like” conditions in California over Labor Day weekend, sets the stage for fires that burn hotter and more unpredictably. The intensity of the blazes creates towering plumes of heat called pyrocumulus clouds, which in turn trigger lightning storms and swirling fire tornadoes. Powerful winds push fires farther and faster than firefighters are used to. Embers carried far ahead of the main front enable fires to travel dozens of miles in a single day.
“It’s like a blow torch in a wind tunnel,” said Ingalsbee, whose home in Eugene, Ore., is mere miles from the perimeter of the 167,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire. “These fires are beyond human control.”
Federal spending on wildfire suppression has ballooned from roughly $450 million per year in the 1990s to a record-setting $3.1 billion in 2018. This year will probably be even more costly.
But as the toll of wildfire increases, the federal government is supporting less research into the issue. The budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which is funded through the Interior and Agriculture departments and produces research on the best practices for fire prevention and management, has steadily declined since the mid-2000s. In a 2017 budget deal approved before the current administration, the program’s funding was reduced from $12.9 million to $8.9 million. In 2018 and 2019, the White House sought to eliminate it entirely. The program now receives $6 million a year.
“It is very much a mismatch between the increased scale, scope and urgency of the problem and the amount of resources we’re putting into understanding what’s coming, what it means and how to adapt,” Turner said.
California has funded its own projects on forest health and wildfire readiness through its cap-and-trade program. But the budget shortfall created by the coronavirus crisis caused the state to put many programs on hold. A proposed ballot initiative to create a $5 billion “climate resilience” bond for the state has also been delayed.
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For much of the 20th century, the standard response to all wildfires was the same: put them out.
But that can actually worsen fire danger, scientists say. Most Western ecosystems are adapted to fire, even dependent on it. Periodic blazes clear landscapes of dead vegetation and help new trees to germinate — by extinguishing them, people have made forests unnaturally dense, creating more fuel for future burns.
The administration has pushed to solve this problem through logging. In a 2019 executive order, President Trump called on the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to consider harvesting 4.4. million board feet of timber from public lands as a means to reduce wildfire risk.
The majority of forest in the West is controlled by the federal government; in California, for example, the state manages only 3% of forested land. Logging in national forests — which in the 1980s produced as much as 12 billion board feet of timber per year — has fallen precipitously and now generates about 3 billion board feet annually. Current management plans for these forests call for logging nearly twice as much.
American Forest Resource Council President Travis Joseph, whose Portland, Ore.-based group represents mills, manufacturers and purchasers of timber from public lands across the West, said in a phone interview that climate change has certainly worsened fires, but the forest industry can play a role in fighting them by alleviating the buildup of fuel.
“What we’re pushing for, ultimately, is resiliency, sustainability and protection of our forests,” Joseph said.
The science of “treating” forests — often through selectively harvesting trees to reduce density — is nuanced, researchers say. In dry ponderosa pine forests, thinning may help recreate the parklike openness that once came from frequent burning. One study of the aftermath of a fire in central Oregon found that “treated” areas recovered faster than ones with no intervention.
Thinning can also be useful in the areas immediately surrounding communities, said Chris Dunn, a forester at Oregon State University who worked as a firefighter for eight years. The cleared-out space can keep forest fires from igniting homes and give firefighters room to mount a defense.
But by analyzing satellite images of the southwestern part of the state, where the 2013 Douglas Complex burned on the wet side of the Cascades, Dunn found the most intensively managed industrial forests experienced more severe fire than untouched old growth — even when huge amounts of debris had accumulated on the “untreated” forest floor. This is because younger trees planted for harvest are less resilient and fire spreads easily between them, he said.
“That’s the problem when people say ‘management’ or ‘no management,’ ” he said. “Management can mean a lot of things.”
Dunn and others say one of the most powerful tools for reducing fire risk is fire itself. Natural fires can clear out a lot more forest than thinning crews, and if allowed to burn in uninhabited areas under mild weather, they are less likely to be dangerous and destructive, Dunn said. Later, if a more extreme fire roars through, the previously burned areas may slow the blaze or even stop it.
But Trump has described timber removal as the single solution to combating fires out West and emphasized it during a Monday briefing on the fires in McClellan Park, Calif.
When secretary for natural resources Wade Crowfoot asked Trump to recognize climate change played a role as well, Trump asserted — without evidence — that things would soon cool down.
Earth is now about 1.15 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than in preindustrial times, and roughly 10% of Americans live somewhere that has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold often associated with the worst effects of climate change. That includes Los Angeles County, where the Bobcat Fire has burned tens of thousands of acres in the past week, and in western Colorado, where the Pine Gulch fire now ranks as the state’s largest in history. Unless people significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures can be expected to rise at least another 2 degrees Celsius before the century is over.
Research also shows that climate change is making forests so hot and dry that almost no intervention can keep them from igniting. Just look at this year’s fires, Turner said: They are burning through tree plantations and wild forests. They have consumed fire breaks and jumped rivers.
“When the climate conditions are as extreme as they are now, it doesn’t matter how you’re managing it,” she said. “The fires will burn across anything.”
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Rather than trying to alter the forest, said Ingalsbee, the firefighter, people should focus on something slightly easier to change: ourselves.
The most devastating thing about the recent fires, he said, is the death and destruction they have caused. More people than ever live in harm’s way. One Forest Service analysis found the number of homes in what fire experts call the wildland-urban interface increased 41% between 1990 and 2010.
When forest fires reach these homes, they can become urban conflagrations, moving from roof to roof instead of tree to tree. Photos of the aftermath will show entire neighborhoods burned to the ground while the vegetation around them is still green.
It is possible to “harden” buildings against fire, often at relatively low cost. Simple steps like clearing debris from roofs, rain gutters, decks and yards can limit a fire’s access to fuel. Wooden fences and roofs can be replaced with materials that do not burn.
There are limited resources available to help residents implement these measures, Ingalsbee said. In contrast with the billions of dollars spent fighting wildfires and helping people in their aftermath, the budget for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities predisaster mitigation programs is $500 million — money that must cover not just preparation for wildfires but also hurricanes, tornadoes and a host of other disasters.
“We’re putting all this investment into emergency reactive suppression and not proactive planning and preparation,” Ingalsbee said.
There is one other way all Americans can help reduce risk of wildfire, Turner said: by stopping greenhouse gas emissions. Last winter, United Nations scientists reported that the world would need to start cutting emissions 7.6% annually to limit warming to a “tolerable” 1.5 degrees Celsius. At that point, fires would likely be even worse than they are now — but not nearly as bad as they might otherwise become.
Emissions were rising about 1.5% a year before the coronavirus pandemic. This year, even after massive societal shutdowns and a global economic crisis, the world is unlikely to meet the 7.6% target.
“We have to get it under control,” Turner said. “If we continue to raise the planet’s temperature, this is going to be our tragic reality.”
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The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears contributed to this report.