More Wildfires?

More Wildfires?

(NOTE: This story, originally published on June 25, was updated on Aug. 12).

by Glenn Nelson

Many national parks in the West opened access and facilities much earlier than usual this year because of record-low snowpack, widely attributed to climate change.

(NOTE: Clicking on an image will launch a full-sized version).

Some of the very same parks are seeing the flip side of climate change this summer – wildfires.

Everyone talks about the Paradise Fire because it has raged in a rainforest, the Queets, in the remote backcountry of Olympic National Park for what will be three months on Sat., Aug. 15, 2015. In its first 10 recorded days, the fire consumed 948 acres, requiring 66 firefighters and two helicopters in response, according to the Incident Information System (InciWeb). The fire is believed to have started with a lightning strike on May 15, and wasn’t detected until June 14. Backcountry burn bans are in effect throughout the park, and the Queets River Trail is closed at Bob Creek.

The Paradise Fire, which now consumes 2,392 acres, has many of the earmarks of increased and more devastating wildfires predicted for the West because of climate change. The Queets had its driest spring in more than 100 years and snowpack in the Olympics was 14 percent of average.

The Olympic rainforest blaze isn’t even list among the nation’s priority wildfires anymore. In Washington state, it has been eclipsed by one that has threatened homes in Walla Walla. Elsewhere in the West, the Reynold Creek Fire, since contained, sent campers and hiker fleeing from Glacier National Park last month. It now is one of three wildfires burning in the park, the largest of which is the Thompson Fire, which blew up on Tuesday from 1,900 acres to a 11,000-acre monster.

Snowpack melt is up to a month earlier than 50 months ago, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and warm weather extending further into fall make for longer fire seasons. Summertime temperatures are projected to grow 3.6 to 9 degrees by midcentury, creating drier, fire-inducing conditions, the NWF said. The climate-induced changes have led to widespread insect infestation, creating wildfire fuel in the form of dead and highly combustible trees, and lightning is becoming more prevalent because of more severe thunderstorms, the NWF reported.

Scientists also point out that the carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere by wildfires worsens global warming.

The fires also consume more resources. Firefighting comprised 42 of the U.S. Forest Service budget in 2014, for example. It was 16 percent in 1995.

Fire suppression costs borne by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service has exceeded a combined $1.7 billion in six of the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Combined fire suppression costs exceeded $1 billion for the first time in 2000.

More Wildfires?