07 Jun Beginning of US wildfire season doesn’t bode well
The lingering drought and above-average temperatures are threatening to make the 2015 wildfire season a very harsh one for the Western United States, according to the US Fire Service and the National Interagency Fire Centre who are forecasting higher than average fire activity for the summer.
California experienced more than 5,600 wildfires that burnt more than 600,000 acres in the state, and according to forecasts, these figures could be matched or even exceeded. The US Forest Service has estimated that it will spend more than $1.2 billion on fire suppression, slightly higher than the $1.13 billion spent on average over the last decade. Taking the county and state spend into account, the total suppression spend exceeds $4 billion every year.
Across the US as of June 1, the total number of wildfires is lower than the average from the last decade, however activity in California is higher than was expected, with 1,533 wildfires recorded as of May 26, much higher than the average of 969 per year over the last 5 years.
Senior Climate Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists Brenda Ekwurzel stated that the El Nino weather pattern that is partially responsible for record breaking rains in the middle of the US hasn’t brought any relief to California, which was more bad news for the state. Low snowpack and continued drought are drying the soils in California out earlier than normal, which can create ideal conditions for potentially explosive wildfires according to Ekwurzel.
Low snowpack is also reportedly a concern for Oregon and Washington, which are both coming off some of the warmest winters on record and current experiencing drought conditions throughout the state. Spring rains may provide residual moisture to suppress fire activity in the Northwest US in early summer, however as the summer continues and vegetation dries out without the additional moisture that melting snowpack would provide, fire activity is expected to increase in both states.
In 2014 the Northwest of the US had its second worst fire season on record, spending more than $446 million and fighting fires across 1.2 million acres. Record low snowpack and unusually warm temperatures are expected across the entire Northwest and therefore 2015 could be just as bad.
Over the past three decades, the length and intensity of the fire season has increased throughout the Western United States. In the 1970s, the season ran for 5 months whereas now the season could last 7 months or more, according to Ekwurzel. The trend of a longer more intense fire season is expected to be normal as temperatures increase.
The US Forest Service has predicted that a 2.9 degree Farenheit increase in summer temperatures could double to number of hectares burnt by wildfires in 11 Western states. Higher temperatures and increased drought are also expected to contribute to tree mortality which creates a large amount of dry fuel which could create a raging fire.
Preparing for the fire season is difficult in the face of higher spends on suppression. The Forest Service has exceeded its budget in all but 2 years since 2002 and has been forced to use funds from fire reduction programs, which leaves overcrowded forests that are ripe for more fires. A joint study by the Environmental Defence Fund, the Institute for Policy Integration at NYU and the Natural Resources Defence Council has estimated that the cost of fighting fires could rise by as much as $62.5 billion each year by 2050 as a result of climate change.