Fueling Deadliest Blazes

Professor Matthew Hurteau says 100 years of fire suppression and human-caused climate change are fueling California’s historic wildfires.

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. No end in sight as of Friday for the roughly two dozen wildfires burning in northern California that have now claimed the lives of at least 31 people and left hundreds missing. It’s the most lethal wildfire event in California’s history killing people while they slept in their beds. The National Weather Service is saying 60 mile an hour winds and low humidity will “contribute to extreme fire behavior into Saturday.”

What’s getting far less attention is what role human actions from climate change to fire suppression have played in making these fires so catastrophic. We’ll discuss this with a leading expert in the field. Dr. Matthew Hurteau is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico. Thank you so much for joining us.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: My pleasure.

JAISAL NOOR: We know that California Governor Jerry Brown has acknowledged the role of climate change but when you read the news, when you watch cable news channels, there’s far less emphasis on the role of human action in making these fires so bad. To be clear, no one’s saying you can point to any one of these fires and say this was caused by climate change, but talk about exactly what role human actions have played in making these fires so catastrophic.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: Sure. There are two factors at play here: one is the climate angle. There’s been some attribution work in understanding the role of climate change in influencing fires and we know a couple of things with a pretty great deal of certainty. One is as temperature has increased due to anthropogenic or human caused climate change, the area burned by wildfire in the western US has increased and that’s because spring snow melt is happening earlier so there’s a longer fire season. At the same time as temperature has increased, that is increasing the amount of atmospheric water demand. Basically, the movement of water from vegetation in the ecosystem to the atmosphere, which dries out that vegetation and makes it more combustible. Those are two climatic factors that are influencing the area burned.

Then, on the other side of the equation is that fires are a natural part of many of these ecosystems and we’ve been putting fires out for a very long time, since the early 1900’s and that has fundamentally altered the structure of some of these ecosystems. We’ve got more trees in some of these drier forests than we used to have and that makes them more prone to these big hot fires that we see now.

JAISAL NOOR: Anyone that’s taken like a middle school level science or biology class knows that fires are a natural part of the ecosystem of existence in the forests. By suppressing these, we’re helping make these huge forest fires more likely. Is that correct?

MATTHEW HURTEAU: Correct. Absolutely. We used to have, I mean, there were large fractions of the western U.S. landscape that had fires burning in them prior to fire suppression. It was just a different type of fire. Where we used to have in these drier forest types, we used to have regular surface fires happening every 5, 10, 15 years or so, when we’ve been putting those out for 100 years, there’s a lot more fuel in the forest now in the form of both dead biomass, or dead plant material, and also in the form of live plant material such that when we get an ignition now under these extreme weather conditions, high wind speeds, high temperature, low relative humidity, it has the potential to turn into one of these big conflagrations that we see where fire is burning through tree canopies at very high rates of speed and can be quite impactful to communities that it intersects with.

JAISAL NOOR: You’ve also looked at what can be done about this. What can mitigate this in the short term. We know in the long term there has to be serious human action as far as limiting CO2 emissions first of all, something the Trump administration is working to undo those limits as far as Obama’s clean power plant and other initiatives but let’s start with the short term. What can be done to help stop making these fires so catastrophic? There’s something like 20 burning right now in California alone.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: The big thing, there’s lots and lots of research has been done on this very question. The one thing that is clear is that fire is a natural part of these systems and part of the way that we fight these big fires is by actually restoring fire, so burning the forest. We want to do that under more benign weather conditions, so when the winds are not blowing as fast, temperatures are lower, fuel moisture or the amount of moisture in the vegetation is higher. That influences the fire effects and the way that fire behaves on the landscape. There are a number of examples in the US, say Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and the Gila National Forest, where they’ve been managing natural fire ignitions for a while.

A lightning strike occurs, the winds are calm, they will actually let those fires burn. When they do that, they are basically restoring fire as a natural process and so when an ignition occurs under these more extreme conditions, that wildfire if it actually starts, will burn into an area that’s been previously burned by this lower severity fire and it fundamentally alters the fire behavior when it hits that area. The flame lengths go down and the rate of spread decreases.

JAISAL NOOR: If you had the ear of the Trump administration as it moves to expand fossil fuel extraction, remove limits to CO2 emissions and other such moves, what would you tell them today in the face of these historic fires in California?

MATTHEW HURTEAU: So far this year, the last number I saw, is we’ve spent 2.3 billion dollars on fire suppression in the US this year alone. That’s a substantial sum. It’s likely to go up with continued climate change and so functionally what we need to do from a forest perspective is get out in front of this and start investing in managing our forests to restore surface fire in these lower elevation forest ecosystems and get that natural process back in place so that these systems are a little more resilient to the climate change that’s ongoing.

JAISAL NOOR: We want to thank you so much for joining us. Dr. Matthew Hurteau is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico. Thank you so much joining us and we’ll certainly be in touch to keep following this important story. Again, there’s no end in sight to these fires. At least 31 people have died that we know of because hundreds remain missing. We’ll keep following this. Thank you so much for your work.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: Thank you. Have a good day.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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