Thursday, August 14, 2014

Environmental Issues: Wildfires in Washington State

The overcast gray skies outside my windows this morning are a familiar sight in Western Washington, but they have been scarce so far this summer as blazing sunshine and record heat have predominated.  Neither the residents nor the landscape of our Evergreen State are accustomed to long stretches of hot, dry weather.  And for evidence of the latter, one needs look no further than the eastern half of our state, which is currently on fire:

Large Fire Map - Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. CLICK HERE for interactive version.

According to the spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center quoted in this Reuters article, we are on track to break a record this year for the number of acres burned by wildfire.  Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have burned so far, with 250,000 of those acres belonging to the Carlton Complex fire, now standing as the largest fire in state history.  Hundreds of homes have been burned.  Tens of thousands of people have been affected. And the official wildfire season won't end until October.  We still have a long way to go.

Why so many fires this year? Conditions in our region have been abnormally hot -- and dry, as you can see in the drought map above.  Combine that with several unfortunately-timed lighting storms and the conditions are ripe for wildfires to explode.

Have we just been unlucky this year with the combination of heat, drought and more numerous lighting storms than usual, or is this a portent of what we can expect to see regularly in the years to come?  Unfortunately, this may just be the beginning.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) cites increasing wildfire as one of the top threats to northwest forests. Climate change will cause our region to experience hotter, drier summers similar to (and in the future, even worse than) what we're experiencing this year.  As a result, the amount of land burned by wildfires is expected to increase up to 500% in the Cascades. Details in the NCA here.

The wildfires we've seen so far this summer in Washington State have been devastating.  Lives and homes have been lost, livelihoods disrupted, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest burned, wildlife habitat destroyed-- and the worst could yet be to come. This destruction is not something we want to see repeated year after year, and is all the more reason for us to act on climate change immediately. Those who say the northwest isn't experiencing any effects of climate change: take a look at the fire map above.  This is climate change hitting home.

Not a sight I want to get used to... wildfire smoke clearly visible on eastbound I-90 near Bellevue (I took this photo from the passenger seat - wasn't driving, I promise!)

Helpful links:

WA State Dept of Natural Resources Wildfire Prevention and Awareness Tips

Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (daily updates and detailed information on current fires)

This White House video offers a concise summary of the link between climate change and wildfires.  Regardless of your political leanings, this short video is worth a watch.

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