Climate change makes US fire season longer and more destructive

The chief of the national forest service told Congress that the hotter, drier environment resulting from climate change is responsible for the increase in duration and severity of recent forest fires. Earlier snow-melt, higher temperatures, drought and generally drier conditions mean more ready-to-burn fuel, and early-season fires along with ‘monster fires’, which consume tens of thousands of acres at record speed, are becoming the new norm.

The forest service chief compared two fires as an example of how much more explosive fires are routinely becoming: ten years ago, a single fire consumed 40,000 acres over 7 days; in 2011, the Las Conchas fire burnt out 40,000 acres in just 12 hours. The first major fire of the 2013 fire season, the Powerhouse fire north of Los Angeles, has already scorched over 30,000 acres and chased thousands from their homes. Human factors, particularly settlement expansion into areas where forest fires are part of the ecosystem, also exacerbate the problem.

These challenges come at a time of serious budgetary problems. The forest service has nearly doubled its spending on fighting fires since 2000, and even before the US budget was announced, found it needed to divert money from other forestry programmes to keep fire fighting – including some programmes intended to prevent or reduce the risk of future fires. Now the service looks set to lose at least 480 of its firefighters and some 50% of its firefighting budgets.