Scientists cite climate as cause of expanding fire season

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  • The Paola Ridge Fire burns near Essex last month. (Jeremy Weber photo)

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  • The Paola Ridge Fire burns near Essex last month. (Jeremy Weber photo)

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Climate change is a driving factor in the current wildfire in the western U.S., a pair of leading experts said in a teleconference hosted by the National Wildlife Federation Wednesday.

Rising temperatures and lower rainfall totals over the past few decades have led to a dramatic increase in the length and severity of the fire season, according to the panel.

“The issue of wildfire is really complicated, for sure. Many politicians want to boil it down to something that is not complicated, it’s all frivolous lawsuits and mismanaged timber cuts. There’s a grain of truth to some of those things – a little more than a grain of truth in some of them – but what is not talked about so much is the connection to the changing climate,” National Wildlife Federation Director of Conservation Partnerships Dave Dittloff said.

Montana State University paleoecologist Dr. Cathy Whitlock says that ongoing climate change has already had a significant impact on the fire season and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Whitlock, a key contributor to the Montana Climate Assessment, said that the Montana climate has already warmed by 2-3 degrees since 1950, resulting in a growing season that is 12 days longer, but also producing longer, hotter and drier summers.

“The big thing that links climate to fire is that these rising temperatures are going to exacerbate late-season drought, summer drought. When you look at the projections, we are seeing an increase in days over 90 degrees of 35 or more days,” Whitlock said. “Models show that we are going to see additional warming of 4-6 degrees by the mid century and possibly as much as 10 degrees by the end of the century. Warming is in our future and there is no getting around it.”

University of Montana Professor of Fire Ecology Dr. Philip Higuera says studies have shown that Montana has been one of the locations hardest hit by recent climate change.

“One thing we have found in those studies is that, across the Rockies, including Montana and also parts of Idaho, is where those changes are most dramatic. For example, the length of the fire season has almost tripled since the late 1970’s and early 80s from 49 days to 134 days. That’s a major impact that has already happened. That’s what’s allowing more areas to burn,” he said. “We are not going to be able to get out of this problem or these challenges simply by doing more treatments to the landscape. The scale of the area affected by wildfire is significantly larger than what we could reasonably expect to change.”

Both scientists agree that fire will continue to be a problem in the future and that finding ways to deal with them should be a major priority, but finding a solution is elusive.

“The picture of climate change forces us to accept the inevitability of fire in our landscape and in our future. We need to address this problem where it interacts with humans, which is a much smaller area than all of the landscape affected by fire,” Higuera said. “Managers need to not have a one-size-fits-all approach to managing fires”

While more aggressive forest management has been a popular suggestion as to how to prevent large fires, Whitlock says it is not the answer.

“It is a narrative that has taken its own direction and it’s one that is not supported by the science. Science is showing that these large, out of control fires are totally climate driven and that fuel treatments really won’t have any significant impact except for a very localized and targeted way,” she said. “I think some of the best fire scientists in the country are working for the Forest Service, so it’s a matter of letting them be able to implement strategies that they think are going to leave to more healthy forests.”

While the solutions remain elusive, one thing is for certain - wildfire will continue to be an issue in Montana for years to come.

“The fire season is longer and, going into the future, we are going to see the number and size of fires continue to increase as a result of warmer weather and, to some extent, past management practices,” Whitlock said.

“I think we all know that the large fire issue isn’t going anywhere in Western Montana or Montana in general,” Dittloff added. “We’ve got a pretty significant issue on our hands.”

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