Note: Dr. Steve Ghan, who is quoted here, will speak about climate and fire impacts at WSU Spokane on November 16, as part of the Water, Wind & Fire Tour. He will be joined by physician Sara Cate, speaking on climate-related health impacts; by Audubon Washington’s Jen Syrowitz speaking about climate-related wildlife impacts; and by Citizens’ Climate Lobby Conservative Caucus member John Sandvig speaking about climate policy options to bridge the political divide.
Where: WSU Spokane, Student Academic Center, Room 20. 600 N. Riverpoint Blvd., Spokane.
When: November 16. 4:00 – 5:30 p.m.: Climate & Health; 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.: Saving Farms, Forests and Fish.
It was very literally a summer for the record books. Spokane went 80 days without rainfall, from late-June until mid-September, making 2017 the hottest, driest summer recorded.
The remarkable fact was that this record-driest summer followed the record-wettest winter. As Northwesterners emerged in April from endlessly gray skies, grousing and bleary-eyed, plants took the meaning of “spring” to heart, bursting forth in lush excess. Grasses and shrubs grew thick and deep — until the arrival of an infernal June and July, drying all that brush dried to tinder and baking moisture from the soil. Long before August, an epic fire season was already well under way.
“Depleted snowpack in the mountains of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho as the climate warms will lead to drier soils,” says Pacific Northwest National Laboratory climatologist Steve Ghan. “This increases the likelihood that wildfires will spread, and it lofts smoke higher into the atmosphere and makes wildfires harder to fight.”
The evidence of that was everywhere around us.
It wasn’t just us, either. Nationwide, around 9 million acres burned this year. California’s all-time deadliest firestorms raged through suburban Sonoma housing developments. To our north, British Columbia lost more than 3 million acres to fire. Blazes continued to expand worldwide this year; in Southern Europe, Siberia, Australia, Chile, and even in frosty Greenland.
However, in Northwestern North America the season was truly horrific. A thousand-mile-wide ring of blazes surrounded Eastern Washington, stretching from Central British Columbia to California and east to the Great Plains. No matter which way the winds blew, they blew smoke to places like Spokane and Wenatchee. And when the winds stopped, as they often did, the Columbia Basin filled with dense, lung-clogging, eye-stinging pall. The region’s air was worse than Beijing’s.
Which was plain enough to anyone here in August and early September—six weeks of coughing, air hazard warnings, and ashes falling from skies across the region. Your correspondent was dusted with ashes fluttering down like light snow even on the outer Washington Coast, two hundred miles from the nearest fire.
Spokane was at the epicenter of unhealthy wildfire smoke concentrations throughout much of August and September.
Yet this was supposed to be a mild fire year. What happened?
Global warming is what. And, by expert accounts, this is merely a taste of things to come.
For decades, climate scientists like Ghan have warned that wet and dry seasons will become more pronounced worldwide as carbon pollution warms the globe. That means special trouble for the Northwest, whose climate is defined by precipitation extremes alternating between bone-dry summers and notoriously wet winters. Amplifying the summer drought has led to a near doubling of fire season length over the past forty years, which has in turn caused a 5,000% increase in annual fire acreage burned across the region. And it’s the largest fires that are growing the most.
The largest wildfires are growing far more frequent.
(Graph from Climate Central)
Coupled with longer fire seasons, decades of warming climate have allowed tree-killing bark beetles to sweep northwards and upslope of their historic range, killing untold millions of trees across the North American West, turning them to standing tinder awaiting a spark. Throw in all the extra-dry floor humus and grasses, and we have fires that often quickly explode beyond anyone’s ability to stop them. All one can do is hope for early autumn rain.
This year, dozens of fires across the region were so large that only the fall rainy season could extinguish them. Firefighting resources were exhausted. The U.S. Forest Service alone spent more than $2 billion fighting fires this year, while perhaps another billion was spent by other federal agencies and state and local governments.
In the 1970s the Forest Service devoted just 15% of its funds to firefighting, yet it must now spend nearly half its budget to keep fires at bay, and even that isn’t enough. Meanwhile, the entire Montana state budget is threatened by firefighting costs.
This has led inevitably to politics as some on the right, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and House Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, call to thin forests before they burn—an easy solution blocked only by Sierra Club lawsuits, they say.
The only problem with that is it is untrue, for two reasons. First, there is no evidence that thinning can overcome fire seasons this long, soils this dry, or forests this full of beetle-killed trees providing fire-ready kindling. Second, thinning is impossible to do at the gigantic scale needed.
While it is partially true that a century of fire suppression in the Western U.S. has led to denser forests that more readily burn., this does not begin to explain the stunning extent of today’s fires. If poor forest management is primarily to blame, why would unmanaged forests in places like Siberia also see record wildfires? Why are fires growing in size and ferocity worldwide?
Forests everywhere are burning as never before as fire seasons around the globe have already lengthened by an estimated 18.7%, and coniferous dry-summer regions such as ours have seen fire seasons grow longer still.
In the Inland Northwest, the sad truth is that many of our forests will probably vanish as the climate warms.
Studies say by the end of this century Spokane summers will likely be as hot as those of Austin or Fresno are now. Ever notice what the hills of Fresno don’t have? They don’t have trees, much less forests of flammable conifers. Even drought-tolerant oaks and locusts struggle to survive on those heat-blasted slopes.
Now imagine what long, roasting summers like that will mean for Inland Northwest forests. Worldwide, species are moving poleward and upslope, and this region is no exception.
Forests on the march; it all sounds very stately until you realize that the engine of that movement is fire, and with fire comes smoke. Lots of it.
The future of Spokane summers is literally gloomy. Drying, increasingly flammable forests for hundreds of miles in all directions will fill our summer and fall skies with increasingly thick blankets of smoke, steadily converting pines and firs into carbon dioxide and soot, worsening the climate crisis even more as the CO2 adds to greenhouse warming while the soot reduces the reflectivity of polar ice, speeding its melting, which further warms the planet as more heat-absorbing land and water is exposed.
For my family it hit home three years ago, when smoke put an end to our annual camping meetup.
Each July or August, five Seattle families we had known since our kids were babies would travel east to join us for a long weekend camping amid Eastern Washington’s reliable sunshine and swimming. Then fires east of the Cascade Crest grew steadily into the state’s record-largest blazes, filling summer air with acrid murk. Campfires were limited, then banned. Our favorite rendezvous—Alta Lake State Park—burned entirely, along with much of the nearby town of Pateros.
Our annual campout moved west to Puget Sound.
It’s a small example of the impact that larger fires and thicker smoke are having across the Inland Northwest as fire seasons grow longer and hotter. Who wants to be in a place where breathing itself is unhealthy?
And the challenges don’t stop with smoke, because we are making ourselves more vulnerable to fire itself. As cities, towns and resorts sprawl, the “urban-wildland interface” grows even faster, and that’s where firefighting costs are greatest. This fire-prone border between development and wilderness was once limited to a few mountain towns and distant suburbs, but no longer.
Cabins in the woods may become as costly to insure as houses in the Florida Keys, as actuaries pay better attention to climate risks, and as retail property & casualty insurers abandon dry forest country just as they are already leaving Hurricane Alley. What will that do to outer-suburban home values, or to the cherished Northwestern tradition of family lake and mountain cabins?
The cumulative global value of the coming property losses due to carbon pollution is well into the trillions. We tend to think of rising sea levels flooding cities, but here in Western North America the larger problem is fire, and it will only grow more severe as summers grow longer and drier.
Projected changes in Western U.S. summer water deficits (mm).
(McKenie & Littell, “Climate change and the eco-hydrology of fire,” Ecological Applications, 27(1), 2017)
Experts tell us we can still prevent the climate mess from growing intolerably worse, and at low cost if we start now, but every month of delay adds to the cleanup bill. Worse, each extra degree of warming causes far more fire risk than the degree before. It’s an exponential relationship.
Lazy fatalism in the face of long-term threats is a universal human weakness, particularly when we love what kills us. Ask any addict. Gathering our collective will may take longer than we think.
However, time is short.
One recent ray of hope is the climate fight’s move to the courts. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed worldwide, many of them spanning international borders. Oregon children are suing the U.S. Government for shunting massive future climate costs onto them. A Peruvian man, Luciano Lliulya, is in German courts suing Germany’s largest utility RWE for its part in melting glaciers that are flooding his hometown of Huaraz.
That is merely the beginning. Climate change is now killing millions around the globe at the rate of 400,000 per year, and growing—and 90 percent of those deaths are in poor countries. If we in the rich world think we can continue to selfishly cook the climate thirty years after firm, scientifically corroborated evidence of its massive harms, we and our children can expect to be held legally accountable by the injured for our selfish arrogance.
So we have work to do, and it begins with electing leaders willing to face reality.
Wildfires are not the only reason to vote for those who will commit to halting carbon pollution, but they are definitely the most critical local reason to halt warming. Fires here have already reached crisis, and warming to date is only a quarter of what we and our children are on track to see this century.
It’s hard to find anyone in Spokane who doesn’t say that summer and autumn have always been their favorite seasons, yet how can Spokane prosper if those seasons fill lungs with soot? What will insurance cost for homes and buildings in or near increasingly fire-prone wildlands?
There are huge economic and legal arguments for stopping the destruction of our climate, but the new Northwest summer infernos also suggest a much simpler calculus.
Do you want to breathe?