Climate change puts stress on Northwest forests in fire season

SPOKANE, Wash.– Wildfire season has come to be a defining experience of living in the Western United States during the 21st century.

Like hurricanes in the East, the rhythm of summertime life is increasingly intertwined with tracking the movements of smoke and flame. Fire seasons are undoubtedly becoming worse and more impactful.

In 1983, a little over 1.3 million acres of land burned in the United States. In 2021, over 1.4 million acres burned in just Oregon and Washington. Three times in the past five years, over 10 million acres have burned nationwide. On average, over 2 million more acres burned each year in the 2010s than during the 1990s.

This doesn’t capture the entire picture, however. Jessica Halofsky is a scientist and director of the Western Wildland Threat Assessment Center and the Northwest Climate Hub for the U.S. Forest Service. She says that since fire is a natural, even essential, part of the ecology of the West, more fire is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, simply looking at acres burned doesn’t tell the whole story of why fire seasons are getting worse. Most of those acres burn in large fires, ones that blow up to over 10,000 acres. Those types of fires, the ones that burn the fiercest, are seven times more likely than they were 50 years ago.

Wildfires are burning more severely than in previous decades. That severity can overcome the adaptations of forests that are adapted to more frequent but less severe fires.

large wildfires are becoming more common in the last 50 years

The climate of the Pacific Northwest is getting wetter, but also warmer as the planet continues to warm in response to human-forced climate change. While that gives an overall picture, it’s not the full story.

Rain and snow are likely going to increase in winter but rain will decrease in the summer. This is already happening. The 30-year average for summer rain in Spokane decreased in 2021.

Spokane Summer Temperatures are increasing Summer Rainfall is decreasing in Spokane

Less summer precipitation leaves the Inland Northwest more dependent than ever on spring rainfall to shorten and lessen the severity of fire seasons.

Halofsky says that while future climate projections agree the Northwest will be warmer, the fate of spring precipitation is far less certain.

“It takes really just a couple of weeks to dry out the fuels and increase the fire hazard,” she says.

There is no more perfect example than 2021 when a severe drought in spring was followed up by the hottest heatwave in this area’s known history. Between late June and Labor Day, over twice as many acres burned in the Northwest compared to 2020.

It’s not just acres burned that’s going up, the smoke in our skies is getting worse too. A recent 4 News Now report showed you that since 2012 there’s been an average of six days of unhealthy air quality because of smoke in the Spokane area. In the two decades prior to that, the average was zero. Air quality records going back to the 1970s show that the smoke problem in the Inland Northwest is the worst in at least 50 years.

More days are smoky with unhealthy air

More days in many western states are getting smokier

Climate Central

Halofsky says that decades of forest policies helped put us at risk for more of these large wildfires that are responsible for most of the smoke.

The Northwest has large swaths of forestland where any and every fire was suppressed for decades.

According to Halofsky, that’s left an excess of fuels in an already extremely fuel-rich ecosystem. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff to burn,  and there are more days with conditions that are ideal for wildfires, thanks to climate change.

What are the solutions then?

The warming that’s already happened to the planet cannot be undone, and further warming is certain. The challenge for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies who manage our public lands is to adapt to the change.

Halofsky says more prescribed burning, forest thinning using machinery, and careful management of fires that aren’t directly threatening people and property can help get us there.

Fewer trees and underbrush mean less competition as drought becomes more frequent in the new Inland Northwest climate.  More fire, less severe fire, could help us get there according to Halofsky.

“If we have more frequent fires like we did historically that reduces fuels after a while,” she says,” so eventually we could reach another kind of equilibrium where the fires wouldn’t be so severe.”

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