But experts now have little doubt that climate change has become a major factor in the number and intensity of wildfires.
“Today, western forests are experiencing longer wildfire seasons and more acres burned compared to several decades ago,” says Todd Sanford, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The greatest increase has occurred in mid-elevation Northern Rockies forests, which are having higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt. These conditions are linked to climate change.”
“In general, climate change is increasing the risk for longer wildfire seasons and more area burned,” he says.
The UCS reports that wildfires in the western US have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long.
“As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier,” the organization reports. “Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and long-burning.”
To those tasked with preventing and fighting wildfires, climate change has become a major challenge.
“On average, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago. Last year, the fires were massive in size, coinciding with increased temperatures and early snow melt in the West,” US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in testimony last week. “The largest issue we now face is how to adapt our management to anticipate climate change impacts and to mitigate their potential effects.”