With climate change fueling forest fires, change is needed to prevent a worse scenario

Climate change is contributing to the massive wildfires experiencing western states like New Mexico, and scientists say humans need to make changes to prevent the risk of fires getting worse.

New Mexico’s largest wildfire in recorded history crossed 300,000 acres this week and it’s not the only major fires burning as the state experiences hot, dry conditions and extremely low humidity.

A study published this month in the journal Ecology Letter found that the risk of wildfires would increase in states such as New Mexico. By the end of the century, the study states that “high-level fire risk, historically confined to pockets of California and the western US between mountains, is projected to extend throughout the western US.”

William Anderegg, University of Utah associate professor, was one of the co-authors who led the study.

When he studies climate stresses and risks, Anderegg says it’s somewhat surprising, and also sad, how much fire risk increases in high climate change scenarios. But, he says, there’s also good news from those models. In a scenario where society aggressively acts to address climate change, “we can avoid a significant amount of fire risk.”

“It really tells us that the future of fire season is, to a large extent, in our hands,” he said.

Matthew Hurteau, a professor at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, said climate change is one of the contributing factors to the wildfires the state is currently experiencing.

“The severity of the fires is a consequence of our decisions as humans over the last 100 years,” Hurteau said.

He said the decision included excluding fires from the landscape as well as burning fossil fuels.

“Humans are responsible for the situations we are in and we must work together to reduce the risks,” he said.

Forest fires can have complex impacts. Anderegg said, in addition to the potential loss of life and property, fires can have economic and health impacts.

“Things like the air quality impact of all these fire smoke have a huge effect on our health, both locally and downwind, which today constitutes a huge swath of the country,” he said.

Carbon offset programs may not take climate change into account

Study in Ecology Letter modeled climatic stress, including forest fires and insect-associated tree death.

Study co-author Oriana Chegwidden, a scientist working for the nonprofit CarbonPlan, said one of the reasons behind the modeling was to determine how climate stress would impact the carbon offset program. Carbon offsets allow companies to purchase projects that are intended to offset the emissions they produce. This practice has come under scrutiny in recent years.

While forests can absorb carbon, they release it when burned.

The authors write that their study highlights the need to answer questions about the carbon offset market. Without answers to those questions, an offset program probably won’t make as much difference as it’s meant to make.

Anderegg said most forest carbon offsetting protocols assume that risks such as drought, fire and pathogens are the same and uniform across the country. He said it wasn’t true.

He said the protocols did not rely on rigorous science and he would like to see things like their studies used to inform the protocol.

During the interview, Chegwidden pulled graphs from the research showing the likelihood of projected increases in things like climate stress and fires by region. He pointed to projected fires, which show an increased risk across all regions of the country. However, the greatest risk is in California and the southwest.

The projections for the southeastern United States do not show a markedly increased fire risk, but they do suggest that future fire risks in the southeast could be similar to what California is currently experiencing, he said.

How is climate change correlated with forest fires?

New Mexico State climatologist David Dubois said that continued drought, warm temperatures, and an increased risk of wildfires were “the fingerprints of climate change.”

He said the model showed the fire season shifted earlier in the year in New Mexico, as seen this year. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire begins in early April, about a month before the fire season normally begins.

Dubois said “the atmosphere is really thirsty right now,” meaning more water will evaporate. High temperatures combined with very low humidity—several recent measurements show levels as low as one percent—mean these conditions are drying out.

“The additional heat that we put into the atmosphere causes changes,” Hurteau said.

Hurteau also said that some of these changes occurred at a faster rate than projected.

He said the scientific community and forest managers need to collaborate to find out quickly what steps can be taken, such as what tools researchers can provide to improve forecasts and increase the ability to safely apply defined burns.

Hurteau said the winter humidity helped the forest to become less flammable until the rainy season came, but there were two dry winters in a row.

“These forests are a little drier than before,” he said. “Basically, with less moisture in the system, more vegetation is available to burn because it doesn’t hold all that water.”

Climate change, coupled with past management decisions such as excluding fire from the landscape, is contributing to an increased risk of forest fires, he said.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burns the Ponderosa pine forest. Hurteau said before management practices excluded fire from those forests, they would burn regularly.

Preparing for the next fire

Hurteau said people need to think about ecosystems and “how we live in them.” He said when people build houses, they have to think about what materials they use and how they can make the house less flammable. From a forest management perspective, he said, people need to think about how land can be managed after a fire has been started to reduce the risk of future fires.

“There is no silver bullet solution to this problem,” Hurteau said. “This will require a lot of effort in many different areas. That’s how we live and operate this landscape. That’s how we manage the landscape. There are a number of factors and it will really lead us all to contribute to the solution to reduce the chances of this kind of thing happening in the future. ”

Antonio Maestas, culture and equity manager for the New Mexico Conservation Voter, headed to the communities affected by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire partly to help his girlfriend’s grandfather clear dead shrubs and trees from his property as the fire approached and partly to volunteer in the community, such as serving hot food.

As someone who was affected by the Dog Head Fire in 2016 and had to leave his home for two weeks because of it, Maestas sympathizes with what the residents of the Mora, San Miguel, Colfax and Taos counties who had to evacuate.

“There are still many people who do not want to evacuate. And the reason why they didn’t evacuate, was to protect their land to protect their homes,” he said.

Maestas explained that the fire had an impact on indigenous peoples, including the land grant community. He said some of the families had been there for generations and they felt a deep personal commitment to protecting their land and homes. Maestas is also from the land grant community and, he says, traditional land management practices such as thinning forests and grazing to remove dense undergrowth can help.

When the Dog’s Head Fire burned his community, Maestas said places where traditional communities had practiced the practices didn’t burn as badly.

“It would be a lot easier to stop the fires if there weren’t a ton of overgrowth,” he said.

As fires continue to scorch landscapes in New Mexico and other parts of the western United States, U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, and Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, introduced the National Wildfire Risk Reduction Program Act Thursday. intended to help prepare for the next fire. If passed, it would lead to additional investment in research and development. It will also set up warning and forecasting systems, develop surveillance and sensing technologies and standardize data collection efforts.

“Federal science agencies have an important role to play in improving the way the nation understands, anticipates, and responds to wildfires, but some of these agencies do not currently have the authority or definite mandate to do so,” Luján said in a press release. “This law addresses this gap and improves the entire Federal approach to wildfires. The wildfires currently raging in northern New Mexico are the largest in our state’s history – burning nearly 300,000 acres. It’s critical that Congress invests in our understanding and response to these types of devastating natural disasters so that we can increase fire resistance and protect New Mexicans from these increasingly devastating wildfires.”

Anderegg said forest management policies needed to change.

“It’s really becoming clear that we need to plan for forest management for a future with climate change,” Anderegg said. “And we need to think everywhere we can be proactive in managing climate dependencies and not being reactive and just responding to every fire season.”

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