The 2021 fire season is already setting records.
The current wildfire preparedness level of 4 is the highest it has been this early in the season, and researchers are finding it is due to climate change.
“It’s really clear now that our systems are changing and fire activity responding very acutely to a warming climate,” said Phil Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana.
In the last 2,000 years, wildfires in the high Rocky Mountains of the Western United States burn nearly twice as often as before and they are burning more often in higher elevations that have historically been more resistant to them, according to recent research Higuera has done.
He says over 70% of the total area burned since 1984 occurred last year in 2020.
“All of that canopy cover leads to much hotter temperatures in the burned area, even compared to adjacent forests and so that can kind of exacerbate that drought stress,” said Higuera.
Four of California’s five largest fires ever burned in 2020 and the three largest in Colorado’s history burned last year as well.
“Millions of people who don’t live in the mountains or close to areas close to where these wildfires burn can be exposed to some of the hazards that result from wildfires, and in particular, wildfire smoke,” said Higuera.
The increased fire activity has a chance to affect future generations as well.
After millions of years of fire activity in alpine forests, trees started to adapt by developing pinecones on their branches. At a certain temperature during a fire, they will burst and drop seeds into the ground which then grow into budding trees as a way to regenerate the forest.
The concern is with this increased fire activity that we are seeing new fires will burn these baby pine trees before they have had time to produce these cones, potentially wiping out forests down the road.
“There’s a lot of evidence that tree regeneration after fires is declining because of these stressful post-fire conditions,” said Kyra Wolf, a Ph.D. candidate who has helped Higuera with his research.
Further concern points to the possible carbon dioxide emitted during these fires, and the lessened number of trees to take it out of the atmosphere, leading researchers to the only possible road to reconciliation.
“Climate change needs to be addressed,” said Wolf. “There’s no way to really solve this wildfire problem without mitigating carbon emissions.”