Wildfires return as our wildland fire season begins

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It felt more like it was June than December as temperatures across the country reached record levels last month. What is driving the climate change that brought these record temperatures, and how do people get relief?

Last year wasn’t just cold, it was winter that shifted toward the North Pole for the first time in more than 100 years. It was a polar vortex that drove winds from Canada and clogged the system that’s partly responsible for the winter in the eastern United States. But this year, what we’ve seen since Thanksgiving is the classic January weather pattern that ushered in the winter as the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies were frozen in place.

The drought has been dormant for the past year, and 2017’s large fire seasons means now the return of the fire season in the West. During the same time, the Bureau of Land Management has increased its firefighting budget by 55%. Increased firefighting prices aren’t slowing growth, either. The fires that raged across the west this year tripled national firefighting costs over 2016.

The leading cause of fires, with climate change strongly linked to it, is the extended dry periods.

Climate change is having the biggest impacts in the American West, but that doesn’t mean people should relax. Climate change is having the biggest impacts in the American West, but that doesn’t mean people should relax. Hotter temperatures mean wildland fire risk rises, and dry conditions in the drought-ridden West also foster grassland fire. So what makes sense for this geography?

“The more matches of fuel you have and the longer the dry period, the more of a threat from wildfire you’re going to have,” said Michael Brannen, director of air quality and climate change management at the Colorado State University Division of Air Quality. “If you want to have an enhanced fire season in the western United States, you have to have more fuels.”

Earlier this week, wildfires raged across Montana on the middle of the eastern United States’ hottest week on record, and each of the week’s five days are among the 10 warmest days recorded.

One of the solutions to the Western drought is small amounts of rain — either immediate rain or rainfall of 30 percent of normal. Cities like Las Vegas, Nevada, got a 12 percent boost in rainfall by doing that, Brannen said.

When flooding hits a wide area, Brannen added, it tends to be caused by a combination of upstream rain, runoff from the snowpack, and water trapped in the same rock.

And that water is lost to the world. “We wouldn’t be messing around with floods if we weren’t clogging the watershed with so much water,” he said.

The National Weather Service even calls this year “the year of the drought-busting monsoon.” But with droughts becoming more frequent and more intense in the American West, Brannen says this isn’t likely to happen again soon.

In the meantime, with temperatures now through the roof across the American West, Brannen also told me that we won’t see the consistent drought-busting monsoon weather that’s a staple of our climate. In short, don’t hold your breath for one.

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