Extreme Weather & Wildfires: the Population Connection

Published on August 23rd, 2012

Droughts and dry seasons play their part in wildfires. With climate change, we can expect more of all three.

“Extremes are the new normal,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) at the August 1 meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. At the same meeting, Dr. Christopher B. Field of Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science referenced the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that climate change increases the risk of heat waves and drought.

We’re of course very familiar here in California with wildfires ripping through areas from Laguna Beach and Riverside to Malibu and Santa Barbara – and people continuing to rebuild in areas that don’t seem reasonable areas in which to build. But in recent years it seems we’re hearing about more and more wildfires throughout the country.

Last year, Bastrop County in Texas had three fires which merged into one major wildfire and was reported to be the single worst wildfire in the state’s history. In New Mexico, the Las Conchas Wildfire near Los Alamos burned some 40,000 acres in a few hours, ultimately obliterating a total of 156,000 acres last year, while the Wallow Fire burned through 500,000 acres in New Mexico and Arizona.

Extreme temperatures and drought have plagued much of the United States this year, with June the fourth warmest June (global average) since recordkeeping began in 1880. With that has come fire. Coloradoans this summer suffered through the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, the Pine Ridge Fire near Grand Junction and the High Park Fire in Bellvue, wildfires which resulted in loss of life, loss of homes and insurance claims totaling more than $500 million.

Fifty years ago if you asked someone what caused a wildfire in a forest, you might get the response: a lighting strike. But today the answer is more likely to be: people. Bad players commit arson. People unwittingly start fires too. The Wallow Fire was started from a mismanaged campfire, for example.

"The vast majority of fires in Southern California start along roads. A car pulls off the road and the catalytic converter ignites the grass. Most start in grass; most don't ignite in chaparral shrublands," according to Jon Keeley, a California fire ecologist.

Sometimes people start fires unwittingly by way of our infrastructure. The Bastrop Fire was probably the result of sparks from power lines, aided by wind gusts and dry grass and leaves, according to officials.

Look at a map of the Colorado wildfires of this summer, and you can’t help but notice they were primarily in forested areas. As we continue to add more and more people to the United States – seemingly with the belief that there can never be too many – we’re taking our love of sprawl to the forests and the mountains.

Add continuing, unchecked population growth in America (the third most populous country in the world) to increasing temperatures, drought and a forestry management policy of fire suppression which has created dense forests (thus, huge amounts of “fuel”), and it seems obvious the future holds more devastating and larger wildfires in the U.S. We can look to the last decade for reference. It was the warmest on record, according to NASA and NOAA, with extreme weather events costing lives and $55 billion in related costs just in 2011.

While we can’t control the weather, we can do something about how we manage our forests and where we build in the U.S., and we can most certainly work to reduce population growth (something not addressed in the August 1 Environment and Public Works meeting). With most of our population growth coming from immigration – both legal and illegal – we could actually start enforcing our immigration laws and revising our legal immigration numbers downward.

New slogan? You too can prevent forest fires. Stop immigration.

Visit NOAA for stats about wildfires.

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