Flames leapt from pine trees and expensive rooftops beneath the red glow of a massive fire and a lowering cloud of smoke. Colorado's Waldo Canyon blaze drove nearly 30,000 people from vulnerable hillside homes in Colorado Springs. Two hundred sixty-five square miles burned in New Mexico's Gila National Forest. Even before the end of June, a good deal of the Intermountain West was blazing. Should we blame climate change? A century of fire suppression? Freak weather?
Possibly all of the above. First of all, the intermountain West has had freak weather. On June 26, the temperature in Colorado Springs reached an all-time high. Some people "are trying to argue this [unusally hot, dry weather] is an extreme," notes Lisa Graumlish, dean of the University of Washington's College of the Environment and an expert on climate change. But "extreme events are by their nature rare," and "we don't have the data" to say that this year's acute conditions reflect a changing climate. However, she says, we do know — and "this is really important" — that "spring has been coming earlier and earlier." This isn't conjecture. It "is a trend we can look at . . . through good observational data."
On top of the heat spike, less snow has been falling in the Rockies. Last year, Graumlich and her graduate students published a paper in Science explaining that such low snowpack in both the northern and southern Rockies hasn't been seen since the 1500s. What was happening then? No one knows, although Graumlish assumes it had something to do with Pacific Ocean currents. Now, climate change caused by human activity helps to drive the process.
The bottom line is that there's less snow and therefore less lingering moisture in the mountains than at any time in the past 500 years. As a result, "fuels are drying out a month ahead of time," Graumlich explains. Earlier drying means earlier fires. "We're having fires in June that we would normally have been having in August."
Graumlich and her team think this is the new normal. "It's almost like a step change," she says. In the late 1980s, we seem to have crossed "a threshold where we lost that [normal Rocky Mountain] snowpack. . . . This was a train wreck that we could see coming." And the pattern reinforces itself. "We're seeing the jet stream gradually move northward as the earth warms." Consequently, "winter storms that bring snow to the southern Rockies are less frequent. . . . That incremental slow movement of the jet stream north just results in less snow. It melts off earlier."
"The other climate-related trend," Graumlich says, "is the beetle-killed forest." If the weather warms up earlier, "for a number of the forest pests . . . life cycles are accelerated." That means more beetles and other pests killing more square miles of pines and other trees. With early springs and massive beetle kills, "you've got your fine fuels drying out," Graumlish explains. "You've got your big fuels dead." In other words, you have the tinder to start a fire and the big wood to keep it going.
A lodgepole pine forest that hasn't burned for 100 years has lived out its alloted span. It's time for the bugs and the fires. And in other forests, the fuel has built up more than nature — or native cultures — would have allowed. "These forests have not burned in decades," says David Peterson, who leads the Fire and Environmental Research Applications Team at the Forest Service's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and also serves as a UW Affiliate Professor, Environmental and Forest Sciences. "Forests that would have experienced fires once every 10 to 30 years now haven't burned in 70 or 80 years."
What's sauce for the Southwest is sauce for the Northwest, too. Washington may not have as many beetle-killed trees as B.C. — although, Peterson says. the devastation in British Columbia "certainly has gotten everyone's attention," — but it does have a lot of dead and dying lodgepole pine forests just waiting to burn.
It also has plenty of land in which loggers long ago "high graded" the big, old Ponderosa pines and people have suppressed the frequent small fires — some presumably natural and some set for millennia by native groups — that used to clear out the understory, allowing Douglas fir and alpiine fir, which don't really belong there, to get footholds. Those trees have grown big and densely-packed, with multi-layered overstories and a vulnerability to drought, creating opportunities for spruce budworm. When pests kill the trees, the dense stand of dead wood creates a fire hazard that would not have developed in an open stand of big Ponderosa.
People have recognized these problems for decades. Mountain pine beetles and spruce budworms invaded the Okanogan National Forest in the 1980s, when the beetles had already started chewing their way through interior B.C. By the early 90s, conditions in Oregon's Blue Mountains had grown bad enough to inspire a much-noticed if soon-forgotten report on forest health.
Nevertheless, Washington may soon start addressing this old problem with a bit of new urgency. At the beginning of July, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark proposed a forest health hazard warning for eastern Okanogan and western Ferry County. If the warning goes into effect after a series of public meetings and consultations, Goldmark has proposed using $4.3 million from the recently-passed state jobs bill to jump-start the process of reducing fuel loads. Goldmark's proposal follows the recommendations of a nine-member Forest Health Technical Advisory Committee.
Even before the committee finished its deliberations, he suggested that thinning vulnerable forests would be crucial — and would also supply jobs to chronically-depressed rural areas. Goldmark knows that in the past, thinning forests to reduce fuel loads has been used as a pretext to log federal land that would otherwise have been off-limits. He says we have to make sure that doesn't happen here.
In some places, landowners — often with money and advice from the Forest Service — have gotten together to reduce fuel loads in their own neighborhoods or communities. Peterson notes that when the feds chip in money, "it sure helps motivate landowners," and he says that in some cases it has worked very well indeed: Last summer, when huge fires swept through Arizona, some high-elevation communities "basically kept the fire out."
People are doing it in Washington, too. The best example, Peterson says, is the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Yakama Nation, the Nature Conservancy, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The goal is both to prevent fires and more broadly to improve forest health.
One can accomplish both, Peterson suggests, by creating forests that contain trees of varying ages, so they don't all start dying at once. That's a tall order, and Peterson says he's "not sure we're going to find nirvana any time soon," but he thinks that "within two decades we could make significant progress."
According to Peterson, who recently served on the forest health technical advisory committee, there was one basic question the committee faced frequently: "How can you make a difference over such a huge area?" The are so many dead and diseased trees waiting for a spark, that it's hard to know where to start. You can't do it all. You "have to be more strategic."
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