Wildfire Damage and Impact on the Economy and You

How Climate Change Worsens the Cost of Wildfires

Wildfire
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 Photo by Kim Kulish/Getty Images

The frequency of western U.S. wildfires has increased by 400 percent since 1970.  California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico experience the worst damage. These fires have burned six times the land area as before and last five times longer. Their fierce temperatures consume all nutrients and vegetation, leaving little to grow back. 

The fire season itself is also two months longer than in the early 1970s, according to WXshift.

That allows more time for fires to erupt. In California, wildfire season is now year-round. Since 2012, there has not been a month without a wildfire burning. Before then, fire officials could use the fall and winter to plan and regroup.

2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change had doubled the number of acres burned since the mid-1980s. It does this by causing heat waves that dry out the forests.

2018 Fire Season

In November, the Camp Fire in Northern California wiped out the town of Paradise. It burned 138,000 acres, destroyed 10,321 buildings, and killed 59 people. It's the most destructive and deadliest in California history. Around 130 people are missing. 

At the same time, the Woolsey fire burned 98,362 acres, threatening Thousand Oaks and Malibu. Three people have died and 435 structures were destroyed.

The 2018 North American fire season is 25 percent worse than during the same time period in 2017.As of August 20, 2018, wildfires had burned 4.5 million acres.

At least 110 wildfires were burning almost 2 million acres. They require 28,250 firemen to combat them. At the same time, eight wildfires were burning across Colorado and six in Utah. The haze from the wildfires drifted to New York and parts of New England.

The Mendocino fire is the largest in California history, burning 290,692 acres.

The Carr fire caused a firenado. The extreme heat at the fire's center created a wind shear that cause the air to spin. As of September 6, 2018, damage was $845 million in insurance claims. The Wine Country fires in 2017 cost $10.4 billlion in claims.

2017 Fire  Season

The 2017 fire season was the most destructive in recent history. It broke numerous regional records for acreage burned and costs incurred. It burnt 9.1 million acres in the United States. The Thomas fire was the worst in California. It burned 283,800 acres in December. The other areas at risk are forests in Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia.  Recent wildfire intensity and frequency is worse now than it’s been in the past 10,000 years.

Forest fires were so monstrous that they pushed smoke into the Earth's stratosphere. It circled the globe within two weeks and remained there for months. The impact is comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption. 

Economic Impact

In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent almost $2.5 billion, much more than the $1.4 billion spent in 2016.  Firefighting consumed 52 percent of its budget. It leaves little for forest management, capital improvements, and research. At the peak of the season, more than 280,000 personnel and 1,900 fire engines were deployed.

The Air National Guard had to help, dropping 530,000 gallons of fire retardant. 

The biggest reason for the cost increase is that fires are getting bigger. As of November 24, 2017, the average size was almost 175 acres. The prior record, in 2015, was slightly more than 140 acres. Before 2005, fires burned less than 100 acres.

Another reason is that 33 percent of houses are near a forest. They increase the cost of wildfire protection. In 2015, wildfires caused $14.3 billion in real estate damage.

A Rand study found that home-insurance premiums have risen in the state’s most fire-prone areas.  The study estimated that the number of acres burned in the Sierra foothills will double in the next 30 years. It will quadruple by 2100.

Causes

There are five reasons for the growing severity of wildfires.

They are rising temperatures, shorter winters, more pests, drought, and fire suppression. The first four are caused by climate change.

Rising temperatures increase evaporation. The atmosphere draws more moisture from soils, making the land drier. For example, Redding, California, experienced 14 days of triple-digit temperatures before the Carr fire struck. But even if the soil is moist, heat waves can dry out vegetation enough to create flammable tinder. Wildfires are driven more by the temperature and moisture content in the air than by the moisture content in the soil. Scientists thought that wildfires were strictly a function of drought. 

Shorter winters means there is less snow. That releases a smaller amount of melting snow in the spring. That also dries the soil and vegetation. 

A shorter winter also means that many pests, such as the pine bark beetle, don’t die off in the winter. As a result, they are killing and weakening millions of trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 beetle-infested trees fall daily. This level of damage has never before been seen in U.S. recorded history. It provides dry fuel for forest fires.

Drought is a reduction in precipitation over an extended period. It’s most people's biggest climate change worry, according to a Pew Research Study. In 2012, more than 80 percent of the United States experienced abnormally dry conditions.

Climate change creates more severe droughts through a vicious cycle. Greenhouse gase emissions trap heat, causing air temperatures to increase. The hot air absorbs more moisture, resulting in less rain. Hotter air also increases evaporation from lakes and rivers, reducing water sources. Without rainfall, the plants that retain moisture in the soil die. The bare earth creates even drier conditions. When it does rain, water just runs off without absorbing into the water table. Dead vegetation, warmer air, and decreased rainfall also increase the frequency and severity of wildfires.  

In the 1880s, foresters in the Southwest and California encouraged more young trees similar to forests in the East or in Europe. They allowed ranchers' livestock to overgraze the grass to eliminate the source of ground fires and allow more seedlings to survive.

As a result, the forests grew dense. In the 1920s, foresters put out fires. They unintentionally allowed even more trees to grow. But there wasn't enough nutrients to support them, so they grew thin and weak. Bark beetles took advantage of the weak trees, killing them. As a result, forest fires grew monstrous on the dense, dry wood. 

Wildfire Forecast

The National Climate Assessment predicted that the number of wildfires “is projected to further increase as the climate warms.” They warned this could create“profound changes to certain ecosystems.” For example, Alaskan tundra and forest wildfires would increase under warmer and drier conditions. The result would be "a fire regime unprecedented in the last 10,000 years." The scientists predict that the total area burned would increase between 25 and 53 percent by 2100.

The study predicted that wildfires in the Greater Yellowstone will greatly increase by 2050. Years without large fires will become extremely rare. In the West, fires greater than 50,000 acres will increase. An additional 1.9 million acres of land  could burn each year by 2100. Even the Southeast will start to see an increase in large wildfires.

Wildfires increase greenhouse gases as the fires burn carbon stored in the trees and plants. For example, forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 released twice as many greenhouse gases as Germany emitted in 2014. Once destroyed, those trees are no longer around to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

By 2030, the United States will be measurably drier. By 2050, the American Southwest and Great Plains will experience a megadrought, according to scientists at Cornell University. The drought will last 50 years. It will be similar to droughts that occurred in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries, but it will be entirely man-made, a consequence of global warming.

By 2030, 55 percent of the Amazon rainforest could be destroyed. Twenty percent of the Amazon has already been destroyed. They absorb the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Solutions to Wildfires

Government policies can solve the short-term wildfire problem. In forest fire regions, there should be no planting of easily flammable tree species such as eucalyptus and pine. For example, Portugal suffered tremendous wildfires after it allowed farmers to plant fire-prone eucalyptus to replace fire-resistant cork oaks.

Governments should not allow human development in pristine forests. New forest roads increase the likelihood of human-caused fires.

Medium-term, governments can promote policies that conserve water. These include waste-water recycling, desert landscaping, and low-flow appliances. They should also reverse subsidy policies that encourage thirsty crops like cotton. Instead, they should direct subsidies toward crops like prickly pear.

Foresters should allow loggers to thin the forests, removing spindly and weak trees. The largest, sturdiest trees should remain to provide seeds for future generations. These trees will survive weaker fires, as they had for centuries before humans managed the forests.

Long-term, the government must stop climate change to reduce wildfires. Nations must cap the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. Once that is done, carbon emissions trading can encourage businesses to adhere to the cap. A  carbon tax can punish them if they do not.