iSeeChange: The Rising Threat of Wildfires

Jun 24, 2013

East Fork Fire, June 2013.
Credit USDA Forest Service

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, May 2013 was the third-warmest May on record for the planet, and the earth's temperature has been above its 20th century average for 339 straight months - more than 28 years. 

Hugh Carson has been fighting fires for more than 40 years, and although he’s retired now, he was in the thick of things last year when he coordinated aircraft to battle the High Park Fire near Fort Collins. Over the years, he’s seen some changes.

"Back when I started in the ‘70s and early ‘80s the only major fire incidents were predominantly in southern California," says Carson. "1985 is the year the West started burning down."

Carson was stationed in Utah at the time, and then worked in Nevada as the entire northern part of the state was threatened by fires. According to Carson, the 1980s saw the rise of "megafires" in the northwest, fires of 100,000 or 200,000 acres in timber.

"In retrospect, it’s become very clear to everyone in the fire community, and in the climatology business, and in the weather business, that the west in fact is burning down, " says Carson, adding that the West "will continue to burn down despite best efforts of humans to prevent it."

Carson says the cumulative effect of the persistent drought is a big part of the problem. He says sever drought throughout the western United States has led to the rise of "thousand-hour fuels" composed of piñon, juniper and timber. 

"Those fuels take years, sometimes even decades to reacquire the fuel moisture that makes them more resistant to fire," Carson says.

The situation has been made even worse by a policy requiring that every fire be brought under control as soon as possible. From the 1940s into the early 1970s, says Carson, fires that would have naturally cleaned out the forests were not allowed to burn.

"We had a huge buildup of dead and downed fuels, and also standing live trees, so that (plus drought) has contributed to a horrendous situation in the United States," says Carson. "The Front Range of Colorado is the new Los Angeles."

Meanwhile, California is headed for the worst fire season in 100 years, and the West is so dry that scientists are considering new ways to describe degrees of aridity. According to Carson, scientists have had to come up with new terminology just to describe the scope of the fires.

"They have extreme, now they have exceptional – now they’re talking due to various factors, probably climate change, they’re gonna establish 'super-scary' or something like that."