2011 Wildfire Season: A Glimpse of What’s to Come?

Wallow fire picture courtesy of US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

When most people think of spring, they picture refreshing April showers, beautiful blooming gardens, outdoor barbeques and pleasant temperatures.

For people in the southwest, however, spring often means gusting winds, dry heat and severe drought. Put them together, add a spark, and what do you get? Ding-ding-ding: Wildfires.

[Let me pause here and point out that not all fires are bad. In fact, wildfire plays a key role in maintaining the health of many ecosystems.]

Growing up in Silver City, NM, a small town bordering the Gila National Forest, I learned that the threat of wildfires can impact life in small but unforgettable ways. A high fire threat level can mean camping without the campfire, having a barbeque without the grill, and celebrating the 4th of July without any fireworks.

Small sacrifices I know, but next to praying for rain, it’s all that most people can do to help.

This year, in a region marked by exceptional drought (see graph below), preventing and controlling wildfires has been a losing battle. And for people living in the region, small sacrifices have given way to big losses:

  • Arizonans are currently fighting a raging wildfire that has scorched more than 480 square miles of the state and sent smoke all the way to Iowa. Residents have been evacuated, flights have been diverted on account of heavy smoke, and air quality alerts have been issued.
  • In Texas, more than 400 homes have burned across the state amid severe drought and high winds since November.
  • Twenty-seven wildfires were reported in a single four day period last month in New Mexico.
  • The National Climatic Data Center reports that wildfire activity “scorched more than twice the area of any April this century.”

These numbers are scary on their own, but they are even more alarming if taken as a harbinger of things to come. While many are attributing this year’s fire season to La Niña, scientists warn that the trend of larger and more severe fires will only get worse as a result of climate change.

While it is not possible to attribute a single weather event to climate change, recent events have many drawing a link between climate change and the surge in droughts, floods, heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Newsweek: The Reality of Global Climate Change is Upon Us

Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century.

Reuters: Is Extreme Weather the New Normal?

An upsurge in heavy rainstorms in the United States has coincided with prolonged drought, sometimes in the same location, she said, noting that west Texas has seen a record-length dry period over the last five years, even as there have been two 100-year rain events…Hayhoe, other scientists, civic planners and a manager at the giant Swiss Re reinsurance firm all cited human-caused climate change as an factor pushing this shift toward more extreme weather.

Knowing that the rains will eventually come, the winds will die down and the fires will stop burning does not bring me the comfort it once did. I guess this is because I am no longer a child concerned only with fireworks and barbeques, but an adult worried about the future of our planet.

Now, when friends or family tell me to pray for rain, I still do. But I also send a note to my elected officials demanding action on climate change. Let’s hope that both these messages are heard and answered soon.