Cascade Complex, Idaho (2007) Image credit: National Interagency Fire Center's photo library

Topic: Communications / Outreach Wildfire Type: Tools / Resources

Reports Link Climate Change with Increased Wildfire Activity

Authors: Molly Mowery

Cascade Complex, Idaho (2007) Image credit: National Interagency Fire Center's photo library

Cascade Complex, Idaho (2007) Image credit: National Interagency Fire Center’s photo library

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in media coverage highlighting the connections between climate change, increased drought and wildfires across the U.S. No doubt there is a busy graduate student somewhere doing an in-depth media content analysis to explain this surge in media attention, but I wanted to share some of my own observations on why it’s occurring:

  • Data suggests that the coming year’s weather pattern may contribute to extended fire season conditions: Globally, recent talks about El Niño weather patterns returning are capturing attention as people consider potential impacts of this trend for both this year and next. While El Niño may bring phenomenal amounts of precipitation to some areas (e.g., California), others are predicted to experience prolonged bone-dry conditions. One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is the likelihood that this El Niño could lead to a record-breaking heat wave, perhaps even the warmest year on record to date. The comparison to the 1997-98 El Niño weather pattern also has Florida nervous – the state experienced one of its most severe wildfire seasons on record that year thanks in part to the increased green up followed by hot, dry conditions.
  • The impacts of climate change are being recognized in every region of the US: On a national scale, the Obama Administration’s recent release of the Third National Climate Assessment for the United States provides evidence that climate change is affecting every region of the U.S. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this includes the prediction that the arid Southwest will see increased drought and warming resulting in more wildfires and other impacts to people and ecosystems. Climate scientists have been showing us fire models and future scenarios with this information for some time, but given the report’s national status it seems to have attracted more interest from news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today.
  • Journalists and citizens are realizing that changes in our climate are linked to real-life events like wildfires, severe storms and floods: As wildfire season heats up across the west, the National Climate Assessment is being referenced by local news outlets – both in connection to recent fire events such as in Arizona and California, and as the focus of general news stories and radio shows. Reporters aren’t afraid to dig for reasons behind why wildfires are making headlines more often. This trickle down effect is shifting the dialogue toward acknowledging that climate change is a contributing factor in local wildfire events.
  • Stakes are high, and politicians are taking note: Prominent politicians are talking more openly about climate change, connecting the dots between current conditions and global trends. During the recent fires in southern California, Governor Jerry Brown repeatedly took the opportunity to say the climate is changing, resulting in more wildfires and drought throughout the state. His call to action is that we need to adapt and find a better way to live with nature.

There are surely other factors that explain the media’s shift away from discussing whether climate change is real, to how it is impacting our local communities, economies, and landscapes. Now our new challenge is to help media outlets convey what each of us – homeowners, local politicians, land managers, business owners and fire officials – can do to help make our communities and landscapes more adapted to fire given our climate change reality.

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