Perils of Playing with (Wild) Fire

July 31, 2012

The catastrophic fires burning throughout the American West have dominated headlines all summer.

Visceral and dramatic, forest fires draw TV cameras like nothing else. So do they offer a productive pathway to discuss the perils of climate change? Well, yes and no.

It’s difficult to link any single current event, be it storm or fire, to a long-term trend like climate change, just as a single cold snap or blizzard is no evidence to the contrary. That may be why most reporters aren’t connecting the dots between fires and climate change, and why scientist Bill Nye found himself in a firestorm of negative coverage for blaming this summer’s fires on climate change – but was he wrong?

Not necessarily. We can (and should) say that climate scientists overwhelmingly believe that our pollution is warming the climate, which will lead to longer fire seasons and bigger, hotter, more unnaturally destructive fires. We can expect more summers like this and worse, if we allow climate change to go unchecked

Forest fires are as natural a part of the West as prairie dogs and lodgepole pines. Big fires have always swept these mountains and plains, and always will. The fact that today’s fires are more expensive and destructive probably has as much to do with misguided fire management in the past and building in harm’s way as anything else.

For people nearby, forest fires are a “right now” issue.  When facing such immediate threats to safety and property, most people aren’t thinking about global warming. First and foremost, we should focus our concern for those suffering the brunt of the fire.

But let’s also remember that we’re all in this together. This month marks the largest natural disaster declaration in our nation’s history. The drought fueling wildfires in the West is also wilting crops and starving livestock and wildlife across parts of 26 states. And like the 1930s Dust Bowl that 2012’s disaster now rivals, human actions are at least partly to blame.

Cat Lazaroff