In this video, Matthew Hurteau—assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State University—explains how warming temperatures, prolonged drought, and a century’s worth of fire suppression policy are “priming the system to make it more flammable.
Climate Desk produced a longer, more detailed explainer earlier in the summer titled, “How climate change makes wildfires worse.”
While I wouldn’t discount climate change as a factor, it’s highly arguable whether global warming should be highlighted as a major driver of western wildfires.
For a more sophisticated take, see this recent post by Andy Revkin at his New York Times Dot Earth blog, which opens:
Assessing the drivers of wildfire trends in the American West these days can be akin to Hercule Poirot’s task on the Orient Express, on which there was one murder with 12 final suspects — all of whom were guilty.
I really like this analogy and the nuanced discussion that follows it, which includes input from superb fire experts, such as tree ring researcher Tom Swetnam and environmental historian Stephen Pyne.
These are two authorities that I have relied on for years to help me make sense of the complex set of factors that have turned much of the West into a volatile tinderbox. In this 2012 piece, Pyne offers a number of analogies that I find particularly interesting. Here’s an excerpt:
If you think that our firefight from the Big Blowup to today has only created an ecological insurgency, there is the Arab Spring model. The American fire scene was held in check for decades by ever more repressive regimes, but each cycle of protest and suppression only added to instability. Armed dictatorships can’t keep the lid on indefinitely; eventually the scene boils over. Some places have made the transition quickly and with relatively little havoc. Others have slid into biotic civil war, with more savage outbreaks and harsher suppression. No one has a clue what the final outcome will be.
The reason is that the primary driver of the American fire scene is not amenable to technical fixes and funding. It’s about how Americans live on their land.
Focusing on climate change in this context distracts from that much needed discussion.