Is climate change the primary reason for the West coast fires?


Fact Box

  • According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 4.6 million acres have burned from 87 active fires in 10 states. 
  • In affected states, Democratic governors have said the wildfires are a result of climate change, while the Trump administration has accused the lack of forest management on the flames. 
  • Officials have warned that strong southerly winds and low humidity could bring a heightened fire risk to the west coast. 
  • Since August, at least 35 people have died: at least 10 people in Oregon, 24 in California, and one in Washington.

Kevin (Yes)

As reported in National Geographic, California's average temperature has warmed by 'about 3 degrees Fahrenheit,' compared to the global average of one degree, which is contributing to a more intense dry season. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has also pointed out that 'Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.' Although climate change may not be responsible for causing the fires, it causes conditions that make them larger and more dangerous.

This change in conditions affects not only the intensity but also the frequency of wildfires everywhere. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that 'the total number of acres burned by wildfires and the average acres burned per fire has been ticking up in recent decades,' and 'fire patterns and behavior are also changing in the southeastern United States.' According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Climate Science Special Report, 'the number of large fires has increased over the period 1984–2011, with high statistical significance in 7 out of 10 western U.S. regions across a large variety of vegetation, elevation, and climatic types.' The report further indicates that effects from 'anthropogenic climate change have increased forest fire activity in the western United States by increasing the aridity of forest fuels during the fire season.' 

Noah (No)

Climate change is not the primary cause of the devastating West Coast fires. Humans are, along with help from Mother Nature. On the one hand, natural fires are generally and randomly started by lightning (as was recently the case in California). One spark combined with dry fuel, such as dried vegetation and leaves, can generate spontaneous combustions. On the other hand, human-caused fires can be due to many reasons, but three in particular.

Firstly, the numbers are staggering regarding how many fires result due to the acts of people. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, around 90% of wildland fires in the United States are caused by people. Other human-caused fires result from illegal fireworks, unattended campfires, debris burning, downed power lines, discarded cigarettes, and acts of arson. Four people have already been arrested in Oregon on suspicion of arson. The remaining 10% of forest fires are started by lightning or other loose sparks igniting dry brush. 

Secondly, poor forest management by the three West Coast states, including reduced investment in culling dead trees and limbs—especially oak trees—have been made illegal in California, even on your own property unless you've obtained a permit. Third, over-protection of the forests by out-of-whack environmental laws and policies prevent timely forest floor clearing, monitored burnings, and lumber industry activities.

So, the lesson learned? Blame climate change all you want, but our current epidemic of forest fires is mainly caused by the compounded actions of humans, willfully or not. Forest fires are dangerous, destructive, and deadly, and we should all take special precautions to make sure fires anywhere are not carelessly ignited.

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