Wildfires and Global Warming

Since 1987, forest fires in the western parts of the United States have occurred much more frequently, as well as burned longer and covered more acreage. According to a research paper published by the journal Science in July, 2006, global warming has been a big factor in the upward trend.

At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as well as the University of Arizona, researchers have discovered that as many as four times as many large wildfires took place in Western forests between the years 1987 and 2003 in contrast to 16 years prior. As a result of the more recent fire instances, 6.5% more land was burned, the average duration of each fire inflated from 7.8 to 37 days, and the fire season during those same years increased by an average of about 78 days.

Those significant changes were in concurrence with an average 1.6 degree increase in temperature during the same time period throughout the American West. This study is the first to link wildfires to the occurrence of global warming. According to the study, the marginally warmer temperatures caused by climate change are responsible for longer, drier seasons, creating the ideal environment for forest fire incidents and to facilitate their spread.

"The real message of the paper is not as much about forest management," said University of Montana ecology professor Steven Running, who was also one of the study's peer reviewers. "It's that this is yet another dimension of global warming's impact. To me, it's the equivalent of the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. This is our hurricane."

Heat waves are becoming much more common in Southern California (as well as many other parts of the world), and subsequent wildfires are now somewhat expected by its residents. It is most frustrating to those people who are already having their lives impacted by the effects of global warming that more isn’t being done to counter it. Southern Californian wildfires in recent years have claimed thousands of homes, and they have even cost some people their lives. In October of 2007, wildfires broke out that ravaged primarily San Diego and Malibu, CA burned an estimated 500,000 total acres of land, and nearly 900,000 residents were evacuated from their homes. The total area of burned land stretched from Santa Barbara county all the down to the U.S.-Mexico border. Nine people were killed as a direct result of the fires, and more than 1,500 homes were lost.

That is just a sample of the damage that can be done by spontaneous wildfires that are invited by warming global temperatures. As conditions get progressively drier, chances of wildfire occurrences increase exponentially.