By Fernanda Santos
1 August 2015
WALLA WALLA, Washington (The New York Times) – Another summer of record-breaking drought and heat has seized the West, setting off costly and destructive wildfires from Southern California, where a single blaze burned more than 30,000 acres of national forest east of Los Angeles, to Montana, where a fast-moving fire in Glacier National Park recently forced tourists to flee hotels, campgrounds and vehicles.
No measurable rain has fallen here in Walla Walla since May. Temperatures have broken decades-old records. And, though known for soaking skies and cool summers, Washington State is well on track to surpass last year’s wildfire season, its busiest on record.
Dozens of homes and thousands of acres have burned over the past few months — in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, in suburban communities on the edge of the wild lands, and in this city of wheat farms and vineyards where hundreds of firefighters are still battling a blaze on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains, digging and scraping the earth, building barriers of dirt to shield the dried-out forests from the approaching flames.
“Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May,” said Peter J. Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands. Walking along the edge of the Blue Creek fire, burning near the Oregon-Washington border, he added, “By heavens, if this isn’t a sign of climate change, then what is climate change going to bring?”
The entire region is under duress. It has been so dry for so long that federal officials have warned about the potential for more catastrophe in the months ahead, as drought and climate change push high temperatures higher, drying already-arid lands.
The conditions vary from one area to the next: an unforgiving drought in California, where a fire captain died Thursday night while battling one of 23 wildfires burning in the northern part of the state; snow that arrived late and melted early in Idaho; extreme temperature swings in the Southwest; and grass that has turned to tinder across the Pacific Northwest.
But the West’s stubborn drought seems to be especially devastating the farther north it reaches. In Alaska, 399 fires burned in June. That was nearly double the number seen in the same month in 2004 — considered to have been the state’s worst fire year on record.
In the past, the fires mostly burned tundra. This year, though, several have merged and marched toward cities and small fishing villages, destroying, damaging or threatening hundreds of homes.
It is all part of an extensive nationwide scorching. About 63,312 wildfires destroyed 3.6 billion acres of land across the country last year, at a cost of $1.52 billion to fight the fires.
Early projections have placed this year’s cost even higher, at up to $2.1 billion, well beyond the $1.5 billion set aside by the federal Interior and Agriculture Departments, which administer more than 600 million acres of public lands. […]
Between 2005 and 2014, the average number of fires that burned more than 100,000 acres — known as “megafires” — increased to 9.8 per year, up from fewer than one a year before 1995, according to statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center, a multiagency logistical hub in Boise, Idaho.
One reason, ecologists and historians say, is the well-established link between big fires and the steady loss of moisture in forests from higher temperatures brought on by climate change. […]
Canada, with an unprecedented 5,548 fires and 9.1 million acres burned as of July 23, registered record temperatures in May and June, Earth’s warmest such month on record, according to NASA and several other climate reporting organizations. [more]
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