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Nation must adapt to greater wildfire risk

Climate change means people must prepare for more fire danger, including – surprise – US East.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 2007

Droughts, floods, severe storms, and sea-level rise often get the lion's share of attention in the litany of projected effects from global warming. But October's disastrous wildfires in California – part of one of the most intense fire seasons in the United States in nearly 50 years – are likely to raise the profile of such events, even if a firm link between the state's fires and climate change has yet to be made.

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Planning for how to adapt to larger and more frequent wildfires is under way. It includes building homes with fire-resistant roofs and windows, and landscaping with fire-resistant plants. It also means planning new communities with streets wide enough to handle evacuation traffic even when the curbs are lined with fire trucks.

It also means changing the way people think about their homes and surrounding property. And it means maintaining homes and property over time: Adapting to new wildfire risks is not a one-time event, experts say.

People who live in flood plains or hurricane zones generally "understand the need to adapt and to build differently," says James Smalley, who heads the ­wildfire-protection program at the National Fire Prevention Association in Quincy, Mass. "But people who live in natural settings don't quite get it yet – that you can adapt, that you can still have a natural, beautiful setting. You have to understand that fire is part of the natural landscape. So you have to adapt."

Global warming is expected to increase fire hazards in the western United States under a range of global-warming scenarios. But the greatest increase in risk, some researchers say, is likely to come in the East and Southeast. There, snowmelt and rainfall are unlikely to slake the increasing thirst of trees and shrubs as CO2 spurs their growth during longer, warmer growing seasons. This could leave more of the eastern woodlands drier and more vulnerable to wildfires by summer's end. Meanwhile, some of the most dense mingling of homes and woods – what experts call the wildland-urban interface – can be found in the eastern US.

Money and manpower to deal with wildfires today is limited. That sometimes can means firefighters must use a kind of triage to decide what to do. Not only are homes and communities that prepare to resist wildfires more likely to survive with less damage, they also are more likely to attract attention from firefighters.

"Your first mind-set is to save them all," says Michael Long, director of Florida's state forest service. "But then when you get limited resources, you look at [the homes] and say, 'This is a winner; this is a loser.' When your resources get low, you've got to make decisions as to which ones you stand the best chance of saving."

Well-prepared homes in one neighborhood can also free up firefighters to work on other parts of a blaze. According to press reports, for instance, the Witch fire in northern San Diego County swept right across one large housing development. Yet no home burned. Firefighters attributed the good news to the consistent use of fire-resistant landscaping throughout the development.

But pinning the blame for southern California's tragedy on global warming at this stage is premature, says Anthony Westerling, an assistant professor at the University of California at Merced and a lead investigator with the California Climate Change Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

He and colleagues at the University of Arizona note that so far no research has identified a clear link between rising temperatures and wildfires in southern California's dry chaparral landscape. In a statement, the team notes that "the connection between global warming, Santa Ana winds, and extremely low southern California precipitation last winter are not known with sufficient certainty to conclusively link global warming with this disaster."

"We don't know how much the dice are getting loaded" in favor of such fire outbreaks in southern California, Dr. Westerling says in an interview. Computer models tend to agree that temperatures should warm, he says, but "they are all over the place" on changes in precipitation.