DENVER–Even as a half-dozen wildfires continue to smolder statewide, promoters of climate change theory are scrambling to affix the blame for this year’s catastrophic fire season on warmer temperatures caused by global warming.
Federal officials, scientists and environmental groups are pushing the climate-change scenario despite a lack of input from Colorado lawmakers, who have so far refused to speculate on the cause of the wildfires out of respect for the ongoing firefighting and disaster-relief efforts.
When GOP Congressman Cory Gardner suggested three weeks ago that the roadless rule may have hampered fire-suppression efforts, he got a tongue-lashing from state Democratic chair Rick Palacio, who accused him of “politicizing a fire that continues to threaten our communities.”
Last week, however, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies held a “Forests at Risk” symposium at which speakers, including Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman, pointed to climate change as the variable responsible for raising the intensity of this summer’s devastating wildfires, according to the Colorado Independent.
“We know now that it’s not just dry conditions that drive fires,” said U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Craig Allen. “There’s enough data that show fires are very clearly linked to warming–warming that’s been going on throughout this region for years.”
Mr. Sherman said in an interview last week with The Washington Post that the “climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”
Meanwhile, the Climate Reality Project, founded by former vice-president Al Gore and headed by Maggie Fox — wife of U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) – posted a statement saying that the mega-fires are “fast becoming the new normal in a region that is feeling the impacts of climate change first hand.”
“[L]ately it seems these fires are becoming bigger and happening more often,” said the June 20 statement on the group’s blog. “What’s contributing to this uptick in intense fires? Climate change.”
Other factors contributing to the wildfires include drought, the bark-beetle infestation, and lightning strikes, all of which can also be attributed to global warming, say environmentalists.
The National Wildlife Federation concluded that the “frequency of large wildfires and the total area burned have been steadily increasing in the Western United States, with global warming being a major contributing factor.”
Not so fast, said Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken. While it’s true that this June was the hottest June on record, averaging 75 degrees, or 7.6 degrees above normal, he said extreme heat was just one of the ingredients–and maybe not even the most important one–involved in this year’s perfect wildfire storm.
Mr. Doesken noted that July is inevitably hotter than June, but there are fewer wildfires in July because it’s also wetter. May and June are typically drier and windier than July and August, which are hotter but more humid.
He said the key to this year’s wildfire season was the lack of snow in March, which left trees more stressed than usual going into the dry spring. Was that caused by manmade climate change? His answer: a definite maybe.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘Ah-ha, this is the face of climate change,’ but it might not be. Or it might be one of several things,” said Mr. Doesken. “The forests burn when the meteorological conditions are right, and when that’s the case, it’s going to happen with or without anything we call climate change.”
Forest-health advocates say there’s one thing missing from the climate-change-causes-wildfires theory: The forests are so poorly managed that it doesn’t take much for them to go up in flames. Twenty years of reductions in timber sales and environmental lawsuits have gutted logging on public lands, resulting in densely packed, tinder-dry trees that are practically designed for crown fires.
Bill Gherardi, president of the Colorado Forestry Association, said the state has historically seen 20 to 80 tree stems per acre in its national forests. Today, he said, the density has increased to 400-1,200 stems per acre.
The problems associated with the lack of forest management are well-documented. A 2011 report by the Forest Service found that the bark-beetle outbreak was partly the result of a drastic reduction in timber sales driven by appeals and litigation by environmental groups, as well as an inability to reach some areas due to inadequate roads.
In Region 2, which includes Colorado, the timber industry declined 63% from 1986 to 2005. “Consequently, few industrial resources were or are available to help the Forest Service in applying management practices in response to the bark beetle outbreak,” said the report, which was requested by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
In the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a resolution, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz, urging the state forester to respond to the forest-health crisis with logging contracts, stating that Colorado faces wildfire danger because it has “one of the most at-risk forest ecosystems in the western United States.”
At the Aspen conference, Schwartz renewed her call for more active forest management. “[A]ll of us are at risk if we don’t do something about our forest areas and we don’t do anything to manage those fuels and protect the public long-term,” she said.