A new report has confirmed what forest managers have been warning the public about for years: Forest fires are becoming more widespread thanks to climate change.
The report, created by researchers at the University of Maryland, broke down global satellite data and found wildfires were the cause of 26 to 29 percent of global forest loss between 2001 and 2019. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), further analyzes the researchers’ maps to estimate just how many more acres of forests were lost to fires compared with two decades ago.
“We calculated that forest fires now result in 3 million more hectares (~7.4 million acres) of tree cover loss per year compared with 2001 … and accounted for more than one-quarter of all tree cover loss over the past 20 years,” OCHA said.
The researchers also reported that 70 percent of the tree cover lost to fires occurred in boreal forests, with fire-related tree loss increasing 3 percent every year since 2001. The cause of the increase was northern high-latitude areas warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet, contributing to longer fire seasons.
Tree cover loss from fires in tropical regions also increased by 5 percent per year since 2001, resulting in roughly 15 percent of global tree cover loss from fire over the 20-year period. The loss was reportedly worsened by increasing forest degradation attributed to deforestation and agriculture expansion.
“There is no solution for bringing fire activity back down to historical levels without drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and breaking the fire-climate feedback loop,” OCHA said in response to the report. “Improving forest resilience by ending deforestation and forest degradation is key to preventing future fires.”
Climate Central has examined historical trends in fire weather — a combination of low humidity, high heat, and strong winds — across the U.S., using data from 476 weather stations to assess trends in 245 climate divisions spanning all 48 contiguous states over a 50-year period from 1973 to 2022.
Wildfire seasons have become longer and more intense, especially across the West, and the research also found that many parts of the East have experienced smaller but important increases in fire weather. Even small increases in the East — with almost 28 million homes in fire-prone areas — puts millions more people at increased risk. As the research intro points out, the same weather variables that influence fire weather and wildfire are factors that determine the safe use of prescribed fire, critical to reducing fuels and thus fire risk. More fire weather days means fewer windows for prescribed burning.
The reports include both summaries and in-depth comparisons of Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the West (example: Some places, including parts of Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington, are experiencing fire weather more than twice as often now as in the early 1970s) and Fifty Years of Fire Weather in the East (example: New England has experienced a decrease in annual fire weather days, driven largely by fewer days in which the wind speed variable hit the analytical threshold). Reduced wind speeds could be partially attributed to a decrease in the temperature gradient between land and sea along the Gulf of Maine, as sea surface temperatures have warmed drastically due to climate change.
The Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire in New Jersey was declared 100% contained on Thursday by the New Jersey Department of Forestry, having burned some 3900 acres, nearly half the state’s annual average in two days.
WILDFIRE UPDATE: Manchester Township – Jimmy’s Waterhole Fire
At 10 a.m. Thursday, April 13, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service has achieved 100 percent containment of a 3,859-acre wildfire in Manchester Township on federal, state and private property. pic.twitter.com/0KWhGZTaMU
This and other regional fires prompts a visit to the Eastern Area Fire Environment Outlook to explore the conditions that led to the late April fire bust. On Friday’s Morning Briefing, the Eastern Area Coordination Center had nearly 40 percent of reporting units in Very High to Extreme Fire Danger, with the largest fires in New Jersey, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island. In the past week, the region recorded 349 fires for 12,600 acres.
While spring is often active in the east — as forest fuels dry out between winter snow and rains and prior to green up — the last week was drier throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as in the Great Plains and Southwest. Look south and you can spot the focused and incredible “purple” deluge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and to the north there’s an unusual heart-shaped moisture pattern in Michigan.
Fire activity in the region has been moving northeast toward Maine with the bubble of heat, including a fire point seemingly in the Atlantic — though a closer look at the Fire Weather Dashboard (with fire points activated) places the the fire on Martha’s Vineyard.
Garfield County in west-central Colorado signed off this week on the new multi-agency Roaring Fork Wildfire Collaborative, but not without a little creative editing. The Post Independent reported that county commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) joining 17 other local governments, fire districts, and state and federal agencies in the formation of the wildfire collaborative.
“The Roaring Fork Valley presents especially complex boundaries with the sheer number of agencies involved,” said Larry Sandoval with the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. He said the completion of this MOU is a major step toward effective collaboration in fire prevention and management.
The request for edits to the MOU originated with Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. “A lot of the emphasis is coming from Pitkin and Eagle counties and the Forest Service to do more forest management,” he said, “which from my perspective is more than just prescribed burns.” Jankovsky wanted the MOU to include equal mention of logging, thinning, and other “more aggressive” forest management methods. “I find it ironic that this group talks about climate change, yet they look at forest management as burning the forest, which has the same effect as if we have a forest fire, just to a much smaller degree,” Jankovsky explained.
A third-generation native Coloradan, Jankovsky is serving his third term as Garfield County Commissioner. He is the public lands planning lead for the Board of County Commissioners and the former general manager of Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs. He asked that the word “climate” be removed from one sentence in the MOU where it stated that active management “… includes the use of the best available climate science that will help stakeholders understand how a changing climate will impact our landscapes and ecosystems, while also looking for opportunities to improve understanding through local research.” Jankovsky wanted the line to read “best available science” and not “best available climate science.”
Because fires have no boundaries and don’t recognize jurisdiction lines, the valley-wide collaborative is meant to have everyone on the same page. The 18 local, county, state, and federal agencies involved in wildfire management formalized their working relationship through the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative; the Gunnison Times reported that talk of the collaborative started early 2022, when residents in the Roaring Fork River drainage discussed their interest in better fuels treatment. With several big fires in recent memory — the 2018 Lake Christine Fire, the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire, and the 2021 Sylvan Lake Fire — valley stakeholders began discussing solutions. The collaborative’s goals include improving communication and identifying critical areas of fuels reduction and vegetation treatment.
Signatories to the MOU are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Marble. County signatories are Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, and Gunnison counties. Additional collaborators include Aspen Fire, Roaring Fork Fire and Rescue, Carbondale Fire, Glenwood Springs Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM.
The 2002 Hayman Fire was the largest wildfire in Colorado state history for nearly 20 years, until the Pine Gulch Fire surpassed it in August 2020. The Cameron Peak Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado history seven weeks later at 206,667 acres. With multiple record-breaking fires, the 2020 Colorado wildfire season became the largest in state history after burning 665,454 acres.
Large-scale wildfires are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. as climate change accelerates; since 2000 an annual average of 70,072 wildfires have burned an annual average of 7 million acres across the country. According to research by the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, that’s more than double the annual average of 3.3 million acres burned in the 1990s, when a greater number of fires occurred annually. A 2016 study found that climate change had doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S., and a 2021 study supported by NOAA concluded that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in fire weather each season.
Climate change, increasing wildfires, and Russia’s war in Ukraine are combining to put unusual stresses on governments, especially in Europe. When wildfires become numerous or very large, threatening large numbers of residents, many countries will mobilize military units. They may use helicopters to drop water or transport firefighters or trucks to assist with logistics. The United States has eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that can be quickly loaded into military C-130s to drop retardant on fires. Soldiers on the ground can be transformed from warfighters to firefighters.
This year was the hottest summer on record in Europe. It followed what what is now the second hottest summer on the continent. During the worst drought in centuries wildfires burned about 50 percent more acres than the previous record set in 2017.
The Washington Post has an article about how the war is affecting countries in Europe, in this case Slovenia, that need to both fight wildfires as the climate changes and bolster the military as international tensions mount.
“There will be these disasters of fires or floods. It will be more and more common,” Defense Minister Marjan Šarec said in an interview. “We must spend our money for everything that is needed. Because safety has no price.”
“It’s not a dilemma of cannons or butter,” said Šarec, who has also been a volunteer firefighter. “As a serious country we must do both.”
But military leaders say the dual-headed challenge can sometimes be significant, and even contradictory.
“Our training is going on in a military way. Exercises. How to use military equipment, how to fight, how to protect. How to defend,” said Glavaš, the head of Slovenia’s military command. “When you stop this training and you go to civilian tasks you need to focus your mind from fighting to something else. It’s very hard sometimes.”
He said that fighting fires “definitely” had an impact on combat readiness.
Currently the European Union coordinates and funds the deployment of 12 fixed wing firefighting airplanes and one helicopter pooled by EU countries. Fire Aviation reported in July that the EU plans to purchase additional air tankers.
The European Commission issued a press release on Oct. 5, 2022 confirming they are proposing to spend €170 million from the EU budget to reinforce its rescEU ground and aerial assets in the summer of 2023. The rescEU transitional fleet would then have a total of 22 planes, 4 helicopters as well as more pre-positioned ground teams. Beginning in 2025, the fleet would be further reinforced through an accelerated procurement of airplanes and helicopters.
The Washington Post reported that Slovenian defense leaders decided this month to cancel a $343 million purchase of armored troop carriers asthey contemplate buying more aircraft that could be used to fight fires.
Gérald Moussa Darmanin, France’s Minister of the Interior, said recently, “We want to increase the number of Canadair [water scooping air tankers] in our own fleet from twelve to sixteen. But the problem is not to buy them, it is to produce them. Today there are no longer any factories that do so.”
The CL-415 water scooping air tanker has been out of production for years, but De Havilland, which now owns the rights to the aircraft, announced on September 21 the planned construction of a huge aircraft manufacturing facility east of Calgary, Alberta. They expect to employ 1,500 workers to produce at least three lines of aircraft — DHC-515 (a modernized variant of the CL-415), DHC-6 Twin Otter, and Dash 8-400 (Q400).
An announcement from De Havilland said, “European customers have signed letters of intent to purchase the first 22 aircraft pending the positive outcome of government-to-government negotiations through the Government of Canada’s contracting agency, the Canadian Commercial Corporation. De Havilland Canada expects first deliveries of the DHC-515 [water scooping air tanker] by the middle of the decade, with deliveries of additional aircraft to begin at the end of the decade, providing other customers the opportunity to renew existing fleets or proceed with new acquisition opportunities at that time.”
In the near term it does not seem likely that European countries are going to be able to find and purchase dozens of purpose-built air tankers to meet their needs.
Before this year many of the firefighting aircraft typically used in Western Europe and the Middle East during the summer were contracted from Russia. With the war and sanctions that source has virtually dried up.
The Helicopter Investor reported that in April the Portuguese government expelled a team of Russian mechanics working on three of their Russian made Kamov helicopters, and shut down the hangar in Ponte de Sor where the maintenance crew was working. In 2006 the government spent €348 million to buy six Kamov Ka-32A helicopters which could transport personnel and drop water, but over the last 10 years have had difficulty keeping them airworthy. In January none of the six were operational.
The Portuguese Air Force has signed an agreement to purchase six Blackhawk helicopters outfitted for fighting wildfires. The aircraft will be supplied by Arista Aviation Services, a US-based firm which specializes in modernizing surplus US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Delivery of the first two is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023.
For a number of years Erickson Inc. has contracted their firefighting Air-Crane helicopters to European governments. In 2021 Columbia Helicopters had Columbia Model 234 Chinook’s on contract in Turkey. Single engine air tankers regularly make the migration between South America and Europe as the fire season switches hemispheres.
About 25 percent of the states’ forestland burned in the last 10 years — more than triple the previous decade
By Jim Schmidt
Of the 32.1 million acres of forestland in California, approximately 2.1 million acres (6.6%) burned in wildfires in the 2002-2011 time period. In the following decade (2012-2021), that figure more than tripled to 7.9 million acres (24.7%).
National Forests in California were particularly hard hit. 10.1% of 12.7 million acres of forestland managed by the USDA Forest Service in California burned in 2002 – 2011 time period. In the 2012 – 2021 decade that figure increased to 38.8%. Excluding areas that re-burned in the last 10 years, 44.5% of the forestland in California National Forests has burned in the last 20 years. In contrast, only 22.6% of National Park forestland in the state has burned in the same time period. About 14 million acres of forestland in California are in private hands. 17.0 % of private forestland has burned since 2001.
The following maps display the forestland areas and the areas that have burned in California in the last two decades. Fires were concentrated in Southern California in the 2002-2011 time period and in Northern California in the last 10 years.
The article was edited September 7 with revised figures to account for areas that reburned, which account for about 5% of the forestland burned on National Forests in the last 20 years.
Jim Schmidt retired from the Stanislaus National Forest where he worked as a GIS specialist.