2012 was the third worst year on record for US wildfires, a year that punctuates a growing trend of increasingly large and destructive fires. Preliminary totals from the National Interagency Fire Center show that during 2012 9.21 million acres burned. This compares to 2006 when 9.87 million acres burned and to 2007 when 9.32 million acres burned. Increasing heat and dryness caused by climate change has created a situation where the total area burned by wildfires annually in the US has doubled since the 1980s. Average acres burned each year since 2001 is now nearly 8 million acres. (The above image was produced by Tamino using data from The National Fire Center to rebuff disinformation being put out by George Will on the Washington Post Editorial Page)
Increasingly widespread and severe wildfires is just one example of the ratcheting effects of global warming. But in the US, the danger posed by wildfires has become a substantial issue for most US states, especially states in the US southwest. The situation is one of increasing heat and dryness, one that is likely to result in increased risk of more dangerous fires as time goes forward.
This rising risk has resulted in serious effort by many states and the federal government to attempt to prevent wildfires. Large numbers of seasonal firefighters are hired each year, underbrush is cleared, controlled burns are initiated, and other measures are taken to reduce the risk of fires. The rising incidence of wildfires is especially ominous given this ongoing and growing effort to adapt to ever-more-challenging conditions.
During the massive fire outbreaks of 2012, states and the federal government received criticism for failing to prepare. Quite to the contrary, preparedness and mitigation efforts have never been so strong. The issue is not a failure to adapt, prepare, and mitigate. It is instead that conditions spurring wildfires — heat, drought, rising temperatures — all continue to worsen, threatening the nation’s forests, wilderness, farmlands and, increasingly, homes and businesses.
These already challenging conditions are now in place at a .86 degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures since 1880. If that temperature increase pushes through the barrier of 2 degrees Celsius and on to 6 or more (as is likely under business as usual by the end of this century), one can well imagine that the situation will rapidly grow into something that is increasingly unmanageable.