A fiery future: Climate change and wildfire in Idaho

Climate change and wildfires.

BOISE - Fire has been a part of Idaho long before it even existed as a territory. Since records have been kept, the Gem State is second only to Alaska when it comes to acres burned, according to recent data, with more than 12 million acres scorched within the last century, or roughly 20 percent of the state's forests.
 
While that seems like a lot it's recently gotten worse.
 
Since 2004, 7 million acres have burned on average every year across the state. In the 44 years prior to that - going back to 1960 - the average was half that.
 
Take the Pioneer Fire, for example. It's been nearly a year since it ripped its way through the Boise National Forest, leaving behind more than 188 thousand torched acres, or about half the size of Canyon County.
 
More than 1,800 firefighters worked the Pioneer Fire at a cost of more than $95 million, making it the 9th most expensive wildfire in the history of the western United States.
 
It sparked in mid-July and burned through the beginning of November. And if four months seems like a long time for a fire experts say it shouldn't be a surprise.
 
"Fire seasons are definitely lengthening, they're beginning earlier and they're ending later," says Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center's predictive services department in Boise. Henry has been monitoring fire seasons for  more than 2 decades.
 
"The last 20, 25 years I've noticed the increase, the warmer temperatures, obviously as the summers have become hotter," he says. "I've also noticed that the winters have, overall, been less severe and warmer as well."
 
Henry has also noticed another trend.
 
"The fires have become bigger," he says.
 
Henry says since the Yellowstone Fire in 1988 there has been a steady increase in acres burned and spikes in intensity every six years, the last spike being 2012 when more than 9 million acres burned across the country. 
 
A good chunk of that was burned in Idaho, when the state lost more than a million and a half acres.
 
"Could 2018 be a very big year? The potential is out there," says Henry.
 
Dr. John Abatzoglou knows about that potential.
 
"We've seen increases in wildfire, we've seen increases in the bark beetle," says Dr. Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of Idaho. He has been studying climate change and its effects on wildfires since 2009.
 
Dr. Abatzoglou says fire has never been a stranger to the Gem State.
 
"Our big fire seasons in Idaho, in our forests, almost unanimously are warm dry summers," he says. "That's the recipe you need for big fire seasons."
 
But recently, that recipe has included more heat.
 
Part of Dr. Abatzoglou's data comes from 29 weather stations scattered across the state that show the average yearly temperature has increased nearly half a degree per decade, or about 2 degrees since 1975.
 
That may not seem like much but it has meant an earlier melt-off of mountain snow pack.
 
"As that snow pack goes away earlier in the year fires can now advance, they can start a few weeks earlier than normal," Dr. Abatzoglou says.
 
In fact, since 1986 the length of the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased by 78 days. And the actual time a large fire burns has extended nearly a month. The way we fight fires now has been a factor in that but not nearly as much as our changing climate - a change that will likely continue.
 
"50 years from now we do expect that here in Boise, temperatures will be 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they are now, give or take a bit," Abatzoglou predicts.
 
Meaning fire will remain a increasing fixture of our future.
 
"Climate change is going to make fire probably more likely across our landscape and so we have to figure out a way to adapt to fire," he says.
 
NIFC this week released its wildfire forecast for this season and Idaho is actually expected to have a below-average year due to the amount of snow still remaining in the state's mountains.
 
But, Dr. Abaztoglou points out, even with climate change we will still see colder years like this one, we should just expect to see fewer of them.
 

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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