Why is the West betting against climate change?

May 19, 2014

The Las Pulgas Fire is seen burning near military structures at Camp Pendleton, California

With wildfires ravaging San Diego County, this year’s fire season is getting off to an early — and destructive — start.

A hotter and drier Southwest may result in the loss of the lion’s share of its forests to fire before this century is done, if extraordinary measures to protect them aren’t soon undertaken. Instead of extraordinary measures, however, Washington has made only token efforts to address this looming crisis.

That danger is already here for much of the West. Drought in Southern California and Texas, and near-drought elsewhere, means that forests are tinder-dry and expected to get even drier during summer. Which is scary — considering so many Americans now live or spend their summers in the “wildland urban interface,” the wooded areas in the West where fire danger is the greatest.

Fire personnel drive their vehicle through a burned-out  area in the hills around San Marcos CaliforniaThe number of homes located within a half mile of a national forest soared from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified before a Senate committee last year. It is even higher today.

I’m one of the people who live there. My neighbors and I knew the dangers when we built our homes on the edge of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. We accepted the risk in exchange for to-die-for views of a thousand square miles of high desert plateau and snow-capped peaks.

That risk became a reality eight years ago this month. A wind-whipped inferno incinerated more than 7,000 acres in a matter of hours. I was lucky: The firestorm narrowly bypassed my cabin and those of my nearest neighbors. But 18 other homes in our village of Lama burned to the ground. Most have not been rebuilt.

Losses from forest fires have increased exponentially. In Colorado last year, fire destroyed 648 structures and caused a record $538 million in property damage.  In the 1960s, about 200 homes a year were lost to wildfires.  By 2011, that number had jumped to nearly 3,000, as land developers recklessly push up against the forests’ edge.

Seasoned firefighters are also increasingly at risk. Nineteen highly trained elite “hotshot” firefighters died in Arizona, caught in a vortex of flame when winds suddenly shifted — the worst such disaster in 80 years.

Even aside from these human tragedies, the cost for fighting forest fires is soaring. The price tag more than doubled from 2002 to 2012.  This year, it is projected to top $1.8 billion, $500,000 more than what has been budgeted to fight fires.

A water bomber makes a drop on flames burning on a hillside as the Cocos Fire continues in San MarcosWhen fire-fighting costs go over budget, the Forest Service typically makes up the shortfall by cutting back on programs designed to prevent catastrophic fires. These cuts are a serious mistake, however. They are an extreme example of being penny-wise and pound foolish. For they leave us fighting the symptoms — but ignoring the disease.

Forest experts now realize that aggressive fire-suppression policies, followed in the West for much of the past century, have been misguided. Natural forests depend on fire to keep them lean and healthy.

Woodlands where fire is kept out become overgrown with unnaturally high “fuel loads” of underbrush and tightly packed trees. When they burn, the result is unstoppable firestorms. These extraordinarily intense blazes, which can spread over 100,000 and more acres, have destroyed vast parcels of forest in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Montana and other Western states in recent years.

Scientists call these blazes mega-fires. When mega-fires reach towns and suburbs, they can sweep right through, destroying hundreds of homes.

We’re never going to stop all fires — and we shouldn’t try. But we can take steps to make them smaller and more manageable. One way is by thinning the vegetation in forests, especially near places where people live. Then, when fire does come, it doesn’t burn out of control.

Experts also recommend more frequent “controlled burns,” when forest managers set their own low-intensity fires. In this manner, forests naturally thin out and mega-fires become less likely.

A firefighter puts out embers near a home which was burnt down in the Cocos Fire in San Marcos, CaliforniaStill, we shouldn’t expect that even the best human efforts are going to eliminate big fires from the West anytime soon. As the May 6 National Climate Assessment made clear, climate change is going to bring worse droughts and higher temperatures to the West, along with heightened risk of mega-fires.

This increasing danger makes it imperative that we do everything in our power to minimize the risks. But that’s where we’ve been falling short.

“Given the magnitude of the problem,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a research group focused on land management, “and given how much worse it’s going to get, I think that what’s being tried so far is wholly inadequate.”

President Barack Obama proposed an amendment to his fiscal 2014 budget that would allow him to use emergency funds if the costs of fighting fires exceed the amount budgeted. If this bill passes, the Forest Service wouldn’t have to pull funds from essential long-term programs like controlled burns and thinning forests.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have also introduced bipartisan legislation that would add additional money for fire prevention and suppression.

These are steps in the right direction. Cutting our carbon emissions to prevent global warming from getting even further out of control is even more important. The hotter our planet gets, the more readily it will burn. There’s just no way around this.

But it’s also vital to allow fires to burn themselves out when they aren’t an immediate threat to human life. That is the way we are going to reintroduce healthy natural fire back into the ecosystem.

People like me should also think twice before we build our houses in the middle of the forest. If we don’t, every year the United States will waste even more dollars — and risk more firefighters’ lives — protecting homes that should never have been built so close to the burn zone.


PHOTO (TOP): The Las Pulgas Fire is seen burning near military structures at Camp Pendleton, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Sgt. Trevon Peracca/USMC/Handout via Reuters

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A water bomber makes a drop on flames burning on a hillside as the Cocos Fire continues in San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Fire personnel drive their vehicle through a burned-out area in the hills around San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

PHOTO (INSERT 3): A firefighter puts out embers near a home which was burnt down on Washingtonia Drive in the Cocos Fire in San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Sam Hodgson


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The USA are completely ungovernable, in an uncontrolled situation due to decades of defective and corrupt leadership. All of these problems have been carefully documented and researched for years, yet the economic system and thus the political system is based upon control by oil and the financial institutions dependent upon it. This shows up most poignantly in the Western US which under the best conditions is semi-arid. And the present and future are far from the best conditions.
No one cares to tell the suckers that they have been had, that they cannot continue their feckless consumerism and that suburbia and exurbia are not viable under these new conditions.
Other nations following the US leadership are equally exposed to numerous problems.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

I don’t get that ChrisHerz hates America, he is just stating facts. It probably doesn’t fit with your narrow view of things. 5% of wild fires are started by arsonists intentionally and the largest fires started by humans are mostly Americans. Wanting to believe that somehow these fires are started by arsonists and/or “foreigners” is great but does not make it so.
ChrisHerz raises some valid points, you do not.

Posted by forzapista | Report as abusive

Why? Because right wing socialists still believe in a free lunch. The debt bomb is just as phoney as climate change, when the King James Copperheads (aka Tea Party)enter the conversation. Actually, most wildfires are started by God (Thunderstorms).

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

Fire is a necessary part of many forest ecosystems, established long before human settlement. They become a problem when people decide to plop a house down in the wilderness to get “million dollar views”, and then when a fire happens, as it inevitably will, the taxpayers have to spend millions to protect buildings. The answer is to not allow development of those areas, or at least to require developers to maintain a fire buffer zone to prevent damage to the buildings.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

“These are steps in the right direction. Cutting our carbon emissions to prevent global warming from getting even further out of control is even more important.”

uh no since any carbon reduction steps would have zero reduction effect on these fires in the next century. Based on the those same reports, the answer is to be preventive on the trees and more aggressive in controlling them.

/really would you freeze fire fighting funding just because I could honestly say we would have burn proof housing (multiple ways to do this) in 100 years if we spent the money on it?
// climate change is real in the sense this has all happened before, we just build flammable houses next to the tinder nowadays.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

When I lived in Reno, NV. the forest service stopped most of the people from cutting firewood in northern California in order to stop the smoke in the cities. Then the forests burned from uncontrolled fires and the smoke came into the cities in great quantities anyway. Firewood gatherers get rid of dry, dead and down trees. They are required to pile all limbs and when winter comes the forest service burns the piles thus reducing the fire potential. Let the people get the wood for their own use and reduce the dangers and use it to heat their homes, it’s going to burn anyway unless firewood cutters are allowed to harvest it.

Posted by captaindoc | Report as abusive

Global Warming/Climate Change – the multipurpose crisis!

Scary how “man-made carbon emission” (man-made CO2 contributions cause only about 0.117% of Earth’s greenhouse effect, when you factor in water vapor) can cause such a wide range (and polar opposite) of catastrophes…

http://www.nrdc.org/health/climate/flood s.asp

http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-W ildlife/Global-Warming/Global-Warming-is -Causing-Extreme-Weather/Drought.aspx

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2 014/02/climate-change-murder-rape

Colder weather:
http://www.weather.com/news/science/envi ronment/arctic-blast-linked-global-warmi ng-20140106

Hotter weather:
http://www.weather.com/news/science/envi ronment/13-14-hottest-years-record-occur red-21st-century-wmo-20140324

In the past 700,000 years (a significant sample) – there have been 7 global ice ages. Those glaciers came and WENT without any assistance from “man made CO2″ . . . when you can explain THAT to me, I will buy into the “sky is falling” hype.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to that “hole in the ozone layer” that was going to give us all cancer?

Posted by KGJMSr | Report as abusive


You are one of the few people who made an intelligent post here. It’s amazing how ignorant people can be. Why is it so hard for some people to believe that human beings are destroying the planet? There are freakin’ droughts everywhere now. I live in Indiana and two years ago we had a summer so dry that the majority of fields lost the corn harvest and then we had a brutal winter that broke the record of accumulated snow in all Indiana history. I remember my sciences classes… and CO2 right now is much higher than at any other point in earth history.

Posted by CommanderOtto | Report as abusive

@Benny27 – hey, genius – one decent volcano spews more CFCs into the UPPER atmosphere than ALL the Aquanet used by high school girls ever…


If you want to talk planets, did you hear how Mars is suffering from global climate change? How did my CO2 cause that?

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?i d=98168

So, since you are so much smarter than me – can you explain to me where the 7 planetary Ice Ages went (without the benefit of man-made CO2)..? Because, where I am sitting in Ohio – has been covered in glaciers over and over again … oh no, it cannot be that the planet has been heating and cooling for hundreds of thousands of years, can it?

Posted by KGJMSr | Report as abusive

CommanderOtto: It’s amazing how ignorant people can be. Why is it so hard for some people to believe that human beings are destroying the planet? There are freakin’ droughts everywhere now. I live in Indiana and two years ago we had a summer so dry that the majority of fields lost the corn harvest and then we had a brutal winter that broke the record of accumulated snow in all Indiana history. I remember my sciences classes… and CO2 right now is much higher than at any other point in earth history.


Yeah, it is amazing how ignorant people are, because you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s a proven fact from numerous core samples and other data collection methods, that past eras in earth’s history, have had C02 counts in the thousands… 4000, 5000, 6000 PPM or higher. 400 PPM is nothing. Even if you eliminated every single bit of man-made C02, you’d still have another .75% that just comes right out of nature. What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about water vapor, that contributes over 90% to the greenhouse effect? You’re using a couple years of weather to prove that some catastrophe is happening? Even if you took the entire time that intelligent humans have existed, it’s barely a window large enough to get any trend of change, one way or another. Numerous civilizations were basically made extinct by drought, way before there were cars, or anything else that created C02. The climate has changed drastically, time and time again… with or without people. Our impact here would barely even be noticeable, just a few hundred years after our extinction. We are basically nothing in the grand scheme of things. Sorry that freaks so many people out to the point that they have to spend their whole life, running around in circles like nuts… but that’s the reality of it. Stop letting the media shove doom and gloom down your throat every day. Storms, droughts and floods are going to happen, whether we’re here or not.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Right wing self serving arrogant Americans are a laughing stock. Most of the commentary only validates it.

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

It doesn’t take a genius to see that your link led to an “expert” BSc Geologist. Very convincing. Do you really think you were the only person to connect the dots on Volcanoes? Hahah

RE: Mars, the explanation is in the very link you provided, did you read it at all? It has to do with CO2 also, according to the article.

You refuse to do your homework so I will spell it out for you. Yes we have had ice ages, but we are supposed to be on the other side of that trend, not getting warmer as we are.

You think you are smart, but your drivel gives you away. Never has change on the scale you mentioned occurred so fast. Are you really so childish that you cannot summon up the imagination to consider how the plants and animals we survive on may need some consistency in environment? Those temperature changes you refer to take thousands of years, not a century.

You want to think we are nothing, but that isn’t true is it? Already we can be sure that at least half of the species on earth are going to go extinct directly due to humans moving about the earth, but you would rather pretend that isn’t happening. It is true that the world will keep turning once we are all dead, but I think most of us would prefer to keep on living as we are used to.

By all means, show how you are smarter than all the scientists working on this problem. Don’t forget to show your work though… waving your hands at it and spouting conspiracy theories isn’t going to cut it

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

@Benny27: All I need to know about your intelligence can be found here:

“Already we can be sure that at least half of the species on earth are going to go extinct directly due to humans moving about the earth”

We have no idea just how many species there are on Earth:
http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info% 3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001127

So, how can a complete idiot like YOU postulate that at least “half” of an unknown quantity will be rendered extinct “DIRECTLY” due to human activity..?

No sense continuing this discussion, you make no sense, you lack common sense – in fact, you have no sense at all . . .

Posted by KGJMSr | Report as abusive

Climate change is now one of the main concern of environment problems which cause huge loss for the effected area. Now a days fire in hill tract or forest is one of the main reason for climate changing. http://www.bioclimate.org/ which also focusing on this climate change issue.

Posted by shaid | Report as abusive

I hate to tell you people but there is no global warming. Study the 30 -60 year AMO / PDO sea surface temperature cycles and how they affect droughts. We are cycling in droughts in the same regions as between 1945 and 1965. But yes, they will let no alarmist idea go to waste to serve their means. So you need to read Agenda 21 to know the bigger goal is to move wasteful rural dwellers into the city.

The droughts help bring this about – so why would the feds pay attention and help – as do the large annual fees now being given to rural dwellers bordering national forests to pay for firefighting. They know that eventually many will leave the outskirts and move inward where the minions and resources can be better controlled. That’s where they want everyone. It’s not a conspiracy.They have this in writing.

Posted by p.merik | Report as abusive

Putting aside all the controversy of the science, what human being in their right mind believes that pollution is a good thing?

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

Does it really matter which side of climate change you are one? One can argue or one can make things better. A better approach is to turn an “enemy” into an ally and work together to solve the problem. Who’ll join us? http://wp.me/p2XHby-5q

Posted by I-Energy | Report as abusive

If the term ‘Climate Change’ in this blog refers to doing something to sustain our planet for the habitability of our species, then ‘Climate Change’ could be a short-term threat to ‘capitalism’ (not necessarily democracy). The only way to implement sustainable energy projects world-wide would be to enforce a set of stringent laws for the production of clean energy. If clean energy (nuclear, solar, wind, etc…) does not trump dirty energy (fossil fuels), then climate change will become more than an ‘issue’ that might threaten any form of economic or governmental rule.

So define climate change first and the context in which it is used.

In its simplest form, Climate Change defined is a sudden or gradual change in the earth’s environment. Now let’s connect Climate Change to our way of life. The impacts of climate change can and do effect habitability and therefore the sustainability of our species. Science has proven so. Results?- As a species, we either do something to sustain ourselves, which at this point in human evolution and intellectual progress means sustaining our planet, or we choose not do something which most certainly means the ‘culling of the herd’ on a mass scale within the next 1000 years.

Here’s the conundrum. I want my coffee and newspaper in the morning. I want my kids to go to school, and get a good job and take care of themselves. Short-term goals for me, myself and I.


I want to know, when I am on my deathbed, that the human species will survive and that I did my part to make it so. To bring that back to me on a personal level?… I want to know that my grand kids, and my great-great grandkids will have a home and a good way of life and that I did my part to make sure my consumption of natural resources and the discarding of my waste did not impinge upon that goal. The frustrating part of this want of mine is that I cannot do it on my own. There’s simply too many people on this planet.

If we want to sustain our planet, then we must change how our species utilizes our planet’s resources and discards our waste. Will viable solutions affect government? Yes. Daily life-style and creature comforts? Yes. Economics? Yes. And onwards.

Do nothing and there won’t be democracy or capitalism or any other kinds of -isms for our great-great grandchildren to govern, regulate, philosophize or what-have-you.

The term Climate Change, at this point, means nothing without doing something. If we are to do anything that can actually be effective in reversing or controlling threatening changes in the Earth’s climate, then yes, all country’s sovereignty, and individual rights are at risk in that the masses must change their way of life on a micro scale, to promote and foster sustainable, renewable energy sources to replace the burning of fossil fuels.

That means changing habits and life-styles. That is part and parcel to economics, in its most simplest form, reinvesting in alternative energy solutions and consumption on a mass scale.

To do so, means relinquishing the status quo.

Unfortunately, there is no time in written history when the masses changed the status quo (any status quo) willingly and voluntarily.

In short, the masses are not going to voluntarily relinquish their ‘known’ way of life for the long term, the term beyond what they can see or know. One generation’s mortality has a limited field of vision. Unfortunately climate change, any climate change, is for the long term and nature knows no bounds, has no emotional construct.

Change will have to be enforced. The question remains.. who will enforce any fore-see-able, sustainable, changes that carry positive impacts?

The minority invested in fossil fuels for economic gain? No.

The majority invested in their meager way of life? No.

Then who?

Climate Change is a loaded term. From my perspective, the term means nothing without doing something sustainable for the good of our habitat and thus the long-term survival of the human species.

If we are to do anything that can actually change human induced climate change, then we must switch off fossil fuel energy plants and switch on solar, and wind production plants. Currently solar and wind can’t replace 100% of our energy needs. Nuclear energy needs to take up the slack. Nuclear energy is a concern but only if we can’t control it. We can. We have the technological advancements to do so. Nuclear energy power plants of the 1970s and the 2000-teens are apples and oranges. Nuclear energy is a cleaner energy, for the long-term, than the burning of fossil fuels. We need to get over our fear of it, and use nuclear energy to sustain our immediate energy needs and in doing so keep our planet viable for the long-term.

We could cut back fossil fuel emissions by 95% if we wanted to and we could do it quickly (20 years, maybe less) world wide. But energy investors would have to switch over. Reinvest. Governments would have to enforce the move. Nations would have to relinquish their sovereignty, at various levels, to make it happen on a world scale. Liberties would be altered until the switch from dirty to clean was complete. But pride is a small price to pay for the long-term survival of our species.

I’ll reiterate what Carl Sagan said decades ago. ‘The masses aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Our little pale blue world is all we have for the foreseeable future.’

We better do everything we can to sustain it, nourish it, and cherish it for the sake of our children. We can get our liberties back once climate change is a lesser issue.

Posted by hamlett22 | Report as abusive

Its simple really. Spending $44 trillion (IEA) to “decarbonize” energy production is a fools’ bet. Predicting a 0% chance that earth temperatures (IPCC) will remain the same or decrease is a fools’ bet. Putting the ball to half of our energy infrastructure is a fools’ bet.

Posted by Miner49er | Report as abusive