Up in Flames:  The Causes and Aftermath of the 2012 Wildfires

Blog Post created by lisamariesinatra Employee on Dec 12, 2012


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Here's some information regarding climate change and its impact on wildfire activity from our colleague, Cathleen DeLoach, in NFPA's D.C. office . Below are her notes from a Congressional Briefing she attended that was hosted by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in late November. We think you'll find this interesting!

In the wildfire community, 2012 will remembered as a record-breaking year – projections place costs for battling wildfires at over $1 billion. On Friday, November 30th, 2012, the American Meteorological Society hosted a congressional briefing in the Senate Agriculture Committee room to discuss increased wildfire activity.

Presenters at the briefing included Dr. Elizabeth Reinhardt, Assistant Director, Fire and Aviation at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and Dr. Steve Running, a University Regents professor of Ecology at the University of Montana.


Dr. Reinhardt, an employee with the Forest Service since 1978, has a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of Montana.  Her discussion focused on ecological vulnerabilities.  In particular, she emphasized cascading effects.  She stated that fire is our most important tool in reducing fire hazards.  She suggested that communities benefit from a system of fire safety ratings. For demonstrative purposes, she referred to the Firewise Communities Program  and Fire Adapted Communities  initiative as excellent tools to achieve these goals.

The next presenter, Dr. Running received his Ph.D. in Forest Ecophysiology from Colorado State University.  He began by stating how important fires are to the ecosystem because they allow for recycling in the environment. He focused his discussion on climate change and how it affects wildfires.  In demonstrating the effects global warming, Dr. Running displayed a climate change diagram that charted how high temperatures are moving to the right; record temperature highs are increasing, while at the same our climate is seeing a decrease of record breaking low temperatures.


!|src=|alt=Mountains|style=margin: 0px 5px 5px 0px;|title=Mountains|class=asset asset-image at-xid-6a00d8351b9f3453ef017ee62e1044970d!He continued by explaining that fires are no longer regulated to one particular time period or season. He noted that in Billings, Montana they have had wildfires in January. In addition, he stated that the traditional fire season has stretched out to two months longer than usual in western states. One example of climate change that has had an effect on wildfires is the Rocky Mountain ice caps – they have been decreasing for several years - allowing a greater area landscape to become more vulnerable to fires.

Dr. Running ended with a discussion on the physics of evaporation.  This principle states that an increase in evaporation is more important than precipitation if evaporation rate is higher than precipitation. For example - Fairbanks, AK evaporation rate is .5M per year and in Tucson, AZ it is 2M per year.  The high evaporation rate in Arizona accounts for a greater risk of wildfires.

Additional information about the briefing can be found at the American Meteorological Society website at . You can also find related wildfire/climate change reports from AMS on their site.