In 1987, I parachuted in with other smokejumpers to fight an Oregon wildfire that had a lot of folks particularly worried -- and for good reason. It became known as the Silver Fire, the largest in a complex of wildfires ignited by some 1,600 lightning strikes in the parched forests between Northern California and Southern Oregon, requiring what at the time was the largest mobilization of firefighters in U.S. history. The Silver Fire eventually burned about 96,000 acres -- roughly 150 square miles.
The following year, Yellowstone burned up. Instead of firefighting that year, I was a Congressional policy analyst working on climate change issues. Given what I'd experienced the year before and what was happening in Yellowstone, I was worried about the future effects of climate change on wildfires.
That fall, I joined experts gathered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, for a workshop on Wildfire Severity and Global Climate Change. I told the workshop participants of my first-hand experience fighting fires, and my growing concerns that Americans were not responding adequately to the threat of climate change.
That workshop was conducted almost 25 years ago. The threat only has grown since then, yet decision makers in Washington have lagged in their response -- even when the smoke signals couldn't be more visible.
The High Park Fire in Colorado burned 87,284 acres last month, becoming the second largest fire in the state's history. The Whitewater Baldy Complex fire burning in New Mexico is the biggest on record in that state. Last year, the Wallow Fire grew larger than any other in Arizona's past; and a record 3.5 million acres burned in Texas.
These fires reflect unprecedented conditions. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are the highest they have been in at least 800,000 years, largely the result of rapidly growing use of coal, oil and natural gas. That is pushing global temperatures to record levels. In 2010 they were the warmest on record. The last 12 months have been the warmest on record for the U.S.
The rising temperatures have driven drought conditions dominating much of the Southwest since 1999. In Colorado, spring temperatures are increasing while spring precipitation is declining. This spring was the second warmest on record and fourth driest. By mid-June, the water content of snowpack in the state's river basins ranged from one to nine percent of average.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently concluded: "Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest." It reported that in the West "both the frequency of large wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased substantially in recent decades, due primarily to earlier spring snowmelt and higher spring and summer temperatures."
Fire suppression budgets have grown accordingly, from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991, to roughly half its budget in 2009.
Every firefighter is expected to know the ten "Standard Firefighting Orders" developed to reduce firefighting risks. "Post lookouts when there is possible danger," says one of them. The orders are supplemented by 18 "Watch Out Situations" that should raise immediate concerns among firefighters on the line. "Weather is becoming hotter and drier," is one such situation. "Safety zones and escape routes not identified" and "Taking a nap near fireline" are others.
These guidelines are just as relevant to reducing the risks climate change as they are to reducing the risk of firefighting. Our lookouts are in the scientific community, and they are sounding the alarm. The Southwest is becoming hotter and drier -- a watch-out situation. Cities and towns across the Southwest are close to the fireline, feel the impacts and hear the warnings. A growing number of them are responding, showing leadership where the federal government does not.
Alas, many of our elected representatives in Washington are napping on the fireline. They need to wake up and smell the smoke. They need to take climate change seriously. They need to help Americans cope with the impacts we're feeling now, and prepare for the impacts that will grow more disruptive in coming decades. And they need to reduce the risk of catastrophic consequences from climate change in the longer-term through policies that help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Nick Sundt is a climate change expert at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and is a former smokejumper in the Western U.S. - jumping fires from New Mexico to Alaska from 1980 to 1990.