NewsFebruary 24, 2014

Increase in Western Wildfires Fuels Obama’s Budget Move

Alyson Kenward

By Alyson Kenward

Follow @alysonkenward

President Obama announced plans Monday to change how the federal government manages the rising costs of fighting wildfires. According to his proposal, the federal agencies largely responsible for fighting wildfires will be able to draw from a special disaster account, similar to the way other federal disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are funded.

The move toward more consistent funding for tackling wildfires comes at a time when the West is seeing a dramatic increase in the number and size of wildfires burning each year across the region.

Click image to enlarge. 


The graph above shows that western wildfires are burning about six times more acres each year, on average, than in the early 1970s.

According to Climate Central’s 2012 report on western wildfire trends (which included wildfire data through 2011), the number of wildfires burning each year in the West has increased dramatically. There are more than twice as many large wildfires — those larger than 1,000 acres — burning each year than there were in the 1970s. And there are now at least seven times as many 10,000-acres wildfires burning each year, on average, as there were 40 years ago.

That report also revealed that climatic changes, including increasing temperatures and the earlier onset of spring snowmelt, are likely influencing these damaging fire trends. Years with warmer spring temperatures and reduced spring snowpack tend to be the years with the most wildfires.

2011 report from the National Research Council projected that the area burned in the West will quadruple for every additional 1.8°F of temperature rise. According to the draft National Climate Assessment report, the most recent climate model projections show that temperatures will rise between 2°F and 4°F across most of the U.S. within the next few decades, and as much as 8°F by 2100.

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