What Megablazes Tell Us About the Fiery Future of Climate Change

Pervasive drought and record temperatures have turned forests from Fresno to Fairbanks into tinderboxes. And it's only getting worse

Wildfires destroyed 70,000 acres near Clear Lake, causing thousands to be evacuated. Our overheated world is amplifying drought and making megafire commonplace. Credit: Josh Edelson/Getty

In May this year, the nearly unthinkable happened in the Pacific Northwest: The rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, one of the wettest places on the continent, caught fire. By August, an inferno was stirring in the forests east of the Cascades. A wind-whipped blaze near the mountain town of Twisp, Washington — a "hell storm," to quote a local sheriff — claimed the lives of three Forest Service fire scouts. That blaze soon exploded into the worst wildfire in state history, charring more than 300,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes.

As they raged, the wildfires in eastern Oregon and Washington devoured an area nearly the size of Delaware. The states called up more than 1,000 members of their National Guards, and the Army mobilized 200 active-duty troops to the fire lines. Ten Blackhawk helicopters and four C-130 Hercules aircraft deployed to help fight fire from the skies. With Gov. Jay Inslee calling the blazes an "unprecedented cataclysm," Washington even deputized citizen volunteers to fight the fires, where they joined professional crews from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

This is the present, and the future, of climate change. Our overheated world is amplifying drought and making megafire commonplace. This is happening even in the soggy Pacific Northwest, which has been hard-hit by what's been dubbed a "wet drought." Despite near-normal precipitation, warm winter temperatures brought rain instead of snow to the region's mountains. What little snow did hit the ground then melted early, leaving the Northwest dry — and ready to burn in the heat of summer.

The national data is as clear as it is troubling: "Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970," according to a Forest Service report published in August. In the past three decades, the annual area claimed by fire has doubled, and the agency's scientists predict that fires will likely "double again by midcentury."

The human imprint on the bone-dry conditions that lead to fire is real — and now measurable. According to a major new study by scientists at Columbia and NASA, man-made warming is increasing atmospheric evaporation — drawing water out of Western soil, shrubs and trees. In California alone, the epic drought is up to 25 percent more severe than it would have been, absent climate change. And this impact doesn't respect state borders. The study's lead author, Columbia scientist Park Williams, tells Rolling Stone, "There's the same effect in the Pacific Northwest."

Standing near fire lines in late August, Inslee vowed to extinguish the blazes in his state. But the governor also called on Americans to confront an enemy fiercer and more insidious than fire itself. He declared, "We've got to attack this at its source: carbon pollution."

The fiery future is upon us. Pervasive drought and record temperatures — July was the warmest month ever physically recorded on planet Earth — have turned forests from Fresno to Fairbanks into tinderboxes. In Alaska, more than 5 million acres burned — surpassing the 10-year average for the entire country. With months left in the fire season, the blazes of 2015 have already scorched more than 8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center — a record pace, likely to top the 9.8 million acres that burned in 2006. "Some of these fires that are in these forested areas could burn until it snows," said NIFC spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto.

Steep reductions in greenhouse pollution can lessen the danger going forward, as Inslee suggests. But the dark reality is that significant future burning has already been locked in. In parts of the West, very large fires will increase sixfold by midcentury, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With our nation's firefighting resources tapped out by the fires of the present, America finds itself woefully unprepared for the blazes to come, much less the worst-case scenario: a Katrina by fire.

For a glimpse of the future, look north, to Alaska and the Arctic — which President Obama, during a visit to Anchorage this summer, highlighted as "the leading edge of climate change." Soaring temperatures and an early-melting snowpack have brought raging wildfires to landscapes that have not been kissed by flame for millennia. "Climate change is no longer some far-off problem," Obama declared. "It is happening here. It is happening now."

The world is warming most toward the poles, and temperatures in Alaska have been increasing nearly twice as fast as the rest of the country in the past 60 years — up almost three degrees. And the state's average fire season has increased by more than a month — 35 days — since the 1950s. "We can detect the climate-change influence on fire," says Glenn Juday, a forest ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who points to three indicators all on the upswing: "the area burned, the severity of the burning and then the frequency." 

The tragedy of climate-driven megafire is that the fires themselves worsen global warming by pumping megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is especially true north of the Arctic Circle. For the past 5,000 years, the Arctic Alaskan tundra was too frigid and too wet to support significant wildfire. That changed in 2007, when a massive blaze ripped through Alaska's North Slope. The fire burned more than 400 square miles, not only charring a pristine landscape, but setting off a greenhouse bomb, igniting organic matter in the soil that had lain dormant for centuries. This single fire released as much carbon dioxide into the air as the Arctic's entire tundra ecosystem, including the northern reaches of Canada and Russia, had absorbed in the previous quarter century. Scientists long considered the tundra the "most secure storehouse of carbon — fixed carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere — that you could possibly think of," says Juday. "It was frozen — and a thick mat of it. We never thought a big chunk of it would burn. It's astounding." What's worse: Tundra fire also thins the soil layer that insulates permafrost, further destabilizing this terrifying reserve of greenhouse gases.

This summer, Alaska was set to burn due to an unusually warm winter combined with a pitiful snowfall. (Anchorage recorded barely two feet of snow — shattering a record that had held up for 60 years.) With spring came soaring temperatures: more than seven degrees above average statewide. The city of Eagle, Alaska, 200 miles east of Fairbanks, hit 91 degrees in May — a higher temperature than had been recorded to that date in either Houston or Dallas.

When lightning struck, Alaska blazed. "At one point this summer," Obama noted, "more than 300 wildfires were burning at once." Blazing largely out of control, the fires consumed 5.1 million acres — the second-worst fire season on record. As bad as wildfire has been in Alaska, it will only get worse, according to the National Climate Assessment, the 2014 federal report that gauges regional risks of climate change. Assume everything goes right at climate talks this year in Paris; assume world governments leap to action with aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions — even under this scenario, according to the report, Alaska wildfire will double by 2050 and triple by 2100.

As worldwide temperatures rise, wildfires will only increase. But what is less intuitive is how a dangerous drought and fire season have gripped the Pacific Northwest — despite annual precipitation levels that were close to normal. The problem, it turns out, was not a lack of water, but rather that so little of it fell as snow.

Under typical conditions, deep mountain snowpacks and late spring stream runoff give protection from wildfire by keeping trees and vegetation moist far into summers that can run hot and dry — particularly east of the Cascade Mountains. This winter, temperatures soared 5.6 degrees above normal in the region, leading to record-low snowpack, and to stream runoff that peaked, in many places, in the dead of February. In March, Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency in Washington. By June, the snowpack was just . . . gone.

"This drought is unlike any we've ever experienced," Maia Bellon, the director of Washington state's Department of Ecology, said in May. It has primed the region to burn. Susan Prichard, a fire ecologist at the University of Washington, says the sudden drying of overgrown forests created a "perfect storm" for big fires in eastern Oregon and Washington. "It leads us," she says, "to a tinderbox situation."

The warming air is sucking the forests dry — literally. Man-made higher temperatures increase the atmosphere's appetite for moisture; Williams, the Columbia climate scientist, jokes that the effect is like a Mafia shakedown, with the air constantly demanding more water from the land. In wet years, the atmosphere's increased thirst doesn't matter much. But in times of drought, this tax on the water system is significant and damaging. "That cost is now becoming large enough that it's really detectable," Williams says, "and it's reducing water availability for humans and ecosystems."

Joe Casola, deputy director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, points to the future. This year's combination of warm winter, low snowpack, early runoff, hot summer and fire is straight from the textbook — "a good preview," he says, of what climate models tell us will soon be commonplace. "These are the conditions we're likely to be facing several decades from now and going forward." 

According to current EPA projections, April snowpack in the Cascades will shrink by as much as 40 percent by 2040. "Higher summer temperatures, earlier spring snow melt and potential reductions in summer soil moisture would contribute to wildfire risk," the agency concludes.

By 2080, according to the National Climate Assessment, the median acreage burned in Pacific Northwest wildfires is likely to quadruple. So what does that mean on the ground? Instead of a once-in-20-years event, the type of megafires now ravaging Oregon and Washington could be expected to occur one year out of every two.

If fire is inevitable, there's a glint of good news: America can get much smarter about how it fights wildfire, by making simple changes to the funding of the Forest Service. "We all agree that the way wildfire management has been funded is broken," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in August. "It is past time that we fix it."

With surprising ease, you can track climate change in the portion of the Forest Service budget that's spent fighting fire. In 1995, it was only 16 percent. This year — for the first time ever — more than 50 percent of the budget will go to firefighting. Ten years from now, the agency projects, these costs will balloon to become two-thirds of the budget.

The situation has become so dire that the Forest Service now robs its fire-prevention budget — money for clearing brush, thinning forests and conducting "prescribed burns" that help prevent future megablazes — just to fund its firefighting. The exploding cost of combating fire is "crippling . . . the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat," the agency reports.

In its wisdom, Congress has set the Forest Service budget on the basis of a 10-year average cost. That formula worked well enough with a more stable climate. But the agency has been saddled with ever-increasing, and increasingly costly, megafire. "The six worst fire seasons since 1960," the agency reported in August, "have all occurred since 2000."

With the Northwest ablaze, Congress is responding. The reform effort is championed by Western lawmakers, including, ironically, Republicans who have either denied climate change exists, like Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, or fought controls on greenhouse gases, like Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Simpson's Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would decouple the agency's budget from the cost of fighting megafires. Only one percent of blazes are now driving 30 percent of costs. Under Simpson's plan, fighting megafires would instead be funded out of the $12 billion federal disaster relief fund — the same kitty that FEMA taps when it provides relief from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, is insisting he'll push the issue to the forefront when Congress reconvenes this month. "My first order of business," he said, "is to end the terrible trifecta that makes these fires worse: underfunding firefighting budgets, stealing money from fire prevention to make up the shortfall and letting hazardous fuels build up as a result."

As the nation reframes its thinking about wildfire — from the routine natural burns of 50 years ago to today's climate-aggravated megablazes — it is crucial not to overlook the worst-case scenario: a major metropolis engulfed in fire.

America has seen previews of this catastrophe: In 1991, a wildfire swept into the hills and canyons above Oakland, overwhelming firefighters, claiming 25 lives, injuring 150 other people and causing more than $1.5 billion in property damage. The 2003 Cedar Fire, driven by Southern California's fierce Santa Ana winds, scorched more than 280,000 acres. The worst fire in the state record books, the October blaze reached into the suburbs of San Diego, burning more than 2,200 homes. Wildfire hit again in 2007, forcing thousands of residents to take refuge in Qualcomm Stadium, the venue where the NFL's Chargers play.

In a small blessing, the record fire season in the Pacific Northwest this summer has been relatively limited in its human and financial costs. The affected region is sparsely populated forest and rangeland, separated from Seattle and Portland by a major mountain range. But the fires' secondary effects on these cities shouldn't be discounted: In late August, shifting winds funneled dangerous smoke from multiple fires down through the Columbia Gorge, temporarily turning Portland into a smoke box. Particulate concentrations in the city's air reached "unhealthy" levels usually not seen outside Beijing.

But in the big picture, America was lucky that wildfire hadn't struck the parched hills of Silicon Valley, or swept down through Colorado's Front Range into the suburbs west of Denver. Indeed, Northern California skirted disaster in July. The Rocky Fire — sparked by a decrepit water heater — threatened the city of Clear Lake, north of the state's fabled Napa Valley, ripping through 70,000 acres, jumping a highway and subjecting 13,000 residents to evacuation orders. Ken Pimlott, the director of CAL Fire, the state's fire authority, says California still faces "unprecedented fire behavior and fuel conditions" and that the worst of the fire season is likely "yet to come" in Southern California. "We haven't dodged a bullet by any stretch of the imagination," he says.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has recently been calling out the Republican presidential candidates who refuse to even acknowledge that climate change exists. "Longer fire seasons, extreme weather and severe droughts aren't on the horizon," he wrote in an open letter to GOP candidates. "They're all here — and here to stay."

With a lightning strike or an arsonist's match, the fire next time could threaten San Jose, San Diego or the L.A. Basin — each a major engine of the national economy. At its most dangerous, warming-driven wildfire poses an existential threat. "The climate is unstable," Brown told reporters in August. "If the drought was to continue for a year or several years, California could literally burn up."