Fire chiefs, White House see climate change impact on wildfires

A United States Forest Service Cobra helicopter flies over the burn-out operation along McKenzie Ridge Saturday, September 19, 2015 near Kings Canyon National Park, Calif.
A United States Forest Service Cobra helicopter flies over the burn-out operation along McKenzie Ridge Saturday, September 19, 2015 near Kings Canyon National Park, Calif.

Fire chiefs from California, Idaho, Washington and other vulnerable states reinforced on Monday the Obama administration’s campaign against climate change.

Fresh off a devastating wildland fire season that saw millions of acres burned nationwide, a number of leading chiefs convened with Vice President Joe Biden to spotlight what they called the “climate change impacts” found where homes meet tinder.

“You can’t point to climate change and say there’s a direct impact on any one fire, but across the board it’s changing weather patterns,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “You have more drought persisting in areas, and all of that leads to drier vegetation and ultimately fires that burn more aggressively.”

Pimlott was one of 20 fire and emergency agency officials to meet Monday for the fire chiefs’ roundtable. The officials met for nearly four hours in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, with Biden popping in for about 15 minutes of mostly off-the cuff comments.

“The only people I know who deny climate change are the same people who deny gravity,” Biden said.

Underscoring the high stakes for California in particular, seven of the 20 participating officials were from the Golden State.

“I think we’re ahead of most of the nation in some of the climate issues,” said Kim Zagaris, the fire and rescue chief for California’s Office of Emergency Services. “We know we have a problem. Our big drill right now is mobilizing enough resources and capability.”

All told, wildland fires burned some 9.4 million acres this year through Oct. 30, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This is roughly triple the number of acres burned during the same period last year.

Though sparsely populated Alaska accounted for more than 5 million acres of the total burned this year, the 832,862 acres burned in California have glowed brighter because of the threatening proximity to civilization. Fire officials call this the wildland-urban interface.

The so-called Valley Fire that swept through California’s Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties starting in September, for instance, destroyed 1,280 homes, in addition to other buildings.

“Climate change has an impact as we look at vegetation, and where we’re putting structures in the wildland urban interface,” said California State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover. “We have to look at the changing dynamics of fire behavior, how quickly we can respond to incidents and how do we build and what we build in certain areas.”

So far this year, 789,232 acres in Idaho and 1.1 million acres in Washington state have burned, as well.

The fire chiefs from Caldwell, Idaho, and Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue in Ellensburg, Wash., among others, endorsed the climate-change discussions, though they didn’t attend the Monday meeting. David LaFave, fire chief for Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue in Kelso, Wash., also attended.

Every Western state has experienced a rise in the number of large wildfires over the past decade, compared with the annual average between 1980 and 2000, a federal study released Monday shows. The average length of the fire season has also been increasing.

“Since official recordkeeping began, the eight years with the largest area burned by wildfires in the United States have all occurred in the last 15 years,” the White House’s National Science and Technology Council’s report noted.

Scientists say higher temperatures increase the accumulation of dry vegetation, leading to larger fires. Drought and higher temperatures also stress vegetation, making it susceptible to insects and disease. Changes in thunderstorm and lightning patterns can also ignite more fires.

The report includes a recommendation for a new federal fire science coordination council to assist the organizations dealing with wildland-fire science and technology.

“Things are not going back to where they were 25 years ago,” Biden told the fire chiefs. “It’s not happening. You’re going to see more and more of what you deal with. It’s going to get worse. It’s not getting better.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10