Since 2000, wildfires in the United States have burned an average of more than 7 million acres a year, about double the average acreage for the previous four decades.
Scope of Problem
Intensity of Wildfires
Recently, Harvard University scientists submitted a study to the Journal of Geophysical Research about massive increases in the number and intensity of wildfires in the American West.
. . . areas burned by wildfires in the West could increase by 50 percent by 2050, with even larger increases of 75 percent to 175 percent in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain West (accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Atmospheres).
Development on Edge of Forest
Climate researchers at Headwaters Economics, predict that climate change and the accelerating movement of western residents to areas near or in undeveloped forests will likely prove to be a devastating combination.
. . . will increase the area burned by seasonal fires in Montana by more than 300 percent and more than double the cost of protecting homes threatened by fire (http://www.headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire.php).
Temperature increasing, fires blazing and researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San Diego are finding a great shortfall in the amount of water to service this same area.
Scheduled deliveries of water from Lake Mead, created by Hoover Dam, could be missed 60 to 90 percent of the time by midcentury if human-caused climate change continues to make the region drier (http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=977).
Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation
An unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada. Dead trees are a fire hazard, warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off and drought stresses trees.
Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, reviews these research reports, found related studies of the economic impacts of wildfires, and explored a feedback loop that is frightening.
Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/09/temperature_increase.html).
Water on Site
Steps should be taken to build in and retrofit fire protection for homes that edge the forest. Rainwater storage and grey water recycling should be mandated so that homes are protected and firefighters can concentrate on containing the forest fire rather than evacuating people.
SAFE Quick Cover (pictured above)
The Department of Homeland Security has been working with a military contractor (Foster-Miller) to adapt a cover used to protect military vehicles from chemical attacks into a system that protects homes. This rooftop system rolls out the fireproof fabric at the flip of a switch, which may be flipped as the homeowner evacuates. If the house is protected, the homeowner will more readily evacuate.
Treat Pine Beetle Infestation
In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed 6.5 million acres of forest. Another 5.2 million acres was burned this year in the USA. For a long-term remedy, susceptible stands of pines should be thinned, leaving well-spaced, healthy trees. For short-term control, spray, cover, burn or peel attacked trees to kill the beetles. Preventive sprays can protect green,healthy trees (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05528.html).
Plant hardy, fast-growing, disease-and-pest resistant trees that will live with less water. Change our perspective. Instead of looking at trees and seeing board feet, we should view trees as the amount of CO2 they absorb from the environment.