DENVER — A growing chorus of environmental groups is blaming climate change for the ferocity of this year’s wildfires, heating up the debate over fire policy as wetter conditions brought relief to the Colorado front.
At the “Forests at Risk” symposium held last week by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, environmental advocates, federal officials and scientists agreed global warming was a major player in this year’s destructive fire season.
“We know now that it’s not just dry conditions that drive fires,” said Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, in the Colorado Independent. “There’s enough data that show fires are very clearly linked to warming - warming that’s been going on throughout this region for years.”
Meanwhile, the Climate Reality Project, founded by former Vice President Al Gore, said in a June 20 post that the mega-fires are “fast becoming the new normal in a region that is feeling the impacts of climate change firsthand.”
“Scientists have been warning for years that climate change will make the West even hotter and drier,” said the Washington-based group. “The largest fire in New Mexico’s history devastated more than 240,000 acres. … Now, it’s Colorado’s turn.”
The National Wildfire Federation posted a statement Tuesday saying that “wildfires and droughts are threatening people and wildlife elsewhere in the nation, particularly in the West, including the National Wildlife Federations staff in Colorado.”
“More than 2 million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires already this year. Global warming has created longer wildfire seasons in the West due to heat and drought,” said Jeremy Symons, NWF senior vice president for conservation and education programs.
The effort to link the wildfires to climate change has sparked a feud with forest-management advocates like Sean Paige, deputy director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado and a former Colorado Springs council member, who called it “the climate-change cop-out.”
“Climate change is the Swiss army knife of public policy,” said Mr. Paige, who edits the blog www.monkeywrenchingamerica.com. “It’s used to explain everything and to obstruct everything. It’s an all-purpose way for these groups to cast blame and escape blame for what’s happening out here.”
Mr. Paige blames the fires on decades of hands-off forest management on public lands brought on by administrative lethargy and lawsuits filed by environmental groups. In Colorado, he said, the result is millions of acres of densely packed, beetle-infested forest that’s now especially susceptible to wildfire.
Bill Gherardi, president of the Colorado Forestry Association, said the state has historically seen 20 to 80 tree stems per acre in its national forests. The density has since increased to 400 to 1,200 stems per acre.
“What’s happening in the West is a policy decision that’s allowed fire danger to get out of hand,” said Mr. Paige. “We’re paying for the obstructionism of professional green extremists who have nothing better to do than tie up the Forest Service on every decision they make.”
Environmental activists have traditionally opposed logging and road-building efforts for fire suppression, but both are getting a fresh look in the wake of this year’s catastrophic wildfires.
Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass, who has pushed for studies and legislation to improve forest health, said whether or not climate change is factor, culling the forest needs to be part of the solution.
“We need to move beyond having a climate-change discussion,” said Mrs. Schwartz. “It’s now a question of ‘How do we remove our fuels?’”
She advocated broadening the definition of renewable energy under the state’s standards to include timber as a biomass thermal fuel. Most environmental groups advocate reducing carbon pollution as a step to reduce global warming, such as by supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on carbon from coal-fired plants.
“Those are some longer-range goals. I’m looking at the shorter term,” said Mrs. Schwartz.
The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs was 70 percent contained Tuesday after destroying 347 homes last week and leaving two dead. The fire, billed as the most destructive in state history, is expected to be fully contained by July 11.
Five major fires continue to burn in Colorado, but providing a huge assist to firefighters was a drop in temperatures and a jump in humidity as thunderstorms were forecast across much of the Front Range.
Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, agrees that global warming is occurring, and that one solution is more aggressive forest management. He said the group has struck up a partnership with the Forest Service to thin the forests surrounding watersheds.
“Certainly, it’s been a hot and dry year, and we also know that the Earth is getting warmer,” said Mr. Lochhead. “We need thinning, prescribed burns on occasion, getting healthier forests so that when the fires do occur, it’s not so impactful.”