The wildfires charring the West again this summer have reignited the debate over what is fueling the horrific infernos: man-made climate change or the proliferation of overgrown, diseased forests.
Environmental groups for years have pointed to climate change as the driver behind blazes such as the tragic Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona that killed 19 elite firefighters Sunday, contending that the hot, dry conditions are the result of atmospheric warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
President Obama connected the dots between climate change and wildfires when he unveiled his plan to tackle carbon emissions in a June 25 address.
“Many Americans who already feel the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it — they’re busy dealing with it,” Mr. Obama said in his statement. “Firefighters are braving longer wildfire seasons.”
Meanwhile, advocates of forest management argue that the federal government’s decades-long neglect of forests on public land, fueled by environmentalist lawsuits, have created tinderbox conditions that produce the out-of-control wildfires.
“Until federal bureaucrats and environmentalists came up with the excuse of climate change, it was widely recognized that this was a forest-management problem dating back to the hellacious Yellowstone fires of the late 1980s,” said Sean Paige, a former Competitive Enterprise Institute fellow who now runs the website Monkeywrenching America. “Climate change is a convenient excuse to focus attention away from man-made causes.”
The debate resurfaced as the deadly Yarnell Hill wildfire quadrupled in size with no containment Monday, a day after all but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives fighting the blaze, which continues to feed off high winds and triple-digit temperatures. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called it “as dark a day as I can remember” and declared a state emergency as 400 firefighters battled the ferocious blaze about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The disaster is believed to be the worst of its kind since 1933, when 25 firefighters died battling the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.
The Yarnell Hill fire was one of 27 wildfires that burning in the West on Monday, and there is general agreement that the problem is getting worse. Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told a Senate committee June 4 that the wildfire season lasts two months longer and burns twice as much acreage than it did 40 years ago.
Mr. Tidwell blamed climate change for hotter, drier conditions in the national forests, but also said that 42 percent of the forests are in need of “fuels and forest-health treatment.”
“The largest issue we now face is how to adapt our management to anticipate climate change impacts and to mitigate their potential effects,” Mr. Tidwell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The National Interagency Fire Center reports that 1.5 million acres have burned this year, less than the 2.4 million acres per year that have burned on average from 2004 to 2013.
“There’s no question it’s getting worse, and that’s because the forest-fuels and management crisis is getting worse,” Mr. Paige said.
One problem is the federal law forbidding road-building in some forests, which makes it difficult to clear out dead stands of trees as well as to reach wildfires.
“We have roadless rules so that teams can’t even get up there to clear out dead trees and what would be fuel for these fires,” said Amy Oliver Cooke, director of the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute. “If you’re going to allow these forests to become so overgrown, then guess what: You’re going to have lightning strikes that result in these wildfires.”
Congress tackled the forest-management problem after the destructive 2002 wildfire season by passing the Healthy Forests Initiative, which fast-tracked the clearing of dead and beetle-kill trees.
In 2007, however, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in reaction to a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club that part of the law allowing exceptions from environmental studies for smaller timber sales violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Environmental advocates have argued that the beetle infestations killing many stands of forest are also a result of hotter temperatures, and that the problem with out-of-control wildfires cannot be solved without reducing carbon emissions.
The debate played out Monday on Twitter through messages linking the Arizona wildfire to climate change. “19 fire-fighters perish in #Arizonafires This is a terrible tragedy. We need to take #extremeweather #climatechange really seriously!” said a tweet by Lyn Bender.
Talk show host Joe Pags of WOAI-AM in San Antonio responded by calling the writers of such messages “disturbed.”
“Even though the entire theory has been debunked and the world is actually in a cycle of cooling right now, they take any and all opportunities to push their agenda no matter who it disrespects or hurts. Sick!” Mr. Pags said.