The calamitous 2018 California wildfire season have already unleashed greenhouse gases equivalent to the amount generated by providing the state with electricity for an entire year, according to newly released federal data.
An analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey released Friday found that 68 million tons of carbon dioxide were emitted from this year’s blazes in the Golden State, the worst wildfire season in recorded state history.
“This number equates to about 15 percent of all California emissions, and it is on par with the annual emissions produced by generating enough electricity to power the entire state for a year,” the Interior Department said in a press release.
The late-season Camp and Woolsey fires that struck in November produced roughly 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
“We know that wildfires can be deadly and cost billions of dollars, but this analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey also shows just how bad catastrophic fires are for the environment and for the public’s health,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
He said the devastating greenhouse-gas emissions underscore the need for more aggressive forest management, including prescribed burns, thinning and logging. Such projects are routinely challenged by environmental groups, often resulting in delays or cancellations.
“The intensity and range of these fires indicate we can no longer ignore proper forest management,” Mr. Zinke said. “We can and must do a better job of protecting both the forests and the communities on the urban-wildland interface. Leaving forests unmanaged is no longer a safe option.”
California’s electricity sector released 67 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, according to the California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory.
So far this year’s California wildfires have burned 1.67 million acres, far exceeding the five-year state average of 232,411 acres, according to CalFire.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, the only certified forester in Congress, pointed to the irony of environmentalists calling for reducing emissions to combat climate change but resisting forest-thinning projects.
“People can argue about why the temperature is increasing, but the science is behind healthy forest as the best way to mitigate that, whatever the cause,” Mr. Westerman said.
The Arkansas Republican has introduced sweeping forest-management legislation in the last two congressional sessions. Both bills passed the House but died in the Senate, thanks to opposition from Senate Democrats.
A 2007 study from the National Science Foundation estimated that U.S. emissions from wildfires were 290 million tons per year, the equivalent of 4 to 6 percent of the amount emitted by fossil fuels.
“If it gets warmer and drier and you’re getting more forest fires, you’re putting more carbon in the atmosphere,” Mr. Westerman said. “We need to let the science play out here.”