Posts Tagged: Max Moritz
Wildfires used to be rare in the Great Plains, but that is no longer the case. A new study shows the average number of large fires grew from about 33 per year in 1985 to 117 per year in 2014, reported Chris Mooney in the Washington Post.
The study's lead author, Victoria Donovan of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said the increasing number of wildfires is consistent with climate change and an incursion of more invasive plant species that could be providing fuel.
UC Cooperative Extension specialist Max Moritz said the study's results align with his observations. However, he added that he suspects that they reflect not so much human-caused climate change, but rather, changing human behavior. Humans have been found to be overwhelmingly responsible for lighting U.S. wildfires over the past 20 years, according to research he cited. But these facts should not downplay the importance of dealing with anthropogenic climate change.
"It does highlight the importance of human ignitions and where/how we build our communities on the landscape," Moritz said. "Wildfire is not going away anytime soon. We must learn, as a society, to coexist with wildfire."
Current wildfire policy can't adequately protect people, homes and ecosystems from the longer, hotter fire seasons climate change is causing, according to a new paper led by the University of Colorado Boulder.
Efforts to extinguish every blaze and reduce the buildup of dead wood and forest undergrowth are becoming increasingly inadequate on their own. Instead, the authors—a team of wildfire experts—urge policymakers and communities to embrace policy reform that will promote adaptation to increasing wildfire and warming.
“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said lead author Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We're learning our old tools aren't enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”
This means accepting wildfire as an inevitable part of the landscape, states the new paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The western U.S. has seen a 2-degrees-Celsius rise in annual average temperature and lengthening of the fire season by almost three months since the 1970s; both elements contribute to what the authors refer to as the “new era of western wildfires.” This pattern of bigger, hotter fires, along with the influx of homes into fire-prone areas—over 2 million since 1990—has made wildfire vastly more costly and dangerous.
“For a long time, we've thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” said Schoennagel, who also is an adjunct faculty member in CU Boulder's Geography Department. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we're going to have to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”
As part of this adaptation process, the authors advocate for actions that may be unpopular, such as allowing more fires to burn largely unimpeded in wildland areas and intentionally setting more fires, or “controlled burns,” to reduce natural fuels like undergrowth in more developed areas. Both these steps would reduce future risk and help ecosystems adapt to increasing wildfire and warming.
They also argue for reforming federal, state and local policies that have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to develop in fire-prone areas. Currently, federal taxpayers pick up the tab for preventing and fighting western wildfires—a cost that has averaged some $2 billion a year in recent years. If states and counties were to bear more of that cost, it would provide incentive to adopt planning efforts and fire-resistant building codes that would reduce risk.
Re-targeting forest thinning efforts is another beneficial reform suggested by the authors. The federal government has spent some $5 billion since 2006 on thinning dense forests and removing fuel from some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of land, often in remote areas. But these widespread efforts have done little to reduce record-setting fires. Directing thinning projects to particularly high-risk areas, including communities in fire-prone regions and forests in particularly dry areas, would increase adaptation to wildfire, the authors said.
Additionally, as climate change forces species to move their ranges, some may vanish entirely. Familiar landscapes will disappear, a fact that makes many people balk. But such changes, including those caused by wildfire, could be necessary for the environment in the long run, says Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist and a co-author on the paper.
“We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” Moritz said. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”
Critical to making a policy of adaptation successful, said Schoennagel, will be education and changing people's perception of wildfire. “We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are. We've tried to control fire, but it's not a control we can maintain. Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”
Christian Science Monitor. A new study by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Max Moritz and Michal Mann, assistant professor of geography at George Washington University, found that human activity explains as much about their frequency and location of fires as climate influences.
Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources — everything from cigarettes on the highway, to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California.
“More and more researchers are arguing that anthropogenic influences are really important [to understanding wildfires],” Moritz said. “By leaving them out we're missing a critical piece of the solution.”
While the U.S. Forest Service spends more than $2.5 billion each year fighting fires, other public agencies are exacerbating the wildfire problem. Public funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, are going into construction in fire-prone districts.
"It's already a huge problem from a public expenditure perspective for the whole country,” Moritz said. “We need to take a magnifying glass to that. Like, ‘Wait a minute, is this OK?' Do we want instead to redirect those funds to concentrate on lower-hazard parts of the landscape?”
He said human systems and landscapes they live on are linked, and the interactions go both ways. Failing to recognize that leads to "an overly simplified view of what the solutions might be. Our perception of the problem and perception of what the solution is [becomes] very limited."
Los Angeles Times, fire scientists cast doubt on Gov. Jerry Brown's assertion that the intense wildfire season of 2015 was connected to global climate change. A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) expert, however, responded with a letter to the editor that said publishing such information is "troubling."
"It's splitting hairs, as scientists often will, to note that we may not know conclusively whether climate change has caused this particular drought and these specific wildfires," wrote Max Moritz, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. "As a wildfire scientist, I find it troubling that this nuance became front-page news because it implies more uncertainty about climate change that there really is among experts."
Other writers' comments about the misleading article were also published. Alex Hall of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions said "an analysis of the probability that the current fire season in California would play out as it has, if climate change were not in the picture has not been done." Jonathan Parfrey of Climate Resolve said "The Times really blew it in this piece."
In the conclusion of his letter, Moritz wrote: "In fact, there is relatively strong agreement among fire scientists about links between climate change and wildfire, even if quantitative attribution poses challenges. To raise awareness about climate change and to reduce its long-term impacts, we need our leaders to speak out."
Moritz' 2014 research is titled Large wildfire trends in the western United States, 1984-2011. Warner also referenced an article by Moritz and colleagues published in Ecosphere called Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity.
Warner's infographic features images of and quotes by Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside earth sciences professor.
"They're getting bigger and bigger," Minnich is quoted in large, bold print in front of a blazing fire. "It has to do with the effort to try to eliminate natural processes in a climate where burning is normal."
Americans' resolve to quickly extinguish wildfires began after a devastating fire season in 1910, which burned millions of acres of forest and killed scores of firefighters. Aggressive firefighting efforts since then have changed U.S. forest ecology, providing excess fuel in forests that lead to larger, hotter blazes.
In order to protect people and property while maintaining forest health, American firefighting agencies and UC ANR researchers are seeking to adapt management strategies.
"There's been fire ever since there's been oxygen in the atmosphere," Minnich is quoted in a speech bubble. "It's been going on for a third of a billion years, and it's not as though we're ever going to stop it."