warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Deadly Fires Show Need For Action On Global Warming

Nathaniel Haas |
July 26, 2013 | 6:54 p.m. PDT


It is time for action to stop global warming. (BigDogGraphics, Wikimedia Commons)
It is time for action to stop global warming. (BigDogGraphics, Wikimedia Commons)
“Here we go again.”

Terrie Gardner, who moved in with her parents after losing her home in last year’s devastating Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado, thought her worst days were behind her. Then, as she watched flames consume her parents home, she had to think again.

In just days last month, the Black Forest Fire in Colorado burned over 25 square miles and destroyed 360 homes. The home belonging to Terrie Gardner’s parents was one of them. The fire, which surpassed the Waldo Canyon Fire to become the most devastating in Colorado history, showed no signs of stopping for days. Over 3,000 people were evacuated, and the bodies of a couple were found in an open garage, consumed by flames as they tried to escape the blaze.

On June 30, 19 firefighters died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, the largest loss of life since 1933. The men, known as the “Granite Mountain Hotshots,” scrambled for cover beneath emergency blankets, but were surrounded and incinerated by a wall of flames moving at seven miles an hour.

Now, as fire season reaches a peak throughout the United States, and as the impact of forest fires continues to grow, folks like Terrie Gardner and the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots are left looking for answers. The severity of the Black Forest Fire adds to the mounting pile of evidence that those answers are found in the warming of the planet.

While short-term solutions are often helpful, a long-term vision is necessary to prevent, rather than mitigate the danger posed by deadly fires. It’s time to confront climate change with meaningful reforms to our energy policy and consumption-based economy. These efforts will require international cooperation to be successful, and will be met with stiff resistance from fossil fuel lobbies at home and conglomerates of nations abroad like OPEC.

The climate skeptics will look upon the following statements as nothing but alarmism and leftist environmentalism. They may very well be right, and I may very well be wrong. But if I am wrong, we will have as a consequence cleaner energy and less pollution. If they are wrong, we will all be dead.

The continued survival of the human race depends on these reforms. Contrary to what GOP presidential candidates like Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail, climate science is no longer political science.

In April, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute convened a public comment forum on the National Climate Assessment Report and invited some of the nation’s most prominent scientists to discuss the effects of climate change. Their advice is the cornerstone of any meaningful climate change policy, and it is advice we would do well to heed.

Dr. Tom Swetnam, a Professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona, was one of the scientists invited to present his findings at the public comment forum. As a dendrochronologist, Dr. Swetnam is able to study fire history from tree rings, which tell us about the frequency and intensity of fires from hundreds of years ago. Dr. Swetnam’s studies revealed an historic cycle of scars from low intensity fires, followed by approximately 100 years of a lack of fires. In other words, low severity fires periodically eliminated loose fuel, which prevented buildup and the possibility of a high intensity fire. Unfortunately, the historic record stopped 20 years ago. Since then, the United States has experienced six times more fires, and fire season that has increased by two months, according to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Why?

Dr. Swetnam points directly to the warming climate, which he says has created two unique risks for increased fires. First, as the atmosphere becomes hotter, it demands more moisture from the surrounding environment, which includes plants and decaying organisms. This process creates drier material, which burns more intensely in a fire. Second, increased droughts like the one that struck the United States last summer create an accelerated die off of organic material, increasing the buildup and volume of fuel for forest fires.

Dave Cleaves, climate-change adviser for the U.S. Forest Service, agrees. "The changing climate is not only accelerating the intensity of these disturbances," Cleaves said, "but linking them more closely together."

Dr. Swetnam spoke to the Schwarzenegger institute on behalf of a community of scientists who are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming’s effect on forest fire severity. Thomas Tidwell, the chief of the United States Forest Service, told Congress last week that the fire season has increased as a direct result of the hotter, drier conditions created by climate change. As sequestration forces cuts to fire prevention programs, the need for a conversation about a long-term strategy that includes climate change mitigation is as pressing as it will ever be.

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute will continue to highlight the need for action on Climate Change though events like the public comment session held in April, and will continue to support the great work that scientists like Dr. Swetnam are doing to raise awareness of this critical issue. As humans pour more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an international consensus of scientists have agreed that we are influencing the climate in an irreversible way, and approaching a point beyond which it will be impossible to fix.

The Black Forest Fire and other like it prove that Climate Change is no longer a mysterious scientific concept that only exists in a space beyond our every day lives. Climate change is no longer a theory in an ivory tower: folks are becoming homeless over night, and brave men and women are dying fighting fires made larger and more deadly. Unfortunately, that is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Climate Change has arrived in the real world, and it is casting a long shadow. Supporting our most prominent scientists and heeding their advice in the face of the powerful interests of the fossil fuel industry is necessary.

It is time to put policy ahead of politics, and time is indeed of the essence. The next time we find ourselves saying, “here we go again,” it might be too late.


Reach Contributor Nathaniel Haas here; follow him here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.