Home New mexico united With climate change fueling wildfires, changes needed to avoid worse scenarios

With climate change fueling wildfires, changes needed to avoid worse scenarios


Climate change is contributing to the large wildfires experienced in western states like New Mexico, and scientists say humans need to make changes to prevent fire hazards.

New Mexico’s largest wildfire in recorded history topped 300,000 acres this week and it’s not the only large fire burning as the state experiences hot, dry conditions and very low humidity.

A study published this month in the journal Ecology Letters found that wildfire risk will increase in states like New Mexico. By the end of the century, the study indicates that “high levels of fire danger, which were historically confined to pockets in California and the intermountain western United States, are expected to spread to the entire western United States”.

William Anderegg, an associate professor at the University of Utah, is one of the co-authors who led the study.

As he studies climate stress and risk, Anderegg said it’s a bit surprising, and also depressing, how much fire risk increases under high climate change scenarios. But, he said, there is also good news in these models. In scenarios where society acts aggressively to address climate change, “we can avoid a huge amount of fire hazard.”

“It really tells us that the future of fire season is, in large part, in our hands,” he said.

Matthew Hurteau, a professor at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, said climate change is one of the contributing factors to the wildfires the state is currently experiencing.

“The severity of the fires is the consequence of our decisions as humans over the past 100+ years,” Hurteau said.

He said those decisions include excluding fire from the landscape as well as burning fossil fuels.

“Humans are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in and we need to work together to reduce risk,” he said.

Forest fires can have cumulative effects. Anderegg said that in addition to the potential for loss of life and property, fires can have economic and health impacts.

“Things like the air quality impacts of all that fire smoke are having huge effects on our health, both locally and downwind, which these days are large swathes of the country.” , did he declare.

Carbon offset programs may not take climate change into account

The study in Ecology Letters modeled climate stress, including forest fires and insect-related tree mortality.

Study co-author Oriana Chegwidden, a scientist who works for the non-profit organization CarbonPlan, said one of the reasons for the modeling was to determine the impact of climate stress on planning programs. carbon offset. Carbon offsets allow companies to purchase projects intended to offset the emissions they produce. This practice has come under scrutiny in recent years.

While forests can sequester carbon, they release it when burned.

The authors write that their study highlights the need to answer various questions about the carbon offset market. Without answers to these questions, offset programs may not make as much of a difference as they are supposed to.

Anderegg said most forest carbon offset protocols assume that risks such as drought, fire and pathogens are equal and uniform across the country. He said that wasn’t true.

He said the protocols were not based on rigorous science and he would like things like their study to be used to inform those protocols.

During an interview, Chegwidden pulled graphs from the study that show projected possible increases in things like climate stress and fires based on region. She pointed to the fire projections, which show increased risks in all regions of the country. However, the greatest risks are in California and the Southwest.

Projections for the southeastern United States do not show such a marked increase in fire risk, but they do show that fire risk in the southeast in the future could be similar to what it is currently experiencing. California, she said.

What is the correlation between climate change and wildfires?

New Mexico state climatologist David Dubois said persistent drought, hot temperatures and increased risk of wildfires are “the fingerprint of climate change.”

He said models show the fire season moving earlier in the year in New Mexico, as seen this year. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire began in early April, about a month before the start of fire season.

Dubois said “the atmosphere is really thirsty right now,” which means more water is going to evaporate. High temperatures combined with extremely low humidity – some recent measurements have shown levels as low as one percent – mean the state is drying out.

“The extra heat we put into the atmosphere causes changes,” Hurteau said.

Hurteau also said some of these changes are happening at a faster rate than expected.

He said the scientific community and forest managers need to work together to quickly determine what actions can be taken, such as what tools researchers can provide to improve predictions and improve the ability to safely implement prescribed burns.

Hurteau said winter humidity helps forests be less flammable until the monsoons arrive, but there have been two consecutive dry winters.

“These forests are a little drier than they have been in the past,” he said. “Basically, with less moisture in the system, a lot more vegetation is available to burn because it’s not holding all that water.”

Climate change, coupled with past management decisions such as excluding fires from landscapes, is contributing to increased wildfire risk, he said.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire burns ponderosa pine forests. Hurteau said that before management practices ruled out fire from these forests, they would burn regularly.

Preparing for the next fire

Hurteau said people need to think about ecosystems and “how we live in them”. He said when people build houses they should think about the materials they use and how they can make the houses less flammable. From a forest management perspective, he said people need to think about how the land can be managed after the fire is over to reduce the risk of future fires.

“There’s no quick fix to this problem,” Hurteau said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort in a lot of different areas. This is how we live and use these landscapes. This is how we manage the landscape. It’s a number of factors and it’s really going to take all of us contributing to these solutions to reduce the chances of this sort of thing happening in the future.

Antonio Maestas, culture and equity manager for New Mexico Conservation Constituencies, traveled to communities affected by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire in part to help the grandfather of his girlfriend to clear brush and dead trees from his property as the fire approached and partly to volunteer in the community, such as serving hot meals.

As someone who was affected by the Dog Head Fire in 2016 and had to leave their home for two weeks because of it, Maestas sympathizes with what the residents of Mora, San Miguel, Colfax and Taos counties are going through. who had to evacuate.

“There are a lot of people in the community who are not going to evacuate. And the reason they are not going to evacuate is to protect their land to protect their homes,” he said.

Maestas explained that the fire is impacting traditional communities, including land grant communities. He said some of these families have been there for generations and feel a deeply personal commitment to protecting their lands and homes. Maestas also comes from a land-grant community and, he said, traditional land management practices such as clearing forests and grazing to remove dense undergrowth can help.

When the Dog Head Fire burned in his community, Maestas said places where the traditional community had implemented these practices did not burn as badly.

“It will be much easier to stop the fire if there isn’t a ton of overgrowth,” he said.

As the fires continue to char the landscapes of New Mexico and other parts of the western United States, American senses Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, introduced the National Forest Fire Risk Reduction Program Act on Thursday. which is intended to help prepare for the next fire. If adopted, it will lead to additional investment in research and development. It will also set up warning and forecasting systems, develop observation and detection technologies and standardize data collection efforts.

“Federal science agencies have a critical role to play in improving how the nation understands, anticipates, and responds to wildfires, but many of these agencies currently have no defined authority or mandate to do so,” Luján said. in a press release. “This legislation fills that gap and improves the entire federal approach to wildfires. The wildfires currently raging in northern New Mexico are the largest in our state’s history – burning nearly 300,000 acres. It is critical that Congress invest in our understanding and response to this devastating type of natural disaster so that we can increase fire resilience and protect New Mexicans from these increasingly catastrophic wildfires.

Anderegg said forest management policies must change.

“It’s becoming really clear that we need to plan forest management for a future with climate change,” Anderegg said. “And we have to think of all the places where we can be proactive in managing climate dependency and not reactive and just respond to each fire season.”