Wildfires are ripping across California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska this summer, the result of unprecedented droughts and record temperatures. Millions of hectares are being burned along with hundreds of homes. Fire-fighting costs are multiplying, the economic damage is soaring, and the environmental consequences are foreboding.
The old ecologies of the Pacific Northwest are being reshaped as climate change begins the long and disruptive process of altering the weather and remaking the biological structure of the region.
Countless statistics tumble out of news reports as uncontrolled fires scorch California and dozens of active fires burn in Oregon and Washington.
Bushfires explode because of unprecedented heat and wind, igniting whole neighbourhoods and even parts of downtowns, as was the case at the end of June in Wenatchee, Wash. Sometimes firefighters are the casualties.
Grass becomes tinder in the Pacific Northwest, waiting for any spark to set off a conflagration. Washington state stopped counting and even fighting some of its fires during parts of August, letting them burn to exhaustion, whenever that may occur. At least one is spreading northward toward British Columbia.
B.C.’s fire situation is similar to that in the American states to the south. Over 1,734 have been counted in the province since April and firefighting costs of more than $224 million have dwarfed a budget of $63 million.
The focus of media attention shifts quickly from place to place depending on the size of the fire, the loss of property and the extent of human tragedy. Some people have barely escaped with their lives as walls of flames have roared toward them. The charred bodies of dead wildlife are commonly found in the ashen remains of the blackened landscapes. The danger in B.C. is exacerbated by the 13 million hectares of interior forest killed by the mountain pine beetle.
Alaska, like B.C., has undergone an average temperature increase of about 1.4°C, mostly during the last 50 years, and is at least as vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures, droughts and wildfires. Record areas of the state have burned in 2015, 183 more than the 216 fires that burned during the scorching season of 2004.
From a climate perspective, Alaska’s fires are particularly serious because they burn off the deep layers of organic insulation that are protecting the permafrost from further melting and the subsequent release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
“Everything is connected,” says Bob Bolton, a University of Alaska hydrologist. “The climate, the permafrost, the water, the fires. You can’t look at one without looking at the other. Changes in one changes everything.”
Complex ecologies such as the Pacific Northwest are similarly sensitive. Increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide from human sources are raising temperatures, changing weather and forcing the region into a protracted and traumatic transition. Altered precipitation patterns are lowering crucially important snowpacks, degrading the vitality of watersheds and transforming the character of West Coast forests as California’s climate shifts northward.
The summer fires are just part of a difficult and disruptive climate revolution we have set in motion. This change may be welcomed by those who like California’s climate, but the process is going to leave many others badly burned.