Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Study: Costly fire season caused by climate change

Climate aids beetle kill, harms snowpack, researchers say


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Halstead Fire, shown above in September north of Stanley, burned some 181,000 acres of forest from late July through October 2012. A recent study by the National Wildlife Federation states that Idaho fire seasons are getting longer and more intense due to climate change. Photo by Kate Wutz

A study released by the National Wildlife Federation on Jan. 30 blames Idaho’s costly 2012 fire season on climate change and states that things will only get worse as global warming intensifies.

The study, titled “Wildlife in a Warming World,” features sections on all parts of the nation, including the Mississippi River basin, the Southwest and the East Coast. From forests encroaching on the Alaskan tundra to polar bears struggling to adjust to rapidly dwindling sea ice, the study strives to be a comprehensive overview of how climate change has an impact on all North American wildlife.

In Idaho, the study states, climate change has contributed to what was the costliest fire season in state history. The 2012 fire season was Idaho’s costliest season ever, with about 1.7 million acres burned at a cost of $50 million.

The closest major wildfire to the Wood River Valley was the Halstead Fire near Stanley, a 181,798-acre blaze that lasted from July 27 through Oct. 22 when the area received enough snow and rain to end the fire season. While the Trinity Ridge Fire blazed near Featherville in central Idaho and the Mustang Complex Fire burned on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the Halstead Fire threatened Sunbeam and fed off of dead, standing, beetle-killed trees.

The study states that those dead trees, which are dispersed across the West, are one of the major factors contributing to costly and intense fire seasons.

“Widespread beetle infestations have left broad swaths of dead and highly combustible trees in their wake,” the report says.

The infestations are becoming more widespread because higher winter temperatures are enhancing survival of the mountain pine beetle, which in turn results in higher reproduction rates.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said in August that forests in Idaho have faced the mountain pine beetle challenge for a decade.

“A lot of the big fires are in part a result of the beetle kill that has occurred on a very large scale across the Idaho forest,” Nelson said. “What you are seeing are thousands of acres with a large percentage of trees that have been attacked by the beetles. That’s providing a fuel source for these very large fires.”

The study states that these fires kill animals such as chicks too young to fly and small mammals that cannot outrun the blaze, and that intensely burned soils can prevent new vegetation from growing, placing a strain on the food chain. Ash from fires can clog streams and harm aquatic life.

The study states that climate change has also contributed to snow melting earlier than usual—one to four weeks earlier, on average, than 50 years ago. That makes the fire season longer and potentially more intense.

Even though the study has identified some of the factors contributing to the exceptional fire season, what to do about it remains the question.

Dani Mazzotta, Central Idaho associate for the Idaho Conservation League, said she believes the study is correct that climate change contributed to the extraordinary fire season Idaho experienced in 2012, but that the solutions are not clear-cut. Fire suppression doesn’t necessarily work, she said.

“What we have seen across the West in general is almost a 100-year trend,” said Mazzotta, whose background is in forest management. “We have been suppressing these fires around towns and communities, and we are seeing the repercussions. It’s a conundrum for forest managers. They are in a really tight place.”

Mazzota said fire is a healthy part of a forest’s lifecycle, but that the fires Idaho saw this year were longer and more intense than the type that might occur without the heavy fuel loads from beetle-killed trees.

“Healthy forests and healthy fires are ones that are not burning at this insane intensity,” she said.

The entire study can be viewed at www.nwf.org.


Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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