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This year, Pacific Northwest is at the center of an ongoing wildland fire catastrophe

Both Washington and Oregon have declared state-level fire emergencies.

The Carleton Complex fire in Washington is the largest fire in state history at 243,000 acres, or 380 square miles.
REUTERS/David Ryder

Behind President Barack Obama’s declaration yesterday of a wildfire emergency in Washington State is a weather pattern fairly unusual by historical standards, but likely to become less so as a consequence of North America’s changing climate.

Though California has been suffering for months under tremendous, multiyear drought — and has plentiful fires of its own, in a burn season that now lasts all year — it’s the Pacific Northwest that’s the disaster zone of the moment in the nation’s worsening wildfire patterns. Both Washington and Oregon have declared state-level fire emergencies.

In Washington,  the center of concern is the Carlton Complex fire to the northeast and across the Cascades from Seattle. Having burned for about a week as of Wednesday, and only 16 percent contained at that point, it was the largest fire in state history at 243,000 acres, or 380 square miles, according to Reuters.

The fire had also torched 200 homes, forced evacuation of more than 1,200 people in a sparsely settled area, and killed at least one — a 67-year-old ex-Marine and retired state trooper who died of a heart attack after fighting for two days to save his home.

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For all of that, the Carlton Complex blaze is looking increasingly less like an anomaly and more like a commonplace in this year’s fires across Washington and Oregon, along with portions of northern California and western Canada.

As Kirk Johnson reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the relief of this year’s cool, wet spring promoted vigorous growth in the forests and grasslands of the northwest — right up until the weather systems turned “ferociously” toward the hotter, drier patterns that are becoming a new normal across the western U.S.

Smoke plume across continent

Early July brought low humidity and 100-degree temperatures to the region; lightning storms followed; next came “winds of 30 miles per hour or more that provided oxygen like a bellows”:

Spreading mostly across sparsely populated areas, the fires have a vast scope: Less than a week into the typical three-month fire season in Washington and Oregon, the total area of scorched ground is already higher than in any full year in at least a decade.

With the fire season elsewhere in the nation relatively quiet, the blazes in Oregon and Washington now account for a majority of the 33 large and uncontained wildfires being battled. The nearly 1,400 square miles — much of it grassland — burned in those two states accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation’s total wildfire losses since January.

The fires are having a stunningly visible impact in another way: A vast plume of smoke from them has drifted east and, along with smoke from a huge series of fires in the Northwest Territories in Canada, is spewing ash particulates across much of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico to New England, according to satellite imagery.

An additional difficulty facing the 3,500 people fighting fire in the Northwest — 6,100 if you count support personnel, as the Portland Oregonian does — is that the land is burning in patches scattered across wide areas, rather than in single big blazes with a perimeter than can be clearly defined and assaulted. (Indeed, the Carlton Complex is a merger of three or four earlier, separate fires.)

Speaking to Energy & Environment Publishing’s ClimateWire for a piece published Tuesday, a public information officer for the regional interagency command center said that this pattern of “is pretty unprecedented” and also unusually difficult, because it means “20 different operations, 20 different fires to get resources to.”

Climate change’s role

And lest anyone forget, reporter Elizabeth Harball made the connection to climate change:

This level of fire activity is consistent with what the Pacific Northwest may have to contend with more as climate change intensifies. The National Climate Assessment, released this year, stated that warmer and drier conditions have already increased the frequency and intensity of fires in Western forests since the 1970s.

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Under a scenario where emissions increase through 2050 and gradually decrease afterward, the assessment predicts that the median area burned each year in the Northwest could quadruple, reaching 2 million acres annually by the 2080s. However, this figure is expected to vary significantly depending on fuel conditions, it said.

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North of the international border, according to a Radio Canada International report carried by Alaska Dispatch News, the young 2014 fire season is already the worst in memory, with more than 2,500 fires so far this year and perhaps 8,000 expected before it’s over.

That’s double the average of the 1970s, according to an expert identified as Canada’s senior climatologist.

The patterns are especially severe in British Columbia, because of unusually hot and dry weather, and also in the more lightly settled Northwest Territories.

“What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Mike Flannigan, a professor of Wildland Fire in the University of Alberta’s renewable resources department, is quoted as saying. “Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

Fire’s feedback loop

And if you perhaps recall hearing that these fire patterns are drivers as well as consequences of climate change, your memory is sharp. From a report on Climate Central last week, which I found reprinted in Mother Jones:

Of the 186 wildfires in the Northwest Territories to date this year, 156 of them are currently burning. That includes the Birch Creek Fire complex, which stretches over 250,000 acres. The amount of acres burned in the Northwest Territories is six times greater than the 25-year average to date according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

Boreal forests like those in the Northwest Territories are burning at rates “unprecedented” in the past 10,000 years according to the authors of a study put out last year. The northern reaches of the globe are warming at twice the rate as areas closer to the equator, and those hotter conditions are contributing to more widespread burns.

The combined boreal forests of Canada, Europe, Russia and Alaska, account for 30 percent of the world’s carbon stored in land, carbon that’s taken up to centuries to store. Forest fires like those currently raging in the Northwest Territories, as well as ones in 2012 and 2013 in Russia, can release that stored carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

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Warmer temperatures can in turn create a feedback loop, priming forests for wildfires that release more carbon into the atmosphere and cause more warming.

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Bonus links: Remarkable drone video from The Weather Network of areas burned in the Carlton Complex fire is here, and a good piece about “Why the California drought affects everyone” (beyond fires, think produce prices and fisheries health) is available at the Center for Investigative Reporting.