September 25th, 2012 by

Dumping water onto the flames

Dumping water onto wildfire flames in Larimer County, CO. Credit: The National Guard

As summer winds down and we head into fall, there is still no relief in the West from the wildfires that rage in Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Idaho. While the national news focuses on a presidential election only seven weeks away, the daily realities of ongoing wildfires fade from the 24-hour news cycle. But for those who live in the areas that are still burning — and for those who fight the fires themselves — wildfire season is far from over.

Two articles this past week bring some bad news, coupled with what could be considered a silver lining. First, the bad news. A nonprofit research organization, Climate Central, has released a report that discusses the increase in size and number of yearly wildfires, as well as the expected prevalence of these larger, longer and more sizable wildfires. The burn season itself is two and a half months longer than it was 40 years ago, while fires burn twice as much land area. Even just looking at the last decade, on Forest Service land alone, the average annual area burned exceeds two million acres.

The report says rising temperatures and increased drought are contributing to more and bigger wildfires. This change in climate, the report says, leads to the larger wildfire years that the West continues to experience. Unfortunately for all involved, if this proves true, a wildfire season like the current one could become the new normal. The report does not simply discuss climate change as a straight-line correlation between rising temperatures and more 100 degree days. Instead, the effect of warming, according to the authors, varies depending on elevation, latitude, the carbon feedback cycle and numerous other factors. Those who study wildfires have noted earlier and earlier snowmelt in the Rockies, ongoing and persistent drought and higher temperatures as just some of the factors that contribute to larger wildfires.

But even amongst these admittedly discouraging trends, there may be a small silver lining: wildfires bring money into the local community, at least in the short term. The University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Economy did a study on the economic impacts in communities affected by wildfires. The key findings included two main points: 1) employment and wages in affected communities increase during the time period of the wildfire and 2) many of these local communities — already subject to cyclical employment due to the nature of their economies — in the year following a wildfire can suffer from amplified volatility in employment, particularly in terms of tourism and natural resources.

The study demonstrates that while in the longer term, communities are more vulnerable to swings in seasonal employment post-fire, the short term may provide a critical economic boost to areas most directly impacted by the wildfire. Money spent by the Forest Service in suppressing fires plays a key role in the economics of the surrounding community, providing some of the increase in employment and wages. The longer-term impact of the Forest Service money, however, may benefit others outside of the local communities more. This is due, in part, to the need for both specialized equipment and specifically trained individuals that must be brought in from non-local areas, requiring the Forest Service to spend its funds outside the fire-affected communities.

None of this is to say that the short term gains can ever make up for what can be a devastating long term result, both environmentally and economically. But, as scientists continue to study the future of wildfire, gaining a better understanding of the economic impacts of wildfire may also assist in the continued evolution of how the U.S. copes with it.