Taken Sept. 5, 2011 in Bastrop, TX of the Bastrop Complex Fire. Credit: Michael Rose via Flickr.
Wildfires scorch more than just wild vegetation. They extend beyond the forest, where one might go hiking over the weekend, and impact the lives of thousands of people. Climate change and severe weather patterns create conditions favorable for wildfires of increased severity. These fires spread more easily and burn at a higher temperature, with a net result of increased damage to property and ecosystems. Often, they are so hot that they destroy the seed sources, squelching any chance at natural regeneration for the forest. Though wildfires can be beneficial to forests by clearing areas for regrowth and increasing sunlight, wildfires in conditions of high heat, high winds and high drought, are not.
For thousands of years, this cycle of forest fires has been happening naturally to help cleanse forests, with lightning serving as the natural catalyst for the cleanse, says Matt Mears, Reforestation Manager at TreeFolks, an urban forest conservation group based in Austin.
“It’s kind of a complicated issue because fire in this part of the world, is a natural thing, that happens on sort of a regular basis in these kind of systems,” says Mears. “It’s the same in the rest of the Eastern Loblolly pine forest. They evolved with really frequent fires.”
However, since 1970, annual temperatures in the Western part of the U.S. have risen 1.9°F on average, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Though this may not seem like a large difference to Texas’ arid climate, high temperatures cause forests to become dry and easier to ignite by an errant spark.
This has been the case with the recent wildfires consuming Bastrop, Texas.
“While fire is a natural thing in ecology, when it happens on that scale, it’s just really devastating,” says Mears.
However, increased annual temperatures also cause snow to melt earlier, so that the hottest part of the year coincides with the driest. The dead organic matter accumulates and becomes a huge source of fuel for wildfires, and wildfires are able to spread quicker and burn longer. In comparing 1970 to today, the U.S. Forest Service reports that wildfire seasons are 78 days longer.
Climate change is turning wildfires from a natural cleanse to a dangerous natural disaster.
Bastrop, Texas has experienced two wildfires of this variety in the last five years. In September 2011, a downed power line sparked a wildfire that burned across 34,000 acres, taking the lives of two people and reducing more than 1,600 homes and businesses to ash. The fire burned for 24 days and came to be known as the Bastrop Complex Fire. This past October, a fire known as the Hidden Pines Fire burned 4,582 acres of land and destroyed 64 homes.
After the Bastrop Complex Fire in 2011, American Forests restored 350 acres of the private land that was damaged by planting 54,000 trees. Working with TreeFolks and Alcoa Foundation, loblolly pines were planted to help the Lost Pines ecosystem. A special coating on the needles of loblolly pines allows them to survive the dry climate of central Texas. Their presence creates a habitat for the endangered animals, like the Houston toad, the red-cockaded woodpecker and bachman’s warbler,while protecting the ecosystem.