Researchers at the University of Utah are offering a vision of the future for the American West, and it’s a hot one.
In a study to be published in Geophysical Research Letters, three U. geographers and an environmental scientist from the University of California Berkeley have found the number and size of wildfires in the West have grown over the past 25 years, and their prediction is that they will continue to grow.
From 1984 to 2011, the number of wildfires over 1,000 acres has increased at a rate of seven per year, with each year’s fires consuming 90,000 acres more than the previous year. That means that each year the burned areas in the west grow by 140 square miles — roughly three times the area of all of Utah’s ski resorts combined. The scientists found that the fires are consistently tied to drought conditions, which also have been on the increase in recent decades.
The likely culprit, of course, is climate change, and the fires are the leading edge of consequences for U.S. Westerners. For many people, global warming is still a scientific abstraction (or, worse, a conspiracy), so the rising fires are the tangible consequence that must be faced even by those who want to deny the underlying cause.
We have seen increasing days of yellow or brown haze hanging over the valleys. We have seen the mad scrambles when the fires reach the edge of civilization, forcing evacuations. We have seen the fires followed by mud slides washing down hills that were once held in place by vegetation.
Yes, there’s a global determination needed to fully address climate change. That should include comprehensive controls on the burning of fossil fuels, and that is a challenge that seems almost insurmountable, given the limits of global cooperation.
But in the meantime, there is a responsibility to act locally. In Utah that includes safety practices like trimming vegetation near houses that sit in potential fire zones. It includes planning and zoning that provides sufficient buffer zones in fire-prone areas. It includes adequate funding for fire prevention and suppression so at least some of those wildfires can be stopped before they get to 1,000 acres.
Utahns cannot avoid the forces of nature that are turning more of their land into fuel. But with planning and effort, they can see that fewer people get burned.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.