Gehrke: While Interior chief Ryan Zinke keeps ‘gaslighting’ on climate change, our forests burn more and more intensely

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Coal Hollow Fire burns along Highway 6 in Utah County, Thursday Aug. 9, 2018.

So far this year, more than 5.7 million acres have burned in this nation due to wildfire.

In California, some 750,000 acres have been destroyed, along with thousands of structures. And on Monday, Draper Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett died after a tree fell on him while he was helping fight blazes in that state.

In Utah, more than 160,000 acres have been charred and state Forester Brian Cottam told legislators Wednesday that this could be one of the worst fire years on record.

Then we have Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who this week, while touring firefighting operations in California, rejected the notion that climate change has anything to do with the tragic infernos.

“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management,” Zinke said, deploying his pleasant-sounding euphemism for logging.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

“America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change,” he told KCRA, a California television station.

His comments came on the heels of an interview with Breitbart Radio where he blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for the fires, and a similar opinion piece published in USA Today.

Despite the rhetoric, over the past 15 years there have been a total of six environmental lawsuits in Utah related to timber projects, according to figures from the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region office.

But in trying to pin the blame on environmental groups, Zinke ignores the growing body of scientific research that the climate is, indeed, exacerbating fire conditions. Instead, he buries his head in the sand while forests burn and the financial and human toll mounts.

“It’s almost like a gaslighting,” said Robert Gillies, the Utah state climatologist.

In 2015, Gillies co-authored a study that found that severe drought conditions have increased the area of California at risk for wildfires dramatically since 1990, and the fire season — the period of the year when the risk of fires is the highest — also has gotten longer.

Basil Newmerzhycky, a meteorologist and manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s fire forecasting operation, worked in California for 15 years and says, while climate change has affected various parts of the country differently, California has seen a longer fire season and intense warming and dryness in the past decade.

“There is a definite, clear correlation between the warming and the length of the fire season,” he said.

Across the West, the wildfire season is two months longer than it was 50 years ago, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the number of large wildfires has increased by nearly two-thirds since the 1980s.

Here in Utah, the story is very much the same. Gillies said that, especially at the lower mountain elevations, we are seeing less snow and more rain. That means less snowpack and, coupled with higher temperatures — Utah’s temperatures have increased two to four times as much as the rest of the planet — translates into conditions ripe for a blaze.

Newmerzhycky said that when trees dry out they are vulnerable to bark beetle infestations that have wiped out huge swaths of forest.

The decreased snowpack, the hotter, drier temperatures and the beetle infestation “significantly worsen our fire season, both in length and severity, from basically the mountains outside of St. George and Cedar City, all the way up to the Wasatch-Cache [forest] and Uintas,” he said.

Nationally, the Forest Service estimates that about 80 million acres of U.S. forests are at risk of insect disease and wildfire. About a third of those acres are at very high risk.

Gillies said there is nothing in the forecasting models that show any sign of change.

“It’s been an uphill battle to have politicians sometimes listen to the science, nevermind accept it,” Gillies said. “This subject has been highly politicized and it’s almost intractable when it becomes so at that level.”

Some in the Republican Party are getting it.

Last week, after the Hilltop fire burned nearly 2,000 acres near his home in Sanpete County, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox acknowledged “There’s very clear evidence of a climate change — that the climate has been changing for a long time. … Certainly, this feels much more like the new norm when it comes to fires.”

U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney criticized the government for not doing more to control wildfires, but even he said that “Climate realities mean they will be a recurring menace every year.” His Democratic opponent, Jenny Wilson, was more direct, saying what we know: Global warming is exacerbating the fires and we need to treat it as “a national crisis.”

But we can’t even have that discussion in a meaningful way if people like Zinke and his boss, President Donald Trump, are more focused on using tragedies to score political points while suppressing scientific research.

Until that changes, they’ll fiddle while the West continues to burn.