Wildfires in the West: Covering Fire’s Climate and Adaptation Angles

IN THE NEWS (UPDATED JUNE 30): Wildfires have been scorching California, Arizona and New Mexico for two weeks, fueled by sweltering summer heat. As of Wednesday night, at least four were dead late Sunday night Eastern Time, at least two were dead  and 200 structures burned, with one blaze, the 46,00043,000-acre Erskin Fire north of Los Angeles, still only 60%40% contained.

BACK STORY: Intense and early summer fire seasons may now be the “new normal,” as persistent hot, dry conditions compound years of drought to worsen seasonal wildfires. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dead trees in the region are fueling the tinderbox conditions. Another round of triple-digit temperates expected this week could aggravate the fires.

ADAPTATION ANGLE: Climate change is producing conditions “ripe for wildfires” -- rising temperatures reduce snowpack or melt it earlier, and cause more extremely hot days, all of which dries out grasslands and forest, and increases the likelihood of dramatic increases in large wildfires across the West. According to Climate Central, which has put together a new wildfire tracker, the previous 2015 wildfire season was already the worst on record in the United States, with more than 10 million acres burned. Calls for more Forest Service funding have come to help combat the problem through controlled burns, and by treating fires as natural disasters through federal emergency money, instead of its own programs to prevent fires.


  • What should local residents do to prepare for fire, including establishing protected space around their homes or preparing for evacuation?
  • What are the human health impacts of wildfires? For instance, studies have shown worsening air quality from western fires. Are local or even distant fires harming health in your community? Examples from Las Vegas and Aspen, Colo.
  • How have building homes and developing on the wildland-urban interface exacerbated widlfires?
  • What effect will future heat waves and drought have on wildfires?
  • How are controlled burns used to clear dead trees and otherwise prevent larger, out-of-control fires? Examples are not just from the Southwest, but also from Florida (more) and the Pacific Northwest.
  • What’s the status of funding Forest Service to fight the forest die-off that is helping fuel wildfires?
  • How does vegetation and wildlife change after wildfires?
  • What the source of beetle and caterpillar infestations that have killed off millions of trees, not just in the Southwest, but in Southern New England as well.

REPORTING RESOURCES: Dig deeper on the wildfire story using more than a dozen fire-related resources in the database of the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation.

  • For California-specific information, check Cal-Adapt for wildfire risk maps and case studies, and see the state’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment for infographics on the history of wildfires and 2085 wildfire projections.
  • U.S.-wide information and data on wildfires can be found at U.S. Forest Service Climate Resource Center, where there are links to database tools and to research about likely changes and options for management; at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s site on climate change indicators, under “ecosystems;” and at the U.S. National Park Service’s climate and wildland fire resources pages
  • Check state-by-state wildfire preparedness plans through the “States at Risk Report Card.”
  • Check Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program to see if your city is one of the half dozen that face wildfires. Use the “selected cities” database and search for wildfires under “challenge.”
  • Read about the connection between climate change, development and wildfire in the West in the Union of Concerned Scientists 2014 “Playing with Fire” report.
  • Plus, watch a brief video explainer on climate change and wildfires.

Know of other wildfire-related resources we should have in our database? Share your resources here. And share your own wildfire stories, story angles and questions to ask.

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on June 27, 2016