Hell on Earth: Inching toward an endless fire season

As wildfires increase globally due to climate change and Arizona’s drying conditions worsen, ASU researchers pose questions as to how conservation is approached

With fires forcing almost 1,500 people to evacuate their homes, Arizona’s unusually high almanac of fires broke records this summer, leading researchers to break down the best ways to combat this phenomenon.

The state is home to one of the areas most susceptible to urban heating, with concrete and asphalt trapping heat in highly populated cities; the dry environments of forests and deserts in the area are not immune to threats of burning.

Jeffrey Klopatek, ASU emeritus professor and ecosystems ecologist, stated that the drying of ecosystems in Arizona is brought on by the changing climate, in turn lengthening what is referred to as "fire season." Klopatek fears that in the coming years, the season will continue to consume more months, with a decrease in usual monsoon season rains failing to halt the occurrence.

Although this year’s increased fire activity has been largely attributed to record-breaking heat and the constant incline of climate change effects and increasing greenhouse gases, fire expert and emeritus professor at ASU Stephen Pyne is a proponent of deeper inquiry when it comes to the increased prevalence of wildfires and the cycles that impede any hopes of decline.

Pyne has long been cited as journalists’ “go-to expert” on all things fire, with over 30 books published and an appearance on TED2015 in a video titled “How fire shapes everything.” The conservation specialist has become the face of a movement for some, leading audiences to dig past climate change as the source of increasing wildfires and refocus attention on the actions that first caused the planet to heat.

Pyne described fire like a virus: not living, “but it propagates through dependence.” He said efforts to combat climate change are good, but that simultaneously ignoring the things that lead to mass amounts of combustion of fossil fuels is counterproductive.

Pyne cited a crisis that erupted in the ‘60s as the start of a shift in the culture of combating fires globally. Although many fires that occurred in the state this year were caused by lightning strikes, the fossil fuels used even in fire combating efforts can contribute to climate change.

“If you took away all of our airplanes and helicopters, all the engines and the bulldozers, and you took away all the pumps and chainsaws, what would you have?” Pyne said. “Could we pretend to fight fire in the way we do? No.”


The effects of resources 

In early July, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Gov. Doug Ducey announced a new framework to increase coordination and cooperation to address forest health risks and wildfires across the state, according to a press release. The plan would accelerate the pace and scale of projects like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a statewide strategy for restoring Arizona’s forests.

Prescribed fires and mechanically thinning trees have been used to help aid in forest restoration in Arizona as a part of the program in the past. According to the USDA website, these projects have been successful, but the acres treated have not been sufficient to significantly reduce the threat of large-scale fires.

But creating a framework for combating one of the world’s most pressing issues is not something that can be done without understanding exactly who is creating these cycles.

A 2017 report by CDP Global, an international nonprofit organization, attributed 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the previous two decades to just 100 fossil fuel producers. The U.S. passed Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons in the world in 2013.

Klopatek said low income communities are the hardest hit, referencing farmworkers as an example of persons performing labor in dangerous conditions without proper equipment and resources.

“They've had to go out and work in a pandemic,” he said of agricultural workers in Yuma. “Then they go home and they're in these deplorable air conditions. These low-income communities don’t have airtight houses, and it's the fires that are exacerbating the situation.”

Klopatek said a lack of high quality housing and PPE during the coronavirus pandemic paired with increased wildfires create extremely hazardous environments to people’s health.

Douglas Lawton, doctoral candidate and faculty member for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said politicians who deny climate change can get in the way of breaching the gap between their supporters and the research that supports climate change.

“Some city officials have to say, ‘This doesn't happen only every two decades or so, this is happening every single year. How do we actually make amends for that? How do we fix this without actually saying climate change is real?’”

Klopatek said he’s never seen anything like this and that researchers are sure the expansion of the fire season in coming years will create damage more difficult to reverse.

“When you hear the governor talking about a climate changing fire, it's not only the governor, it's the Forest Service,” Klopatek said. “It's the meteorologist, it’s the science community, and they're saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this, and this has been increasing over the last 10 and 20 years.’”

Pyne said he is accustomed to reporters reaching out to him for quotes when a wildfire occurs, but that the sensationalism usually does not last long enough to dive deeper into the shift in mentality required to make a change.

“Fire is news as long as it’s in the headlines,” he said.

Relearning the dangers 

Lawton grew up in North Carolina and said he resonates with those college students who move into a large metropolitan area and live unobservant of wildfires away from the city.

As an ecological expert, Lawton says he stays attentive to fires in the area, but that he understands how both graduate and undergraduate students can feel as though they are unaffected by climate changes.

“It’s kind of a bubble, like it will take me about 30 to 40 minutes to get to anywhere that seemingly more, quote-unquote, native or undisturbed,” Lawton said.

He does most of his work in Australia where a very stochastic rainfall regime stands in sharp contrast to the dominant monsoonal season of Arizona that seems to be missing rainfall this time around.

Lawton said the use of prescribed fires in dry land is vital, especially when drying forests create an environment where a fire can quickly spark up from a lightning strike and take over heavily forested areas.

“A lot of animals, a lot of plants have evolved and depend on these fires happening; it's the rate of the fires that is the biggest issue.”

Prescribed fires were banned in California in 1850 and were not reimplemented until the 1960s when trees stopped growing in California’s forests.

Since then there has been an increased understanding that dense forests create conditions for insect and disease outbreaks, high-intensity wildfires and an unsustainable environment for our forested ecosystems, according to the USDA website.

Halting the use of prescribed fires reflected colonization and a lack of trust in the practices Native people used to care for land. Pyne said the unnatural use of fires in place of prescribed fires has become a part of a culture tied to mass consumerism.

“All the old boundaries are gone. I mean you could burn day and night, winter and summer, rain or shine, doesn't matter,” Pyne said. “It's essentially unbounded.”

Prescribed fires have become common in some forest management agencies in recent years, allowing them to see the land as a renewable resource.

“Humanity is a unique fire creature,” Pyne said, “using our ability to control combustion and in some ways, to shape the world. ”


Reach the reporter at ivcrespo@asu.edu or follow @ziacrespo on Twitter. 

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