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article imageNorthwest U.S. faces increased wildfire risk from global warming

By Karen Graham     Aug 4, 2019 in Environment
The fire season typically doesn't become a big threat until late summer and into fall for the U.S. Northwest, a region famous for its rainfall. However, the Pacific Northwest faces an increased risk of significant wildfires due to global warming.
Issaquah, Washington. is located 15 miles east-southeast of Seattle, Washington, and is surrounded on three sides by what is known locally as the Issaquah Alps: Cougar Mountain on the west, Squak Mountain to the south, and Tiger Mountain to the southeast.
Issaquah has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate, with chilly, extremely wet winters and warm, moderately humid summers. Although there is no dry season in Issaquah, winters are many times wetter than the summers. This region famous for its rainfall has long escaped major burns, unlike other regions of the American West.
As an example, in July this year, Seattle and its suburbs had only five days of high temperatures reaching into the 80s. Seattle also exceeded its normal monthly rainfall in just the first 15 days of the month.
Shops on Sunset Way  in Issaquah  Washington. (April 2009).
Shops on Sunset Way, in Issaquah, Washington. (April 2009).
Joe Mabel
Increased risk of significant wildfires
The National Interagency Fire Center is warning of an increased risk of fires in late summer and early fall in Western Washington, with the threat now including regions east of the Cascades. This increased risk of wildfires is due to global warming bringing higher temperatures, lower humidity and longer stretches of drought.
The Pacific Northwest is unique in that property owners are often less prepared for fire than those in drier places and more homes are constructed close to forests than in any other western state. Quite often, as in California, heavy vegetation spills over into backyards with some even rubbing up alongside homes. Many neighborhoods are built along one mountain road, with no other escape route to get out in case of an emergency.
"The only thing that's keeping it from going off like a nuclear bomb is the weather," said Chris Dicus, a professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and head of the Association for Fire Ecology, a national group that studies wildfire and includes experts from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey.
Historically, the swath of densely forested coastal territory stretching from British Columbia into northwestern Oregon has had short summers, while cloaked in a veil of moist, humid air. However, the climate crisis is changing the region's seasons.
The National Climate Assessment prepared by 13 federal agencies and released in 2018 said the Pacific Northwest had warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. "Forests in the interior Northwest are changing rapidly because of increasing wildfire and insect and disease damage, attributed largely to a changing climate," reads the report.
The report continued: "The prevalence of wildfires, insect infestations, disease epidemics, and drought-induced dieback of Northwest forests have heightened forestry managers’ awareness of potential climate change impacts. Over the long term, these sustained impacts are projected to fundamentally alter forest composition and land cover."
A new approach to housing is needed  say experts  after the town of Paradise was engulfed in the Cam...
A new approach to housing is needed, say experts, after the town of Paradise was engulfed in the Camp Fire
Josh Edelson, AFP/File
Michael Medler, a fire scientist and chair of the environmental studies department at Western Washington University, said, "Those are the kinds of changes that amount to taking a forest and pushing it over the edge."
Medler also pointed out the residential sprawl radiating from cities in the Northwest's coastal corridor, such as Seattle, toward the Cascade Mountains, which define the region's eastern edge and stretch from Canada into Oregon. "The ones that keep me awake at night are places like Issaquah," said Medler.
The risks all boil down to a lack of good data on the fire risks of previously wet forests. There just hasn't been that many fires in the past. This means that fire and forestry officials have a little time to lay out their plan of operation. And the experts all agree: "Global warming is changing the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest, in ways that will make its forests more likely to burn."
More about Global warming, northwest US, wildfire risk, National Interagency Fire Center, national climate assessment
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