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5 Things to Know as Wildfire Season Heats Up • The Revelator
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5 Things to Know as Wildfire Season Heats Up • The Revelator

Grassland fire and firefighting effort


Scientists noticed a plume smoke rising from the ground in May. smoldering sequoia that ignited during 2020’s Castle fire, which set California’s Sequoia National Forest alight last August.

Experts believe the fiery remnant is a result of another California winter that was too dry. It also signals the start of the 2021 fire season. looks “grim”California and the West.

March and April were the driest months in more than 126 year for Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, respectively, and the third- and fourth driest for California, Colorado, and California. Oregon had its driest ever April, however. Things will continue to be both. hotter and drierAccording to the National Interagency Fire Center, there was more fires than usual in the West and Plains.

Climate change is driving this combination. record-breaking wildfiresLast year. This year could be just as similar.

“More frequent drought, hotter summers and warmer and drier autumns, tied to climate change, are stacking the deck for large and destructive fires during the heart of the fire season,” The Washington Post reported. “And this year, a lack of rain in spring could mean fires arrive early in some areas.”

More research is also being conducted due to an increase in fires. Here’s what scientists have found recently about how wildfires are affecting ecology and communities:

1. California’s Troubling Trends

If it seems like wildfire danger is getting worse in California, that’s on target.

A new studyPublished in Nature Scientific ReportsThe frequency and area of wildfires in California has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. The wildfire season is longer and the peak occurs a month earlier.

Researchers also discovered geographic changes. “Hotspots” with severe fire risk — once limited to Los Angeles County — are now found in other parts of Southern California and across northern parts of the state. “Natural wildfires became more concentrated in Northern California,” the researchers found. But “human-caused wildfires have even emerged [in] new hot spots…along the west coast and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.”

Climate change and human land-use activities are the major drivers of these increases, but the expansion of the “wildland-urban interface” and continued development now also put more people and property in the way, according to the study.

2. Midwest Flames

The West isn’t the only part of the country battling increasing blazes. On April 5, Wisconsin declared a state of emergency as wildfire season began two weeks earlier than expected.

“Between 2016 and 2020, Wisconsin averaged 742 fires per year and lost 1,200 acres to fires,” The Guardian reported. Just four months into the year, there were already 366 fires that covered 1,518 acres.

The state is likely to experience its largest fire season in five decades.

3. Learn from Australia

All things are relative, of course.

California wildfires destroyed 4 million acres last year. That’s dwarfed by the 46 million acres consumed in Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires.

Wildfire is an important part of many ecosystems in Australia, and it can be beneficial for certain species. But research is beginning to show some of the short-term effects of Australia’s recent fires on plants and wildlife.

Koala in tree
A Koala resting in a tree in front of the Tambo Complex bushfire, Australia, Jan. 2020. Photo by BLMIdaho. (CC BY 2.0)

Recent researchThe critical habitat of over 830 native vertebrate species was also affected. Almost one third of the range of 70 species was lost and 21 of those species were already at risk of extinction.

Another study found that more than 800 vascular plant species were “highly impacted.” The ranges for 116 species were entirely burned and another 173 lost 90% of their habitat.

“The megafires occurred within globally significant biodiversity hotspots with high richness and endemism across important plant groups,” the researchers wrote.

Although many affected plants are resilient to fires, researchers warn that not all areas will be able to recover. “The massive biogeographic, demographic and taxonomic breadth of impacts of the 2019–2020 fires may leave some ecosystems, particularly relictual Gondwanan rainforests, susceptible to regeneration failure and landscape-scale decline,” they wrote.

4. Landscapes are changing

There are also landscape-scale changes due to climate change and wildfires elsewhere. A studyPublished in Ecosphere found that when a wildfire in southwest Colorado’s Rocky Mountains follows a severe bark beetle outbreak, Engelmann spruce trees are unable to recover.

The loss of conifers following that one-two punch is likely to lead to more quaking aspens taking root, and a possible shift in forest type — and the species that depend on those trees.

California is experiencing significant changes, especially in chaparral. That ecosystem is made up of assemblages of native woody shrubs found along many of the state’s coastal foothills and inland mountain slopes. The natural interval for fire return to chaparral is between 30 and 150 years, but in some places that’s been shortened to just 10 years.

Some species are not able to adapt to this change. Chaparral shrubs are being replaced in some cases by weedy, annual grasses. This leads to more fires in an unfortunate feedback loop.

An increase in fires in chaparral is also threatening an important part of the ecosystem. This is lichen. They play a key role retaining moisture in soil and providing food to wildlife.

A new study found that while most lichen don’t survive wildfires in chaparral, they can recolonize in the decades following. However, with fires happening more frequently, we’re likely to see “substantial lichen biodiversity losses in chaparral shrublands.”

5. Fighting Fire with Fire

Parts of California’s chaparral may be seeing too much fire, but other areas are still in fire deficits after a century of fire suppression policies. However, land managers are starting to realize that bringing fire back into the landscape can be a useful tool.

prescribed burn
Aja Conrad (Karuk Tribe Environmental Workforce Development & Internships Division Coordinator) uses a drip torch to light a prescribed burn in Orleans, CA. (Photo: Jenny Staats)

Indigenous communities knew this already and have used cultural burning practices since the beginning of time. Tribes such as the Yurok and Hoopa in Northern California are sharing some of this Indigenous environmental knowledge.

However, there are still many hurdles to prescribed burns. These include air-quality regulations as well as the funding and capacity to implement projects.

Want to find out more? Below you’ll find a selection of stories on wildfire from The Revelator’sArchive

Here’s What Climate Change Means for Wildfires in the West

Western Wildfires Will Be a Boon for These Native Species

The Bad Seeds: Are Wildfire Recovery Efforts Hurting Biodiversity?

How Do We Solve Our Wildfire Challenges?

The Pantanal Is in Flames — We Mapped the Damage

Australia’s Bushfires: An Extinction Crisis Decades in the Making

Four Ways Alaska’s Unending Warming Impacts Everyone

California Tribe Hopes to Conquer Climate Woes — With Fire

How One of Australia’s Rarest Trees Was Saved From Wildfires

The Climate Flames Come for Us All

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The deputy editor of The RevelatorShe has been working as a digital editor, environmental journalist, and digital editor for more than a decade. Her work was published by The Nation. American Prospect. High Country News. Grist. Pacific StandardAmong others. She is also the editor of two books about the global water crisis.

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