Does Attribution Matter? Climate, Houses, Historic Fire Suppression and Wildfires

Bystander looks at Buffalo Fire (photo courtesy of CBS Denver)

It’s unlikely that we can attribute damage from wildfires to climate change without including previous suppression and fuel buildup, more houses, changing suppression policies, more human-caused ignitions and so on in the mix of proximate causes. But it’s interesting when people bring it up.

Let’s take a look at this article…from the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Wildfires highlight ‘new norm’

Though different, blazes in Summit and La Plata counties deliver same message about how Colorado must act

The start of the 416 fire north of Durango, as seen from the Glacier Club on U.S. 550.

On the morning of June 12, the sky over Summit County filled with glowing clouds of black smoke in just minutes. Summit County Fire & EMS received hundreds of 911 calls. By midday, thousands had been told to evacuate.

But what seemed like a certain catastrophe was halted by fire breaks built in the years after the pine beetle epidemic. These clear-cuts, which stretch about 500 feet from the subdivisions into the national forest, kept the Buffalo fire at 91 acres. Within five days of the fire starting, containment was at 75 percent.

It has been a different story in La Plata County.

Nine hours after the 416 fire started June 1 north of Durango, it had consumed 1,100 acres. By that Saturday morning, officials reported it had grown to 8,691 acres. Overnight, it exploded, doubling in size to 16,766 acres.

Just 20 percent contained nearly three weeks after it started, the 416 fire is at 32,959 acres. Another wildfire in the area — the Burro fire — has threatened to merge with the 416 fire, growing to 3,484 acres since it started June 11. It remains only 10 percent contained.

While different, the fires in Summit and La Plata counties have the same message for Colorado and the West: there’s no time to waste dealing with climate change and the wildfires it’s fueling.


The new norm’

Once the fire is out, the danger doesn’t end. Denuded burn scars are vulnerable to flash flooding and severe sedimentation, which threaten homes, watersheds and other infrastructure.

While most people rejoiced Saturday when a light rain began to fall in La Plata County, Office of Emergency Management Director Butch Knowlton warned residents not to let their guard down.

“We have totally exposed soils right now with no water retention capability,” he said. “When that water comes, it picks up debris, ash and other floatable material like rocks and branches and dumps it into the lower-lying areas. Those areas are private properties.”

He continued: “It’s critical people be alert and understand that you might not be near the fire perimeter but are still in danger. It’s not a time to be complacent.”

The Forest Service is in contact with emergency rehabilitation specialists and is “ready to ramp up mitigation,” Hooley said.

Beyond the summer, many fear that the pairing of a low snowpack winter and high fire danger summer that is exacerbated by climate change is becoming the new norm.

“If this is an anomalous year, it’s not too big of a concern,” said Stevens-Rumann. “But based on climate projections, this is the new norm.”

Blake said, “We’re absolutely concerned about how climate change will impact Colorado tourism industries. We need to get out in front of it.”

The article also mentions the difficulties of fighting fires in wilderness and roadless areas. Could this be another one of the many causes of large problematic fires.. more Wilderness and roadless?

With exactly the same facts, someone could have written the story without climate change as a cause “to protect the recreation industry we need to get better control of fires in the summer.” The only way to do that is to do fuel breaks a la Summit County and prescribed burning. If the answer is the same in terms of what to do, what difference does it make in this case, what percentage is due to climate change versus the other causes?

7 thoughts on “Does Attribution Matter? Climate, Houses, Historic Fire Suppression and Wildfires”

  1. You’ve missed commercial/industrial logging in your list of where to “attribute damage from wildfires.” Seems that a bunch of science and research supports adding it to the list, also.

    I’d also argue that we have significantly less “Wilderness and roadless” then we had 25 years ago, 75 years ago or 200 years ago in the U.S.

    • Matthew, please provide documentation to support your assertion that there is significantly less wilderness and roadless now than in the last 25, 75 and 200 years. Thanks in advance.

      • “Few areas of the earth’s surface have experienced as extensive and dramatic a change in their fauna and for a as the mid-latitude forests and grasslands of eastern North America.” Whitney, G. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America, 1500 to the Present. Nature 374:24-24 · January 1995.

        One of the most striking patterns is the decreasing size and increasing intermixing of wildland classes from north to south. Most of the predominantly wild areas are in the boreal forests, tundra, and arctic deserts of Canada and Alaska. Most of the rest, and most extensive-use rural landscapes, are located in the western United States and northern Mexico.

        Given the strong latitudinal gradient in species density (Figure 2A) and the patterns described above, the biodiversity analysis is not surprising. Table 4 shows the distribution of wildland classes by species diversity zones. Areas with the highest species densities also have the highest proportion of their land areas in the mixed- and intensive-use rural classes. Conversely, most of the highest quality wildlands are located in landscapes with fewer than 1,000 species per 10,000 km2 .

        Duane A. Griffin. 2002. HOW MUCH OF NORTH AMERICA IS STILL WILD?
        2002 Applied Geography Conference, Binghamton, NY

  2. At least in the second section, and commonly in articles about fires, the emphasis is on the weather conditions that contributed to the fire – what was different this year that caused this to happen now (given all the other ongoing circumstances). I don’t think that is surprising, nor is it surprising that reporters now want to include the climate in that attribution. It also aligns with the research that says bad fires are mostly the result of the weather conditions.


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