Climate change is contributing to the large wildfires that western states like New Mexico are experiencing, and scientists say humans need to make changes to prevent worse fire risks.
New Mexico’s largest wildfire in recorded history surpassed 300,000 acres this week and it is not the only large fire burning as the state experiences hot, dry conditions and very low humidity.
A study published this month in the journal Ecology Letters found that wildfire risks are going to increase in states like New Mexico. By the end of the century, the study states that “high levels of fire risk, which were historically confined to pockets in California and the intermountain western US, are projected to expand across the entire western US.”
William Anderegg, a University of Utah associate professor, is one of the co-authors who led the study.
As he was studying climate stress and risks, Anderegg said it was a bit surprising, and also depressing, how much the fire risk increased in high climate change scenarios. But, he said, there is also good news in those models as well. In scenarios where society aggressively acts to address climate change, “we can avoid a huge amount of fire risk.”
“This really tells us the future of fire season is, in large part, in our hands,” he said.
Matthew Hurteau, a professor at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, said climate change is one of the factors contributing to the wildfires that the state is currently experiencing.
“The severity of the fires are happening as a consequence of our decisions as humans over the last 100 plus years,” Hurteau said.
He said those decisions include excluding fire from the landscape as well as burning of fossil fuels.
“Humans are responsible for the situation we’re in and we have to work together to reduce the risks,” he said.
Wildfires can have compounding impacts. Anderegg said, in addition to the potential for loss of human lives and property, fires can have economic and health impacts.
“Things like air quality impacts from all this fire smoke have huge effects on our health, both locally and downwind, which these days is large swaths of the country,” he said.
Carbon offset programs may not take into account climate change
The study in Ecology Letters modeled climate stress, including wildfires and insect-related tree mortalities.
Study co-author Oriana Chegwidden, a scientist who works for the nonprofit CarbonPlan, said one of the reasons behind the modeling was to determine how climate stress will impact the carbon offset programs. Carbon offsets allow companies to buy projects intended to offset the emissions they produce. This practice has come under scrutiny in recent years.
While forests can sequester carbon, they release it when burned.
The authors write that their study highlights the need to answer various questions about the carbon offset market. Without those questions being answered, the offset programs may not be making as much of a difference as they are intended to make.
Anderegg said most of the forest carbon offset protocols assume that risks such as drought, fire and pathogens are equal and uniform across the country. He said that is not true.
He said the protocols do not rely on rigorous science and he would like to see things like their study being used to inform those protocols.
During an interview, Chegwidden pulled up graphs from the study that show the projected possible increases in things like climate stress and fires based on region. She pointed to the projections for fires, which show increased risks in all regions of the country. However, the greatest risks are in California and the southwest.
The projections for the southeastern United States do not show as sharp of increases in fire risks, however it shows that fire risks in the southeast in the future could be similar to what California currently experiences, she said.
How does climate change correlate with forest fires?
New Mexico State climatologist David Dubois said that the continuing drought, warm temperatures and increased risk of wildfires are the “fingerprint of climate change.”
He said models show fire season shifting earlier in the year in New Mexico, as was seen this year. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire started in early April, about a month before fire season typically starts.
Dubois said “the atmosphere is really thirsty right now,” meaning more water will evaporate. High temperatures combined with extremely low humidity—some recent measurements have shown levels as low as one percent—means that the state is drying out.
“The additional heat that we’re putting in the atmosphere is causing changes,” Hurteau said.
Hurteau also said that some of these changes are happening at a faster rate than projected.
He said the scientific community and the forest managers need to collaborate to figure out quickly what steps can be taken, such as what tools researchers can provide to improve forecasts and improve the ability to safely implement prescribed burns.
Hurteau said the winter moisture helps forests be less flammable until the monsoons come, but there have been two consecutive dry winters.
“These forests are quite a bit drier than they have been in the past,” he said. “Basically, with less moisture in the system, a lot more of the vegetation is available to burn because it’s not holding all that water.”
Climate change, coupled with past management decisions such as excluding fire from landscapes, contribute to increasing risks of wildfires, he said.
The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is burning Ponderosa pine forests. Hurteau said before management practices excluded fire from those forests, they would burn on a regular basis.
Preparing for the next fire
Hurteau said people need to think about ecosystems and “how we live in them.” He said when people build homes they should think about what the materials are that they are using and how they can make homes less flammable. From a forest management perspective, he said people need to think about how the land can be managed after the fire is done burning to reduce the risks of future fires.
“There’s no silver bullet solution to this problem,” Hurteau said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort in a lot of different areas. It’s how we live and operate these landscapes. It’s how we manage the landscape. It’s a number of factors and it’s really going to take all of us contributing to those solutions in order to decrease the chance that this sort of thing happens in the future.”
Antonio Maestas, culture and equity manager for Conservation Voters of New Mexico, headed to the communities impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in part to help his girlfriend’s grandfather clear dead brush and trees from his property as the fire approaches and in part to volunteer in the community, such as serving hot meals.
As someone who was impacted by the Dog Head Fire in 2016 and had to leave his home for two weeks because of it, Maestas sympathizes with what the residents of Mora, San Miguel, Colfax and Taos counties who have had to evacuate are experiencing.
“There are a lot of people from the community who are not going to evacuate. And the reason why they’re not going to evacuate, is to protect their land to protect their homes,” he said.
Maestas explained that the fire is impacting traditional communities, including land grant communities. He said some of those families have been there for generations and they feel a deeply personal commitment to protecting their land and homes. Maestas is also from a land grant community and, he said, traditional land management practices such as thinning the forests and grazing to remove dense undergrowth can help.
When the Dog Head Fire burned through his community, Maestas said places where the traditional community had implemented those practices did not burn as badly.
“It will be a lot easier to stop the fire if there’s not a ton of overgrowth,” he said.
As the fires continue to char landscapes in New Mexico and other parts of the western United States, U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, and Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, introduced the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act on Thursday that is intended to help prepare for the next fire. If passed, it will lead to additional investments in research and development. It will also set up warning and forecast systems, develop observation and sensing technologies and standardize data collection efforts.
“The federal science agencies have a crucial role to play in improving how the nation understands, anticipates, and responds to wildland fires, but several of these agencies currently have no defined authority or mandate to do so,” Luján said in a press release. “This legislation addresses this gap and improves the entire Federal approach to wildland fires. The wildfires currently raging in northern New Mexico are the largest in our state’s history – burning nearly 300,000 acres. It is critical that Congress invest in our understanding of and response to this devastating type of natural disaster so that we can increase fire resiliency and protect New Mexicans from these increasingly catastrophic wildfires.”
Anderegg said forest management policies need to change.
“It’s really becoming clear that we need to plan forest management for a future with climate change,” Anderegg said. “And we need to be thinking about everywhere we can be proactive in managing for climate reliance and not reactive and just responding every fire season.”