New report highlights the environmental cost of wildfires - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

New report highlights the environmental cost of wildfires

The Valley View Fire in Spokane Valley, July 2008 The Valley View Fire in Spokane Valley, July 2008
Forest fire in Siberia. Courtesy: Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, The University of Arizona Forest fire in Siberia. Courtesy: Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, The University of Arizona
Professor Thomas W. Swetnam, The University of Arizona Professor Thomas W. Swetnam, The University of Arizona

SPOKANE, Wash. - Wildfires are a fact of life for people around the world, across the country and right here in Washington. The fires which cost millions to fight and can do millions of dollars in damage might have an even more drastic cost when it comes to the environment. It cost the state $3.5 million to fight the Valley View Fire in Spokane Valley during July of 2008 according to an April article in The Spokesman-Review.

A new report in the scientific research journal Science says that wildfires are part of a dangerous feedback loop that increases global warming. Lead by Professor Thomas W. Swetnam from the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research a team of 22 researchers from around the world have concluded that "fire's potent and pervasive effects on ecosystems and on many Earth processes, including climate change, have been underestimated."

Their research follows up on a study released in 2006 that says the number and size of large forest fires in the West have grown "suddenly and dramatically" in the past two decades in part because of global warming. The paper analyzed 1,166 large forest fires from 1970 to 2004 on federal land in the Western US. There were four times as many forest fires in the latter half of that period according to an article in USA Today. That study which also involved Swetnam did not address the cause of climate warming -- only the effect it has had on forest fires. The newest study starts where it left off identifying fire as a "primary catalyst of global climate change."

What's a "primary catalyst"? According to the new study fires combined to release nearly half the amount of carbon dioxide which is sent into the atmosphere by the combustion of fossil fuels.  Speaking to Science Daily Swetnam said, "Fires are obviously one of the major responses to climate change, but fires are not only a response -- they feed back to warming, which feeds more fires."

The report's 22 authors are using it as a call to action for researchers and governments around the world to refocus their attention on the causes of global warming. They're asking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to recognize the overarching role of fire in global climate change and to incorporate fire better into future models and reports about climate change.

The report also calls for a fundamental shift in how fires are studied. The report's timing is especially pertinent - lead co-author one of three lead co-authors, Jennifer K. Balch is based at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California where a wildfire this week has destroyed numerous homes, burned at least 500 acres and injured at least three people. Balch says we don't think about fires in the right way telling Science Daily,  "Fire is as elemental as air or water. We live on a fire planet. We are a fire species. Yet, the study of fire has been very fragmented. We know lots about the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, but we know very little about the fire cycle, or how fire cycles through the biosphere."

The findings of Swetnam's two studies aren't universally accepted. In fact there are differing opinions about the impact that global warming has on the number and severity of wildfires. Doyle Rice, environment writer for USA Today cites a new study in the journal Ecological Monographs. Rice writes, "scientists found that changes in vegetation trumped past climate changes in determining wildfire frequency, based on research into Alaskan forests." In an interview with USA Today study author Tom Brown of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California said "vegetation can have a profound impact on fire occurrences that are opposite or independent of climate's direct influence on fire."

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