During the summer of 2010 I had the privilege of being an interpretive intern at Glacier National Park in Montana. One of my responsibilities as an intern was to create and give a campground talk about some aspect of Glacier National Park. After much contemplation and help from fellow interpretive rangers I developed a program entitled “Delightful Disturbances.” The hour-long program focused on how fire and avalanches can actually be beneficial to the Glacier ecosystem. While I still stand by all the assertions I made when I gave this program once a week throughout the summer of 2010, it is important to realize that our climate is changing. Just five years after I stood in the St. Mary valley in the eastern section of Glacier National Park informing visitors that wildfires HELP the ecosystem, the east side of Glacier was pummeled with the Reynolds Creek Fire, consuming nearly 3000 acres. And while this fire attracted the attention of many National Park goers, it was not the only wildfire burning this summer.
As of September 2, according to an article in The Washington Post (see link at the end of this post), over 8 million acres have been burned so far this year. 2006 currently holds the record for most acreage burned by wildfires, however, in early September of 2006 about 7.5 million acres had burned, while 2015 has already seen over 8 million acres consumed, and there are still fires burning. Check out the active fire map to see where fires are still burning out west!! --> http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us
So what does this have to do with climate change? While wildfires are not a direct result of climate change, climate change creates perfect conditions for wildfires. As many locations in the western United States see a decrease in precipitation, and an increase in temperature, fires are raging.
While I am originally from the east coast, and wildfires were rarely mentioned, I am currently living in Moscow, Idaho. For over a week our town was inundated with smoke from surrounding fires. Air quality reached hazardous levels, and there weren’t any fires burning for miles. Now imagine all of the people living in towns close to the fires, all the people evacuated, everyone who lost their homes.
As a young, interpretive ranger intern it was easy for me to give a cheery little talk about why wildfires are so great, but as our climate is changing, as wildfires are becoming more common and burning more and more acres, the argument that wildfires are good for the ecosystem seems slightly naïve, and simplified.
Learn more about the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park:
Washington Post article on 2015 wildfire season:
Check out Smokey the Climate Scientist video: