Smokey the Bear in the era of climate change
Last Sunday, Smokey the Bear, America’s venerable protector of the forest, celebrated his 70th birthday. Conceived and introduced at the outset of World War II to ward off anticipated attacks on our Nation’s forests, Smokey, over the course of seven decades, has become the iconic symbol of an American wilderness protected, safe and secure from forest fires. But, despite a level of popularity surpassed only by that of Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse – in this age of mega-wildfires – some suggest Smokey has outlived his usefulness and should be put out to pasture. As a Californian residing at the base of the Santa Clara foothills, I couldn’t disagree more.
When the Obama Administration released the Third National Climate Assessment in May of this year, the report was justifiably hailed for pinpointing how climate change is already affecting every region of the U.S. Contained in the report was the dire prediction that human induced climate change will cause the Southwestern section of the U.S. to bake – resulting in long, sustained periods of drought and creating conditions that foster major wildfires.
These findings were corroborated less than three months later with the Risky Business Report, a “comprehensive assessment of the economic risks our nation faces from the changing climate.” Devised to apply a risk assessment to the critical issue of climate change, the Risky Business Report examines specific sectors of the U.S. economy and finds that the Southwest states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and California – will incur anywhere from one to two dozen additional days of 95° temperature by mid-century – increasing the probability of extreme wildfires and extensive drought.
Forest fires in the Southwestern United States have been igniting with greater frequency for decades. For those who live in this region of the country, the ever-present threat of fire comes with the territory. However, today, wildfires are more dangerous, more intense and the wildfire season is longer in duration. Since the time of Lewis and Clark, the National Interagency Fire Center has designated only 78 fires as “historically significant." 25 of those fires have occurred since 2000. Of those 25, 13 occurred geographically in the Southwest region of the United States.
Last August, the Rim Fire threatening Yosemite National Park burned 256,428 acres, took 5,000 firefighters two months to extinguish and cost taxpayers $127,350 Million. Two month earlier, 19 firefighters lost their lives trying to control a blaze ignited by a single lightning strike in the high desert near Yarnell, Arizona – resulting in the highest loss of life among U.S. firefighters battling an active wildfire since 1933. To understand how an arbitrary lightning strike against a desiccated landscape set in motion the circumstances that cut short the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mount Hotshot Crew, read Brian Mockenhaupt’s Fire on the Mountain. Bring tissues. Then, get angry.
In eight of the last ten years, the escalating cost to extinguish wildfires has exceeded the amount allocated in the federal budget. To cover the deficits when these overruns occur, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior rob Peter-to-pay-Paul – slicing and dicing prevention program budgets that focus on maintaining the health of America’s forests to buck-up emergency suppression efforts.
The Federal government predicted in May that it would spend $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year, $470 million more than allotted by Congress. In the wake of the release of both the NCA and the Risky Business report and citing prevailing trends, President Obama requested additional, emergency funds to fight wildfires. This request followed an earlier proposal from the White House seeking to reclassify extreme wildfires as ‘natural disasters’ and reconfigure the funding mechanism for how the Federal government pays for extinguishing wildfires of the most severe kind. A fact sheet explaining the White House’s strategy for supporting Western governors as they deal with wildfire, drought, and other climate impacts is available here.
Despite rock-solid support for the President’s proposal from the Western Governor’s Association, and bipartisan support from key members of the House and Senate, Congress adjourned for summer recess refusing to open its wallet. Writing in the New York Times, Timothy Egan found it hard to hide his distain and outrage; he was not alone. The editors of the Salt City Lake Tribune expressed their exasperation, here. Brutally succinct, the editors of the Idaho’s Twin Falls Times-News wrote the whole incident off as “pointless political gamesmanship.”
Early this week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell paid a visit to California’s Wildland Fire Operations Center to underscore the urgent need to adopt President Obama's wildfire funding proposal. Her visit followed proclamations made by three neighboring governors, Kitzhaber of Oregon, Inslee of Washington and Brown of California, calling for a State of Emergency to fight dozens of significant wildfires that are actively destroying homes, forcing evacuations and threatening people’s lives.
“Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been Smokey the Bear’s tag line for over 70 years. In light of our warming planet, isn’t it about time that the ‘you’ in Smokey’s signature catch-phrase took on greater social significance and became perceived by all of us as the ‘collective we’.
Video of the Week
CLIMATE CHANGE & WILDFIRES EXPLAINED IN LESS THAN THREE MINUTES. The White House. Source: You Tube, uploaded on August 2, 2014.
Quotes of the Week
“As we send billions and billions of tons of heat-trapping gases, we get heat and we get fires and we get what we’re seeing … humanity is on a collision course with nature and we’re just going to have to adapt to it in the best way we can.” California Governor Jerry Brown, linking California’s severe drought and wildfires to climate change on ABC’s This Week earlier this May.
"There hasn't been a break … It's almost a 12-month fire season." Battalion Chief Kevin Taylor of the Paso Robles Fire Department reflecting on what’s become the elongated length of California’s wildfire season.
“It starts with the drought. The grass, the brush and the trees – not only in San Diego County, really across California – are really dry.” CAL Fire Spokesman Daniel Berlant identifying what’s causing another treacherous wildfire season in California.
"Folks are telling me we can't use historic fire behavior anymore to predict future fire behaviors. Everything's changed." Jerry Perez, Director of the Bureau of Land Management for Oregon and Washington.
“…flares will die down. What can’t be so easily dismissed is what the fires say about an emerging American ethos of delaying long-term fixes for our major problems.” Timothy Egan on the reluctance of the Federal and state governments to confront the new normal – intense destructive wildfires in the Western United States.
"I see this as one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States." A statement made in 2006 by Thomas Swetnam, Director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, linking the growth in frequency and intensity of wildfires to climate change.
•VIDEO. PASSAGE: SMOKEY THE BEAR. CBS Sunday Morning. August 10, 2014.
• SMOKEY BEAR TURNS 70, BUT DON'T BRING CANDLES. USA Today. August 8, 2014.
•SEPTUAGENARIAN SMOKEY BEAR'S MESSAGE ENTERS THE 21ST CENTURY. Tiffany Stecker. GreenWire. August 11, 2014.
•HISTORICALLY SPEAKING: SMOKEY BEAR, ILLUSTRATED BY NORWICH MAN FOR DECADES, TURNS 70. Richard Curland. Norwich Bulletin. August 9, 2014.
•NEVER-ENDING WILDFIRES? Peter Fish. Sunset Magazine. August 2014.
•REPORT. 2014 THE NATIONAL CLIMATE ASSESSMENT. May 6, 2014.
•U.S. CLIMATE HAS ALREADY CHANGED, STUDY FINDS, CITING HEAT AND FLOODS. Justin Gillis. New York Times. May 6, 2014.
•CLIMATE CHANGE ASSESSMENT PAINTS STARK PICTURE OF POTENTIAL DAMAGE. Neela Banerjee and Kathleen Hennessey. L.A. Times. May 6, 2014
•OBAMA ADMINISTRATION RELEASES MAJOR CLIMATE CHANGE REPORT. Bryan Walsh. TIME. May 6, 2014.
•WATER WORRIES: CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE DESERT SOUTHWEST. Doyle Rice. USA Today. July 9, 2014.
•CLIMATE IMPACTS IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST. EPA. September 9, 2013.
•THE NEXT GENERATION. August 15, 2014.
•RISKY BUSINESS: THE ECONOMIC RISKS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE UNITED STATES-EXECUTIVE SUMMARY. June 24, 2014. Next Generation.
•IMPACT OVERVIEW: THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST. “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States. Next Generation. June 24, 2014.
•MORE, BIGGER WILDFIRES BURNING WESTERN U.S., STUDY SHOWS. American Geophysical Union. April 17, 2014.
•ABSTRACT. WARMING AND EARLIER SPRING INCREASE WESTERN U.S. FOREST WILDFIRE ACTIVITY. SCIENCE. July 2006.
•WHITE HOUSE SENIOR SCIENCE ADVISOR: WILDFIRES ARE LINKED TO CLIMATE CHANGE. Stephanie Spear. EcoWatch. August 6, 2014.
•REPORT: WESTERN WILDFIRES GROWING MORE INTENSE, INSURERS DEEPLY CONCERNED. Dennis Mersereau. The Washington Post Weather Gang. October 17, 2013.
•PLAYING WITH FIRE (2014). Union of Concerned Scientists. July 23, 2014.
•HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT WILDFIRES. National Interagency Fire Center. August 2014
•RIM FIRE INFORMATION. United States Department of Agriculture-Fire Service. August 2014.
•GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOTS. City of Prescott, Arizona. August 2014.
•FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN. Brian Mockenhaupt. The Atlantic. May 21. 2014.
•FIRE SEASON UNDERWAY, STATES PRESS FOR FEDERAL FUNDING. Reid Wilson. Washington Post. July 16, 2014.
•FIREFIGHTING CAPACITY FOR WILDFIRES CURBED BY FUNDING CUTS, OFFICIALS SAY. Darryl Fears. Washington Post. May 13, 2013.
•FEDS EXPECT TO BREAK WILDFIRE BUDGET DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE. Timothy Cama. The HILL. May 2, 2014.
•BIGGER AND MORE FREQUENT WILDFIRES BURNING WESTERN U.S. Insurance Journal. April 21, 2014.
•OBAMA SEEKS $615 MILLION TO FIGHT WILDFIRES. Timothy Cama. The HILL. July 8, 2014.
•VIDEO. PRESIDENT SETS ASIDE MILLIONS IN WILDFIRE FUNDING. Laura Thoren. KOAT 7 Albuquerque. March 10, 2014.
•OBAMA ADMINISTRATION SEEKS NEW FUNDING PLAN FOR WILDFIRES. Allison Sherry. The Denver Post. February 24, 2014.
•FACT SHEET: SUPPORTING WESTERN GOVERNORS AS THEY DEAL WITH WILDFIRE, DROUGHT, AND OTHER CLIMATE IMPACTS. The White House. June 9, 2014.
•WESTERN GOVERNORS URGE SUPPORT OF "FIRE-BORROWING" BILL PROPOSED IN SENATE, HOUSE. Western Governors’ Association. February 26, 2014.
•WILDFIRES ARE RAGING AROUND THE COUNTRY—THERE'S A BETTER WAY TO FIGHT THEM. Rebecca Leber. The New Republic. July 17, 2014.
•AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION NEEDED IN WILDFIRE FIGHT. Steve Scauzillo. San Gabriel Valley Tribune. August 2, 2014.
•OP-ED. Timothy Egan. FOOLS AT THE FIRE. New York Times. August 7, 2014.
•ED. WILDFIRE DISASTER FUNDING ACT SHOULD NOT BURN AWAY. Salt Lake City Tribune. August 14, 2014.
•ED. WASHINGTON GAMBLES, THE WEST LOSES. Twin Falls Times-News. August 14, 2014.
•FIGHT FIRES WITH FUNDS: NEW FEDERAL FUNDING MECHANISM PROPOSED FOR WILDFIRES. James Brasuell. Planetizen. February 26, 2014.
•THREE STATES FIGHTING WILDFIRES DECLARE EMERGENCIES. Reid Wilson. Washington Post. August 5, 2014.
•VIDEO. Hundreds evacuated as Washington wildfire grows. Dave Alsup and Steve Almasy. CNN. July 17, 2014.
•GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY AMID FIRES. AP-San Jose Merc. August 4, 2014.
•WILDFIRES STRIKE NORTHWEST, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. Warren Cornwall. National Geographic. August 13, 2014.