This story is taken from
Sacbee / Our Region / Sierra
Sierra Nevada climate changes feed monster,
Published Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008
Driving home from Lake Tahoe, Leah Wills watched the column of ash-gray smoke from the Moonlight fire
grow and grow – until finally she was under it.
Overhead, the sky that September afternoon in 2007 turned eerie pink. Orange-red flecks of burning bark
streaked like missiles through the air. And the smoke – eye-watering and acrid – was inescapable.
"It was like a nuclear cloud," said Wills, 59, a policy analyst for the Plumas County Flood Control District who
lives near the tiny hamlet of Genesee. "I've been to Denali and Kilimanjaro. I grew up with tornadoes. I've
seen some big things. I never saw anything that big in my life."
Wildfire has marched across the West for centuries. But no longer are major conflagrations fueled simply by
heavy brush and timber. Now climate change is stoking the flames higher and hotter, too.
That view, common among firefighters, is reflected in new studies that tie changing patterns of heat and
moisture in the western United States to an unprecedented rash of costly and destructive wildfires.
Among other things, researchers have found the frequency of wildfire increased fourfold – and the terrain
burned expanded sixfold – as summers grew longer and hotter over the past two decades.
The fire season now stretches out 78 days longer than it did during the 1970s and '80s. And, on average,
large fires burn for more than a month, compared with just a week a generation ago.
Scientists also have discovered that in many places, nothing signals a bad fire year like a short winter and an
early snowmelt. Overall, 72 percent of the land scorched across the West from 1987 to 2003 burned in early
Across the Sierra, satellite imagery shows that today's wildfires are far more destructive than fires of the
past, leaving larger portions of the burned landscape looking like nuclear blast zones. That searing intensity,
in turn, is threatening water quality, wildlife habitat, rural and resort communities and firefighter lives.
As the climate warms, the ability of the region's mixed conifer forest ecosystem to recover from these
destructive fires is in danger.
"We're getting into a place where we are almost having a perfect storm" for wildfire, said Jay Miller, a U.S.
Forest Service researcher and lead author of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Ecosystems
linking climate change to the more severe fires in the Sierra.
"We have increased fuels, but this changing climate is adding an additional stress on the whole situation,"
Miller said. "When things get bad, things will get much worse."
Longer, more intense fire seasons
That future may already have arrived. This year, the fire season got off to an early June start in the north
state and only recently came to a close. Statewide, 1.4 million acres burned in 2008, just shy of last year's