Legislation says increase in wildfire activity due to climate change | ParkRecord.com

Legislation says increase in wildfire activity due to climate change

Caroline Kingsley, The Park Record

The 2013 Utah legislative session is heating up with a wildfire bill that, if passed, will allow the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to develop wildfire policies based on climate change.

"It gives them the ability and authority to consider, analyze and plan for climate change factors in fighting and preventing wildfires," said bill sponsor Kraig Powell, R-Heber City. "They don’t have the authority to do that unless the legislature gives them that authority."

The bill, HB77, currently has only a handful of support from Republican legislators, Powell said.

"They tell me they understand why I’m doing this, that they want this and that they are anxious to have the conversation," he said.

The Utah Remote Sensing Applications (URSA) Lab at the University of Utah has been monitoring Utah fire danger for the last two decades.

"We have found that the average number of fires has increased and that the early season of fires has also increased," said URSA Lab Director Philip Dennison. "The study we are working on right now cannot definitively say what the cause of it is, but it’s very consistent with climate change."

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The URSA lab has been comparing fires that burn over 1,000 acres that have occurred in Utah between 1984 and 1996 with those occurring between 1997 and 2009.

"During the first and second period, the precipitation was, on average, within a tenth of an inch between those two periods," Dennison said. "So we know the precipitation was pretty similar during the two periods. But the temperature was one-degree Fahrenheit higher during the second period. So circumstantially, it’s pretty convincing that climate change is having an impact on fire in Utah."

Because of the apparent increase in fires due to climate change, Dennison said the state should be planning for a longer fire season and a larger number of fires.

"Things like staffing, equipment and the funding necessary to fight fires early in the season will be really important," he said. "Last year we saw that fire season was really getting rolling in May, so we need to be ready for what may become a more typical start to the fire season."

Summit County Public Works Director Kevin Callahan recently reported 2012 as a "major fire year" for the county.

From 2008 to 2011, the county averaged 51 wildfires a year. In 2012, the county experienced 112 wildfires.

Callahan also reported an earlier start to the fire year, with nearly 30 wildfires occurring before June 1, compared to an average of four to five in previous years.

"We’ve had dry winters in the past and they’ve often produced worse fire seasons, and we’ll continue to have dry winters into the future. But when it’s warmer and dryer, it makes for a worse fire season," Dennison said.

Dennison said that in contrast to 2012, which was a very high fire year, 2011 was a low fire year.

"Those are two very different years back-to-back, so if you just take those two years as a trend, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between them," he explained. "But if you look over the longer term, that’s where we’re seeing the trend. Between the two different periods we examined, there’s definitely a strong increase in fire, and one of the differences is that the second period is much warmer."

Powell acknowledged that scientists may not understand climate change completely, and Utahns across the political spectrum may not agree on what things may need to be done.

"But my constituents in both Wasatch and Summit County, Democrats and Republicans alike, by solid majority read the studies and reports and know it’s really irrefutable at this point that there are major changes occurring in our atmosphere and in our environment due to human activity that we need to study and deal with," Powell said.

However, Powell said that because legislative committee chairs have not yet indicated a show of support for the bill, he’s not sure of the likelihood of it passing.

"But you have to start somewhere. And since the topic hasn’t even been discussed, I think this is a good start," he said.