Report: Climate Change To Fuel Wildfires In West

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Wildfires are projected to burn twice as much land in Nevada and other Western states by late this century if the climate warms as expected, a conservation group said in a report.

Warmer springs and longer summers since the mid-1980s already have resulted in a fourfold increase in the number of wildfires and a sixfold increase in the amount of land burned compared with the period between 1970 and 1986, according to the National Wildlife Federation report.

"I see these fires as part of an ecological transition," said Steven Running, a professor of ecology at the University of Montana.

The report cited a combination of factors for the problem:

- Fire seasons now are about 78 days longer than historic levels, with individual fires typically burning about 30 days longer.
- Longer fire seasons result as the mountain snowpack melts one
to four weeks earlier than 50 years ago.

- Summertime temperatures in the West are projected to be 3.6 to 9 degrees higher by mid-century, with precipitation expected to drop by up to 15 percent.

- Warmer and drier conditions are conducive to widespread infestation by beetles and other insects, resulting in wide areas of dead or dying trees ready to burn.

- Increased thunderstorm intensity could increase the amount of lightning across the region by 12 to 30 percent, sparking a larger number of fires.

- A century of national policy to suppress all fires has resulted in overgrown forests vulnerable to catastrophic blazes.

The wildlife federation said a number of actions are necessary to help reduce the wildfire threat.

The group urged government and industry leaders to reduce greenhouse gas pollution associated with global warming by 2 percent per year, with a 20 percent reduction by 2020.

"We must address the root of the problem," Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with the wildlife federation, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The report also recommends homes in fire-prone areas be built with fire-resistant materials and that buffer zones of at least 132 feet be established between homes and the forest.

And the growing practice of building new neighborhoods in places
adjacent to forested areas should be re-evaluated by local governments, the report said.

"Unfortunately, some of our policymakers don't seem to take that message to heart," said Tom France, regional executive director of the wildlife federation.

Last year marked the second largest wildfire season nationally since 1960, with more than 9 million acres burned, the report said.

Some 3.2 million acres were blackened in the Great Basin states of Nevada, Utah and Idaho.

Fifteen of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 1985, officials said. Nearly 1.2 million acres have burned in the state during this summer's record-setting season.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)