A glimpse into the future: How recent wildfires stack up to climate predictions

On Monday alone an estimated 330,000 acres of land burned in Washington. The number of scorched acres topped half a million by Wednesday, and rain remains in short supply.

The wildfires that have already unfolded this week dwarf entire seasons. Climate scientists have been saying we’re on the cusp of big changes — the Pacific Northwest will look different by 2040, or 2050.

While it’s impossible to say that climate contributed to a specific fire, experts like Jessica Halofsky are clear to note that what we’re seeing now is more on par with our future — the result of climate change.

“This kind of year is very much what we’re expecting in the future,” said Halofsky, the Director of the Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center. “We can’t attribute any single year — event — to climate change, but we know these types of conditions are likely to occur more frequently in the future.”

In a study published earlier this year in Fire Ecology, Halofsky and her fellow scientists took a big-picture look at what climate change would mean for the Pacific Northwest. In it, the researchers note that you can’t predict exact locations of wildfires. However, you can determine the frequency of fire — while the estimates of a “new norm” vary depending on how we react she told KIRO 7 that a safe bet is that we’d see double, or triple the amount of land burned by the middle of this century.

Climate is not the lone factor, but it looms large.

Forest management has become a regular debate too.

After years of suppressing fires in areas that were used to fires they’ve become packed with fuel. Halofsky noted that some areas that had fires every 10-20 years haven’t had large burns in more than 50 years.

Washington’s DNR proposed using an extra $26.5 million in late 2019 to accelerate the state’s 20-year forest health strategic plan which involves selective thinning and prescribed burns.

This week Gov. Inslee has mentioned the need for forest management, but he’s made it clear that the climate crisis is his main concern as Washington burns.

“For those who deny the necessity of fighting climate change let them come to Bonney Lake,” he said after touring a brush fire location on Wednesday.

“Let them come to Graham. Let them come to Malden, to Okanogan. Let them come to see the explosive conditions that have been allowed to come to our state.”