Where There’s Smoke…

The Troubling Connection Between Extreme Heat, Wildfires, and Climate Change

As they say where we’re from, heat and wildfires go together like wine and cheese: they tend to show up around the same time, and they both have the potential to be dangerous.

Okay, nobody really says that. But imagine they did, because then you could run with the metaphor and say 2017’s been one long wine and cheese party in the U.S.

Only this particular party’s not fun at all.

Source: Giphy

Let’s review the year so far. February brought unseasonal heat to the Great Plains, worsening the effects of a drought in the region and contributing to extreme fire conditions. Soon after, massive fires broke out in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas. One of the fires was Kansas’s largest single blaze in recorded history, beating the previous record set just one year prior in March 2016. Six people were killed across the four states. Between 6,000 and 12,000 cattle were killed and an estimated $58 million worth of fencing was destroyed in Kansas and Oklahoma combined.

Fast forward to June and July, when there were back-to-back heatwaves in the West. The first dried out lighter vegetation that sprouted after an especially wet winter in states such as California. This may sound counterintuitive, but a wet winter can actually pave the way for an above-average fire season.

The second heatwave fueled many major blazes in several western states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and North and South Dakota.

In California, an explosive fire fed by “kindling-dry grass and treesdestroyed 41 homes and 57 structures near Oroville this past week. By mid-July, 586,800 acres had burned in Nevada making it the fifth-highest year in terms of total annual acres burned in the last 15 years, with a lot of time left. Nevada has also seen unusually large fires, with the Truckee Fire burning nearly 100,000 acres and the Rooster’s Comb Fire still burning at nearly 220,000 acres.

Heat, wildfires. More frequent and extreme heat, more frequent and extreme wildfires. Are you thinking what we’re thinking? If so, you’re right: warmer temperatures and drier conditions make vegetation more flammable, increasing the chances of fires starting and helping them spread. Such conditions also contribute to the spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that weaken or kill trees, literally adding more fuel to the fire.

Research has shown that extreme heat and heatwaves are becoming more frequent. Looking through records back to 1958, Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBell Analytics, found that almost all of the high-intensity heat domes — like the one that recently settled over the West in June and July — have occurred since 1983, with the overwhelming majority of them occurring since 1990. Another way to think about heat trends is by examining the ratio of record hot days to record cold days. In a stable climate, this ratio is about even; however, in our warming climate, record highs have begun to outpace record lows, with the imbalance growing for the past three decades. Check out a visual, real-time representation here.

Research has also shown that wildfire risk in the American West is on the rise. There has been a fourfold increase over the last 30 years in the number of large and long-duration forest fires in the region. Fire season is now 2.5 months longer than it used to be, and the size of wildfires has increased several fold, stretching states’ firefighting resources. Large grass and shrubland fires specifically — the types that affect the Great Plains — have increased by more than 100,000 acres per decade since the 1970s. Additionally, more than half of Western states have experienced their largest wildfire on record since 2000.

Source: Climate Signals

Going back to wine and cheese for a moment, we wish we could tell you that merlot was becoming more frequent and the risk of camembert was on the rise — but unfortunately, neither is the case. (In fact, recent, very troubling reports show the negative affect climate change can have on wine).

Instead of a yummier world, we’ve created an increasingly hot and burnt one. And that has real consequences for ecosystems, the economy, and our health. Unless we take concerted action to fight climate change, this hot, fiery planet is our new normal. So grab a glass of wine, arrange a little cheese plate, and explore the ways that you can help fight climate change.


Celia Gurney is a member of the team behind Climate Signals, a digital science platform for cataloging and mapping the impacts of climate change. Learn more by signing up for updates or following @ClimateSignals on Twitter.