“60 Minutes” story nails causes of megafires in the West

CBS aired a compelling 60 Minutes story on Sept. 6 that did what sometimes only television cameras can do: capture the true size and scope of a problem. In this piece, The Age of Megafires, reporter Scott Pelley spoke with scientists and firefighters who spelled out the causes of the exploding number and severity of wildfires in the West — a combination of the increasing effects of global warming, increased number of homes in fire-prone areas and a hundred-year-history of misguided Forest Service policy that attempted to suppress every fire.

Anyone interested in the subject of wildfire should see this piece.

“Ten years ago, if you had a 100,000 acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire,” said Tom Boatner, chief of fire operations for the federal government. “And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now we talk about 200,000 acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change.”

Boatner added that seven of the past 10 fire seasons have been the hottest in the last half century. Meanwhile, University of Arizona fire ecologist Tom Swetnam said the past decades of fire seasons have been the hottest in 1,000 years, and climate change — global warming — is making it worse. Temperature has increased 1 percent, leading to early springs and late winters. This is causing four times more fires and extending the fire season by 78 days over just the last 15 to 20 years.

"As the spring is arriving earlier because of warming conditions, the snow on these high mountain areas is melting and running off,” he said. “So the logs and the branches and the tree needles all can dry out more quickly and have a longer time period to be dry. And so there's a longer time period and opportunity for fires to start.”

If the trends continue, Swetnam estimates that a stunning 50 percent of America’s western forests could be lost to global warming-induced wildfires.

The solutions?

The Wilderness Society calls on Congress to take the first steps: We should heed Sen. Barbara Boxer’s call for more funding for the agencies charged with suppressing fires, and we should support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to pass a bill — the Fire-Safe Communities Act — that would help communities protect themselves.

By focusing on long term and well-tested solutions to wildfire, we can make life safer for everyone in the West.