New Math: Climate Change = More Fire = More Climate Change

By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests

Climate change has caused 50% of the drying effect that is turning our western forests into tinder boxes.

Wildfire has become Washington State’s second largest source of carbon emissions.

In the latest U.S. EPA GHG inventory, U.S. forests and forest products provided a net sink of 753 million tons of carbon dioxide, equal to almost 15% of America’s carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Amidst the tragic stories of lost lives and property in the latest California wildfires, another tragedy has been overlooked — lost ground on fighting climate change. The massive plumes of smoke from escalating western wildfires are not only loaded with dangerous air pollution that harms human health, but also emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We must manage our forests in dramatically new ways to not only to better protect our communities, but also to break the vicious cycle of climate change and escalating wildfire.

First, let’s eliminate any question you might have whether climate change is a significant force behind our worsening fire seasons in the West. A definitive study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change has caused 50 percent of the drying effect that is turning our western forests into tinder boxes. What we are seeing is not just another weather cycle — it is the beginning of a new normal we have created with human-induced climate change.

I had the chance to hear the Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, describe how Washington State’s escalating wildfire has moved beyond historically fire-prone forests east of the Cascade Mountains. In some recent years, nearly forty percent of wildfire has occurred in the traditionally wetter forests on the west side of the mountains. This expanding footprint has made wildfire the state’s second largest source of carbon emissions.

While Washington State’s forests still capture enough carbon to remain a significant net carbon sink, other states are not so lucky. In fact, the forests of many states in the Intermountain West have become a net source of carbon emissions thanks to wildfire, pest infestations, and other forest mortality. Montana is a particularly dramatic example, having swung in recent decades from a significant net sink of carbon in its forests to a net source.

To be clear, these increasing carbon emissions from our forests are not cause to give up on forests as a climate change solution! U.S. forests as a whole are still providing a huge “net sink” of carbon each year — that means they capture much more carbon than they emit. In the most recent federal greenhouse gas inventory, U.S. forests and forest products provided a net sink of 753 million tons of carbon dioxide, equal to almost 15 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

But if we can reduce growing emissions from wildfire and other forms of forest mortality, our forest’s contribution to acting on climate change will get even bigger. Over the last decade, rising emissions from wildfire have become a growing leak in our forest carbon sink. By way of example, carbon emissions from wildfire in 2015 and 2017 jumped to more than 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — roughly double recent wildfire emissions trends. Do the math, and you realize that this difference between a good fire year and a bad one currently equates to about an extra 10 percent reduction in the carbon benefits from our forests.

So what can the forest sector do to plug this leak in our carbon sink? The answer starts with “pre-storing” our forests for health and resilience in a very different climate. These actions include things like dramatically thinning our most fire-prone forests, using “good fire” to manage forest growth, and adjusting our forests in density and species composition to overcome future conditions like relentless drought and higher temperatures.

We must also design and deliver reforestation informed by climate change science so that the forests replanted after wildfire are less likely to burn again. My organization’s “recipe for climate resilient reforestation” includes selecting the right tree species and genetics, using innovative planting techniques, and assuring the right adaptive management of newly replanted forests.

This might cause concern for those who have come to think of increasing forest carbon mostly in the context of unmanaged older forests. We will need to help decision makers and the public to understand that in fire-prone landscapes, more active forest management can lead to greater net carbon capture and resilient carbon storage over the long term. Further, we must make clear that the intensity and extent of climate-driven wildfire demands more active reforestation, because many of these burned areas will not recover without our help.

It is time to peer through the smoke and see escalating wildfires for what they are — a climate change-driven vicious cycle that threatens our future. Then we need to get to work readying our forests for health and resilience in the face of wildfire, and gearing up to replant them when they are lost despite our best efforts. Our potential to win the battle against climate change hangs in the balance.

Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.