Wildfires and Climate Change
When faced with the explosive fury of multiple wildfires torching hundreds of homes like so many Roman candles, journalists can perhaps be forgiven for hyperbole — including stories that begin with statements like “the State of Colorado is on fire.”
But in truth, the facts speak loudly for themselves: As of July 12, 76 active wildfires were burning across more than 2.1 million acres of the American West — an area nearly as large as sprawling Los Angeles County.
And the heart of the fire season is still ahead of us.
The fires have predictably followed six months of paltry precipitation and near record warmth in large parts of the region. In Colorado, what little snowpack there was had fallen into a death spiral of rapid melting by March, more than a month earlier than average.
So as one fire after another seemed to pop up in the parched and sun-baked region in June and early July, reporters, bloggers and opinion writers began trying to move the story beyond the details of breaking news to causes and context. There was much to discuss.
Freelance journalist Michael Kodas distilled the context of this furious burning season to its essence in an article in OnEarth. “Even among skeptical firefighters and usually cautious scientists, there’s little doubt anymore: forest management and development issues have been priming the West for epic fires, but it was this year’s climate-driven drought and heat that lit the fuse,” Kodas wrote.
In their stories on causes and context, journalists and commentators chose to emphasize different parts of that equation. Some examined decades of forest management policies that have left many forest ecosystems overgrown and fully fueled for intense fires. Others examined the climatic factors that lit the fuse, as Kodas put it. Some missed the mark in their coverage, with over-simplification and lack of appropriate skepticism. Many others added important information to public discourse on this increasingly critical issue.