STUDY: Media Still Largely Fail To Put Wildfires In Climate Context
A study of wildfire coverage from April through July 1 finds that print and TV media only mentioned climate change in 6 percent of coverage, although this was double the amount of coverage from a year ago. While many factors must come together for wildfires to occur, climate change has led to hotter and drier conditions in parts of the West that have increased the risk of wildfires.
Wildfire Coverage Misses Climate Connection
Just 6 Percent Of Wildfire Coverage Mentioned Climate Change. Major television and print media outlets improved over last year in connecting climate change to wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, California and other Western states, but still generally failed to mention the link. Only 6 percent of total wildfire items mentioned climate change, including 9 percent of major print coverage and 4 percent of TV coverage. In a 2012 study encompassing a similar period, only 3 percent of wildfire coverage mentioned climate change (6 percent of print articles, 2 percent of TV segments). Coverage of July 2012 wildfires improved on those numbers. [Media Matters, 7/3/12 ] [Media Matters, 8/6/12 ]
Overall TV Coverage More Than Doubled. TV coverage connecting wildfires to climate change more than doubled, going from less than 2 percent to about 4 percent since the 2012 study. All outlets improved: ABC (3 percent to 7 percent), CBS (4 percent to 8 percent), NBC (0 percent to 3 percent) and CNN (1 percent to 3 percent). However, TV coverage was still significantly worse than in Media Matters' July 2012 follow-up wildfire study (11 percent). [Media Matters, 8/6/12 ]
Overall Print Coverage Improved. Print coverage connecting wildfires to climate change increased 50 percent over that surveyed in Media Matters' 2012 study, from 6 percent to 9 percent. All print outlets except for CNN.com and the Associated Press showed improvement: The Los Angeles Times (10 percent to 14 percent), USA TODAY (0 percent to 17 percent) The New York Times (11 percent to 36 percent), The Wall Street Journal (0 percent to 10 percent), and The Washington Post (17 percent to 33 percent). CNN.com once again entirely ignored climate change in its wildfire stories. The Associated Press decreased coverage from 6 percent to 2 percent. Overall, print coverage still did not mention climate change as often as in Media Matters' July 2012 follow-up wildfire study (18 percent). As Climate Progress has noted, even fewer articles explained that these changes are manmade. [Media Matters, 8/6/12 ] [Climate Progress, 7/2/13 ]
METHODOLOGY: We searched Nexis and Factiva databases for articles and segments on (wildfire or wild fire or forest fire) between April 1, 2013, and July 1, 2013. News outlets included in this study are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, CNN.com, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. We only included full articles and segments focused on wildfires, as we did in 2012. All percentages are rounded to the nearest number.
UCS: Several Factors Influence Fire Risk. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explained, several factors are influencing the increase in wildfires, which require a spark such as lightning to begin, but a "major factor driving the increase" is global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions:
Natural cycles, human activities--such as land-use (clearing, development, mining) and fire exclusion--as well as climate change can influence the likelihood of wildfires . However, many of the areas that have seen these increases--such as Yosemite National Park  and the Northern Rockies --are protected from or relatively unaffected by human land-use and behaviors. This suggests that climate change is a major factor driving the increase in wildfires.
By engaging in mitigation efforts --creating buffer zones between human habitation and susceptible forests, and meeting home and city fire-safety standards--and by taking steps to reduce our impact on the climate , we can help to keep our forests, our homes, and our health safe. [Union of Concerned Scientists, 9/6/11 ]
Western Wildfires Spread In Context Of Climate Change-Driven Severe Heat Waves And Droughts. As a July 2013 Climate Central article explained, a recent wildfire in Arizona, like others in Western states, started in an environment of record heat waves and drought:
The Yarnell Hill fire, like other wildfires in the West right now, is taking place in the context of one of the most extreme heat waves on record in the region, as well as a long-running drought. While the contributors to specific fires are varied and include natural weather and climate variability as well as human factors, such as arson, a draft federal climate report released in January found that manmade climate change, along with other factors, has already increased the overall risk of wildfires in the Southwest.
And projections show that the West may be in for more large wildfires in the future. Climate models show an alarming increase in large wildfires in the West in coming years, as spring snowpack melts earlier, summer temperatures increase, and droughts occur more frequently or with greater severity.
Climate Central further noted that "Arizona was the fastest warming state in the contiguous U.S. since the mid-1970s" and included this chart showing that large wildfires in the state have increased:
[Climate Central, 7/1/13 ]
Major Report: "Wildfires in the United States Are Already Increasing Due To Warming." In a comprehensive report commissioned by the Bush administration and released in June 2009, the U.S. Global Change Research Program said earlier snowmelt and drier soils and plants have worsened wildfires in Western states:
Wildfires in the United States are already increasing due to warming. In the West, there has been a nearly fourfold increase in large wildfires in recent decades, with greater fire frequency, longer fire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. This increase is strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt, which have caused drying of soils and vegetation.
The report included the following chart showing that the number of acres burned per fire has increased significantly since the 1980s:
[U.S. Global Change Research Program, 6/16/09 ]
National Research Council: "Length Of The Fire Season Has Expanded By 2.5 Months." A 2010 National Research Council report summarizing the state of climate science concluded that "the length of the fire season has expanded by 2.5 months":
[L]arge and long-duration forest fires have increased fourfold over the past 30 years in the American West; the length of the fire season has expanded by 2.5 months; and the size of wildfires has increased several-fold. Recent research indicates that earlier snowmelt, temperature changes, and drought associated with climate change are important contributors to this increase in forest fire. [National Research Council, 5/19/10 ]
United States Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell echoed this research, stating in June 2013 testimony to Congress that the U.S. wildfire season lasts longer than it used to thanks to climate change:
America's wildfire season lasts two months longer than it did 40 years ago and burns up twice as much land as it did in those earlier days because of the hotter, drier conditions produced by climate change, the country's forest service chief told Congress on Tuesday.
"It's hard for the average member of the public to understand how things have changed," Tidwell said.
"Ten years ago in New Mexico outside Los Alamos we had a fire get started. Over seven days, it burned 40,000 acres. In 2011, we had another fire. Las Conchas. It also burned 40,000 acres. It did it in 12 hours," he went on.
Climate change was a key driver of those bigger, more explosive fires. Earlier snow-melt, higher temperatures and drought created optimum fire conditions. [The Guardian, 6/4/13 ]
Warming Has Boosted Tree-Killing Beetles, Adding Fuel For Fires. A ClimateWire article following a large 2012 fire in Colorado noted how mountain pine beetles (or pine bark beetles) are sapping trees of vital moisture, thus increasing the amount of dry forest tinder available to kick-start wildfires:
When pine beetles take over a forest, fire is typically not far behind, said Cal Wettstein, incident commander with the Rocky Mountain division of the Beetle Incident Management Organization.
"When trees die, they go through a natural process of drying" -- leaving them vulnerable to fire -- "and eventually falling," he said. "When beetles get into a forest, they essentially shortcut that first stage."
On top of that, the pine beetle epidemic gripping the West is larger than any in recent memory. Many entomologists point to the record warmth of the last 10 years as a cause. The beetle's life cycle is temperature-dependent. It is killed by frosts, but its life cycle is accelerated by warmth, and in some cases higher temperatures have been shown to allow the beetles to reproduce twice a year rather than once[.] [ClimateWire, 6/20/12 ]
As a January 2013 Climate Central article explained, recent studies have shown how beetles are thriving due to warming:
[T]he beetles, whose numbers would normally be held in check by cold winters that kill their larvae, are surviving in greater numbers from one year to the next as winters in the U.S. continue to get warmer. Not only that: as spring comes earlier and temperatures stay warm for longer, the beetles can fly further than they once did, allowing them to extend their range. [Climate Central, 1/7/13 ]
A U.S. Forest Service website explains that climate change appears to be a factor influencing these shifts:
Although outbreak dynamics differ from species to species and from forest to forest, climate change is one factor that appears to be driving at least some of the current bark beetle outbreaks. Temperature influences everything in a bark beetle's life, from the number of eggs laid by a single female beetle, to the beetles' ability to disperse to new host trees, to individuals' over-winter survival and developmental timing. Elevated temperatures associated with climate change, particularly when there are consecutive warm years, can speed up reproductive cycles and reduce cold-induced mortality. [U.S. Forest Service, 2008 ]
Wildfire Acreage Has Grown, Is Expected To Increase Further. In a 2010 report, the National Research Council said that "for warming levels of 1°C to 2°C, the area burned by wildfire in parts of western North America is expected to increase by 2 to 4 times for each degree (°C) of global warming." Particularly vulnerable areas "include the Pacific Northwest and forested regions of the Rockies and the Sierra," according to the report, which also included the following map showing projected increases in "area burned for a 1°C increase in global average temperature" relative to the median annual area burned from 1950-2003:
[National Research Council, 6/16/10 ]
Responding To Increased Fire Risk Requires Policy Change, Vigilance Regarding Latest Science. The U.S. Global Change Research Program recommended that policymakers become versed in "what the latest climate science implies for changes in types, locations, timing, and potential severity of fire risks over seasons to decades and beyond" and change policy accordingly:
Living with present-day levels of fire risk, along with projected increases in risk, involves actions by residents along the urban-forest interface as well as fire and land management officials. Some basic strategies for reducing damage to structures due to fires are being encouraged by groups like National Firewise Communities, an interagency program that encourages wildfire preparedness measures such as creating defensible space around residential structures by thinning trees and brush, choosing fire-resistant plants, selecting ignition-resistant building materials and design features, positioning structures away from slopes, and working with firefighters to develop emergency plans.
Additional strategies for responding to the increased risk of fire as climate continues to change could include adding firefighting resources and improving evacuation procedures and communications infrastructure. Also important would be regularly updated insights into what the latest climate science implies for changes in types, locations, timing, and potential severity of fire risks over seasons to decades and beyond; implications for related political, legal, economic, and social institutions; and improving predictions for regeneration of burnt-over areas and the implications for subsequent fire risks. Reconsideration of policies that encourage growth of residential developments in or near forests is another potential avenue for adaptive strategies. [U.S. Global Change Research Program, 6/16/09 ]
Wildfire Experts: Reporters Should Include Climate Change In Wildfire Coverage. Seven of the nine fire scientists who responded to email inquiries as part of a July 2012 Media Matters study agreed that journalists should put wildfires in context by explaining the ways climate change could make them more likely in the West. [Media Matters, 7/3/12 ]
Shauna Theel created the graphics for this report.