I’m worried. This has been a horrendous summer fire season. Huge evacuations, lost homes and crops. The season continues in other western states.
We also saw an unprecedented four major hurricanes making landfall, two as Category 5 storms and another breaking tropical storm rainfall records, dropping over 64 inches of rain in one Texas community.
The extent of the damage and humanitarian crisis is becoming more obvious every day. Some locations, forests, animals and people will eventually recover. Others will not. Many will never connect collateral damage such as loss of health-care funding to these events.
Burned acreage is 3 million acres more than a decade ago. Montana, Washington, Idaho, California and Oregon alone saw nearly 1.7 acres burned by late September. Firefighting costs approach $2 billion — the most expensive year in American history. Montana’s $32.5 million annual fire fund is gone. Firefighting costs, however, will be dwarfed by hurricane recovery. Recovery costs of 180 billion are estimated for Harvey in Texas alone. It is too soon to even find estimates for Maria and Irma. In Montana, two firefighters died. The hurricane death toll is still being counted.
In Montana, important programs such as health care are now targets to make up the shortfall, putting our people and rural health care system at risk. Funding sources for hurricane recovery isn’t really being talked about yet: you can bet some of it will come from things you care about such as schools, roads and agriculture. Recovery costs will make it harder to fund the course change needed.
The only way to reverse this trend is to focus on the common denominator: rising temperatures and weather extremes. We must aggressively combat the climate change that’s driving this trend. Fueled by carbon pollution, climate change is increasing temperatures and droughts, making wildfires more dangerous and deadly. It is also fueling more powerful hurricanes and more extreme subtropical and extra-tropical storms.
Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “There is well documented scientific evidence that climate change has been increasing the length of the fire season, the size of the area burned each year and the number of wildfires.”
The newly released Montana Climate Assessment reaches similar conclusions. Scapegoating U.S. timber management doesn’t explain lengthening seasons, similar fire behavior on privately owned timberlands, the severe fires in British Columbia and it doesn’t explain similar trends in the many parts of the West that are not timberlands.
An all-out climate change mobilization is required now. This fire season makes it clear that the costs of doing nothing will rapidly outstrip the cost of shifting to a carbon-free energy system. To fight this battle, we must fully fund the EPA and take the handcuffs off their efforts. President Trump has proposed a budget that cuts funds to agencies such as the EPA. He has put climate deniers in charge. We must fully fund agencies able to make a difference and demand they do their jobs.
Montana’s elected officials, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, must oppose cuts to the EPA and demand that it protect us from growing climate chaos. Gov. Steve Bullock must push Montana to move aggressively on this issue as well.
We are experiencing a shift from climate change to climate chaos. We need to combat climate change with the same level of commitment we devote to defending homes from wildfires. We need to fully fund the EPA and get to work before climate chaos sucks money out of every program that is important to us and makes the battle unwinnable.