Brutal Southeast fire season may not be freak event. That's why taxpayers should care.

Ilissa Ocko

As rain and cooler temperatures allow firefighters to finally get Southeastern blazes under control, the full impact of the region’s unprecedented wildfire season is only now coming to light. The catastrophic fire late last month in Tennessee alone killed 14 and destroyed more than 1,600 structures, losses of tens of millions of dollars.

Such events are on par with what we typically see out West, where wildfires are increasingly linked to human-caused climate change.

The Southeast, like the West, has been unusually hot and dry – a recipe for wildfires. Unfortunately, this fall may be a precursor of what’s to come.

The science is clear that the Southeast will continue to warm up. And while future rainfall trends are much harder to predict, the hot weather will mean that if and when rainfall lets up, the region can quickly spiral into a deep drought.

This is part of what we saw this summer and fall.

Scientists have found that consecutive dry days in the Southeast may rise by up to 20 percent by the end of the century as a direct result of unabated climate change. The changes in rainfall and temperature may increase the annual area burned by wildfires in the region by 4 percent by mid-century, a recent study found.

Such trends – in addition to the rise in wildfires in other parts of the country – means more lost lives and bigger hits to local communities and American taxpayers. Unless we act now.

Burned areas – and costs – are adding up fast

With a changing climate worldwide, there are suddenly a lot of new normals. The problem is, “normal,” extreme weather drains resources and budgets.

California just ended a record-setting wildfire season, with costs expected to reach into the hundreds of millions. More than 100 million dead trees have created a virtual tinder box in the state, and more than 9 million homes are now at risk of fire.

Two of the state’s costliest fires ever, in the fall of 2014, topped $1 billion in insured losses. If you add in federal tax relief offered to victims of the fires, and the immense cost associated with fighting the blazes, the bill grows considerably.

In 2015, the State of California spent a record $550 million on fire suppression. The U.S. Forest Service used more than half of its $5.1-billion budget that year fighting these and other Western fires, the first time ever it had to divert this much money away from other critical programs.

Same thing in Alaska, where the wildfire season is now more than a month longer than just a few decades ago – and in the Northwest, where the area burned by the end of the century could be four times larger than the 20th century average with only moderate climate change, as one study suggests.

Firefighting costs may climb to $62 billion by mid-century with current climate change trends.

When more and more tax dollars are spent fighting fires, and businesses and homes go up in flames, it affects our economy. Even with the Forest Service’s middle estimate of $22.5 billion in fire supression costs by 2050, such efforts would take 0.36 percent out of the projected U.S. gross domestic product.

94 days without a drop of rain

It’s still too early to say whether this fall’s wildfires in the Southeast are directly tied to Earth’s warming. But the dry conditions are consistent with climate change because rising temperatures increase the rate of evaporation, and can even dry out land in a normally moist and humid region.

Weather stations in the region measured average temperatures ranging from 5 to 15 degrees above normal, and Tennessee had its third warmest January through October on record.

Parts of the region went weeks and even months without rain. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, had 65 consecutive dry days. Cedartown, Georgia, had 94.

And around the Great Smoky Mountains – the most visited national park in the country – there were rainfall deficits of up to 20 inches year-to-date.

Taxpayers pick up the tab

Such drought, and the fires that followed, suggest that California-style blazes may be spreading,

Who will pick up the tab when natural and built resources are lost, and pay the salaries of the tens of thousands of firefighters dispatched to control such blazes?

Taxpayers will, just like they will be affected by lost tax revenue, dropping property values, damaged range land, air pollution and rehabilitation costs that add to the bill after a wildfire.

It’s money we’d rather spend on improving schools or fixing crumbling bridges and roads, or on investments in our homes. 

If we act now to take strong actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, however, we could slow future warming and maybe limit the threat and impact of such fires and to Americans pocket books.

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