SUMMARY: Climate change and the Western wildfires: scientists and a firefighter talk latest. Plus NASA’s Benjamin Cook on the decades-long drought coming to the American Southwest and Central Plains. Radio Ecoshock 150902

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Welcome back to the new Fall season of Radio Ecoshock 2015. I’m Alex Smith and I’m in a funk.

It’s been toxic to go outside for 4 days. Here in the West we are smoked in. Making a quick run outside, we got bits of falling ash in our eyes, from the big fires in Washington state. We gave up and went back. Without my walks in nature, in all weather, I’m in a skunky mood, and the body gets stiff. At least I still have a house. A few dozen families in the Rock Creek community are not so lucky.

The nearby city of Grand Forks just got an evacuation alert. It’s not an evacuation order to get out. It’s a warning to get your photos, documents, pet supplies, a grab bag of clothing, keys, money – and have it ready to go. The so-called “Stick-Pin” fire is just 4.5 kilometers, or about 2 miles, from the Canadian Border and rural Rural Grand Forks.

You know, I try to do a global show with information that works for people in Scandinavia, Singapore, Australia or California. Climate change is like that. But this program is unashamedly about the American West. Yes that does matter to everyone. California is probably the world’s fifth largest economy, and it provides food not just for America and Canada, but the world.

I won’t try and tell my listeners in England that this hellish mix of drought and fire is coming to you any time soon. In fact, it looks like another coolish, wet miserable winter coming for the British Isles and Northern Europe. Certainly listeners in Australia, South America and Indonesia should be paying attention to fire knowledge.

The carbon and ash spiralling up into the sky in North America is just part of a world pattern of deforestation due to climate change. Trees are mostly carbon, and they are releasing their storehouse. It’s an open question how many of them will grow back. Their ash will be sucked up into the Arctic, where the already gray ice will get darker still, soaking up the sun, hastening melting of the glaciers.

For me now climate change is real and personal. We housed five fire refugees, and our tiny community fed hundreds of them before any government help arrived. My favorite grove of trees, Ponderosa pines growing on a small island flanked by a verdant pool, burned to the ground a couple of weeks ago. A lot is gone, and it’s not over.

The nearby city of Grand Forks just got an evacuation alert. It’s not an evacuation order to get out. It’s a warning to get your photos, documents, pet supplies, a grab bag of clothing, keys, money – and have it ready to go. The so-called “Stick-Pin” fire is just 4.5 kilometers, or about 2 miles, from the Canadian Border and rural Rural Grand Forks.

Residents of Washington State are fleeing the largest fire that state has ever seen.

Later in this program we’ll hear a NASA scientists tell us about the coming 30 year megadroughts. But first I want to share the latest report on the strong link between climate change and the fires burning up the West Coast, from California through Canada all the way into Alaska. I’m going to play you a teleconference held August 26th, arranged by the group Climate Nexus. We’ll hear two scientists and a veteran fire fighter. Maybe I’m biased because we are surrounded by megafires right now, but I found this teleconference riveting and full of insight for all of us.


Thanks for joining us as we kick off this new fall season of Radio Ecoshock. Let’s roll, with Climate Nexus host Paige Knappenberger, scientists Mark Cochrane and Park Williams, plus Retired Fire Captain Lou Paulson, recorded August 26th, 2015.

Here is more on our guests: A. Park Williams is a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. His research was recently featured in the New York Times: “CA Drought Made Worse by Global Warming, Scientists Say“.

A. Park Williams

Dr. Mark Cochrane is climate scientist and expert on wildfires and global climate change from South Dakota State University. Mark is also a co-author of this recent paper published in Nature Communications: “Climate-induced variations in global wildfire danger from 1979 to 2013.”

Mark Cochrane

Captain (Ret.) Lou Paulson, is President of the California Professional Firefighters.

Lou Paulson

Here are some key wildfire facts, as presented by Climate Nexus before the teleconference:

Climate change is tied to the surge in Western wildfires.

Climate change has caused snow to melt earlier, decreased overall snowpack levels, and made spring and summers hotter and fire seasons longer. These warmer and drier conditions have caused an increase in the number and extent of wildfires. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) found that, ‘Since the mid-1980s, large wildfire activity in North America has been marked by increased frequency and duration, and longer wildfire seasons.’

Oregon and Washington experienced record warmth from January through July. The entire Northwest region is in the midst of severe to
exceptional drought. In July, temperatures in the region were so hot that millions of fish were cooked alive in overheated waters.

Western drought amplifies fire severity.

Climate change exacerbated the 2012-2014 California drought by an estimated 15 to 20 percent, according to a recent study. As climate
change worsens, we can expect rising temperatures and more intense droughts, which combined create more severe fires. According to the AR5, ‘Recent wildfires in Western Canada, the USA, and Mexico relate to long and warm spring and summer droughts.’

As of August 23, wildfires have burned more than 7.4 million acres. Wildfires in Oregon and Washington remain firefighters’ top priority, including 24 large fires that have burned a total of 1,052,388 acres. Some 30,000 firefighters and additional support staff are battling the fires across the U.S.—the biggest number mobilized in 15 years. More than 200 active duty soldiers have also been called to action, marking the first time in nearly a decade that the Department of Defense has enlisted soldiers to fight fires.

Extreme wildfires pose many risks to human health.

The impacts are solidly documented, with the increase in wildfire frequency worsening air quality and causing harmful health effects. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter and toxins and can significantly worsen air quality locally and far downwind, lasting for days or months. Research indicates that patient counts can be linked to fires as far as 200 to 300 miles away from the impacted area. Increased particulate matter is ‘known to cause earlier mortality and morbidity by leading to cancer, respiratory problems (asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, reduced lung function, chest pain), discomfort (eye irritation, fatigue, headache, dizziness, and distress), cardiovascular effects, and depressed immune defenses (especially respiratory).’

Extreme fires cost the U.S. billions of dollars.

Average annual fire suppression costs increased to $3 billion from $1 billion in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the area burned each year doubled from 3.6 million acres to 6.5 million. A recent report places the average annual burned area in the U.S. between 7 and 9 million acres.

The U.S. Forest Service spent more than half its budget this year preparing for and fighting fires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. Ten years from now, the agency’s fire suppression costs are projected to increase from just under $1.1 billion in 2014 to nearly $1.8 billion. Fire suppression costs are only a fraction of the true costs (including property losses, healthcare costs, lost revenues, etc.) associated with a wildfire event. The total cost of U.S. wildfires is presently estimated to be between $20 billion and $125 billion annually.”

My thanks to Climate Nexus for giving Radio Ecoshock permission to broadcast this teleconference. I couldn’t have done it better.

You can download, listen to, or pass on this Climate Nexus teleconference (41 minutes) in either CD Quality (39 MB) or Lo-Fi (10 MB)


I have to disagree with one thing Mark Cochrane said in this teleconference. Around 32 minutes in, he says people’s lungs clear up as soon as the air does. However, a recent review of the evidence compiled in March 31st 2015 says:

PM [Particulate Matter] is one of the main contaminants from wildfire fire smoke. PM is formed in smoke, and also within the smoke plume as a result of chemical reactions and physical processes, and it is mainly composed of organic carbon and black carbon. PM2.5 is the principle public health threat from short term exposure to wildland fires because particles can reach deeper parts of the human respiratory track where they may have a range of health effects due to their physical, chemical, toxicological and carcinogenic nature. Adverse health effects of PM2.5 include respiratory and cardiovascular disease and increased mortality.

• The main components of wildfire smoke are particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, mercury, ozone and pollutant mixtures. Trace gases include CO, O3 [ozone] and NOx [nitrous oxide]. CO is an inorganic gas produced when incomplete combustion occurs and it is transported over great distances in smoke plumes. Gaseous VOCs [volatile organic compounds] are gases with high vapor pressures, including hydrocarbons, halocarbons, and oxygenates.

• Hg [Mercury] can be a very dangerous contaminant that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cause severe neurological
damage, but evidence linking exposure to Hg from wildfires and human health is still lacking.

• Overall effects of wildland fires on human health range from headache, dizziness, fatigue to obstructive lung disease, bronchitis, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, asthma, reduced lung function growth, and increases risk of mortality.

This information comes from a publication from an agency of the Provincial Government of British Columbia, called the BC Centre for
Disease Control. The title is: “Evidence Review – Wildfire Smoke and Public Health Risk”.

You will notice that Fire Captain Lou Paulson also wondered about that claim, considering the known long-term effects of smoke on fire-fighters.


All of our speakers kept referring to the drought, which in California is in it’s 4th year. That’s cost billions in agricultural production, and left the landscape ready for wildfires in the hot summer. But it looks like we’re in for much worse in the future, as climate change unrolls. A paper published this year suggests the American Southwest, and the Central Plains, could experience a drought lasting anywhere from ten to 40 years!

Benjamin Cook is the lead author of this paper: “Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains”, published in the journal “Science Advances” on February 12, 2015.

Dr. Cook is with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and also works at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of
Columbia University. We talk about comparisons to drought we know happened during the Middle Ages, and to others in the Paleoclimate

Benjamin Cook

Dr. Cook is more optimistic than I am that American farmers can adapt to those kind of conditions. He also thinks cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix will manage to conserve more, and still find enough water to carry on.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really doubtful our civilization can adapt to 30 or 40 year droughts. Just consider the impact of agriculture. The South West and Central Plains feed not only America, but the world. We’re talking beef, corn, wheat, and much more. I don’t think most farming there will survive, and I predict major cities in the area will shrink even more than Detroit just did. That’s just my opinion, from the scientists and authors I’ve interviewed.

Listen to (or download) this 11 minute interview with Dr. Benjamin Cook here.

You can also read about this new science of unprecedented drought in the Guardian newspaper, or Common Dreams.


Next week we’ll move into a review of the huge climate news that’s poured out all summer. It’s building like a drumbeat before the Paris climate talks this coming December. I don’t hold a lot of hope that essential changes will be made there, but we have to try. Anyway, whether politicians and corporate CEO’s listen or not, thousands of scientists and activists around the world are ringing that bell of warning as loud as we can.

Our opening music came courtesy of Dana Pearson, also known on Soundclick as Vastman. Dana’s got a lot of great tunes there you can
download for free

From my studio in smokeville, I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about your world.