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West Gets Wilder in Extreme Climate Times

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No words can adequately express the sacrifice of the 19 heroes who stood up to that Arizona wildfire and lost their lives.  Loved ones and fellow firefighters honored the Prescott 19 by draping flags and gathering for a moving memorial service.  The fondly named Hotshots, skilled at this dangerous work, were trapped by flames when winds turned unexpectedly at the Yarnell Hill Fire.

These Arizona heroes are sadly some of the 66 fallen US firefighters already lost by mid-2013, after two years in a row of firefighting seasons claiming 83 on-duty firefighters annually.  In each of those past years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says eleven firefighter lives were lost specifically in connection with wildland fires.

If news about wildfires seems more frequent, you’re not mistaken. According to statistics by the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of acres affected each year by wildfires is generally on the rise, with 2006, 2007 and 2012 the most destructive years since records started being kept in the mid-80s:  more than 9 million acres affected each year by wildfires.

While the experts study a variety of wildfire factors, the extremes that include hotter, dryer periods can contribute to these more dangerous fire conditions. The US Forest Service explains in a 2012 report,”The number of large fires has increased in recent decades, and future annual area burned is likely to increase further with concurrent concerns over costs of fire management and threats to safety of people and property.”

You might have heard the term “fire season,” but that has become an out-of-date concept in parts of the American West.  “In Colorado, we look at the wildfire season as year-long,” explained Ryan Lockwod with the Colorado State Forest Service.  The public and media relations coordinator says, “In Colorado, if there’s no snow on the ground and you have the right set of weather conditions, you can have fire.”

“Around the globe, fire seasons are already longer, the blazes are fiercer and hotter, and each year surpasses the previous one for record-setting fires,” writes author Linda Marsa in her new book Fevered.  Marsa interviewed experts and affected people around the globe to discover the human cost of more extreme climate conditions.  Marsha writes, “Experts say that changing weather patterns, rising temperatures, and increasing drought conditions have brought us to the threshold of a new era of monster fires, massive infernos that can rapidly spiral out of control.”
These extreme conditions don’t mean we’re totally helpless.  Tomorrow:  what you and your community can do to protect against dangerous wildfires.
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