Forest ecologist backs Inslee’s assertion that wildfires are worsened by climate change

Gov. Jay Inslee addresses the media on Tuesday, Sept. 15. 

Gov. Jay Inslee has continued his stance that the hundreds of thousands of acres burned by wildfires in Washington state are a result of climate change, bringing a forest ecologist to back research that shows the connection in his latest meeting with the media.

Inslee addressed the fires during a press conference Tuesday, Sept. 15, noting that air quality was “unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst” across the state, and adding that “the air outside right now is at historically polluted levels.”

The fires in September have burned more than 620,000 acres in Washington, with more than 800,000 acres having burned during this year’s fire season, Inslee said. More than 400 structures have burned, half of which were residences, he added, which was more than strictly an economic loss as residents lose their security and memories with the loss of their homes.

Inslee added there were an estimated 200 miles of power transmission lines down in central Washington, with fires closing roads and threatening dams.

Crystal Raymond, a climate adaptation specialist and forest ecologist for the University of Washington climate impacts group, said the connection between increased wildfire potential and climate change had been “clearly established” by science for more than a decade. Higher temperatures and drier conditions led to vegetation more likely to burn, and in some cases increased precipitation during wetter months can lead to greater vegetation growth which resulted in more fuel when regions dried out, Raymond added.

“As bad as it is now, as high as the risks are now, they will continue to worsen as long as climate change continues to worsen,” Raymond remarked.

Noting the impacts winds had on the current fires, Raymond said research was less clear as to how climate change impacted winds, adding UW’s climate impacts group is currently pursuing a study on the connection.

The governor said he’s heard from firefighters who said the “extreme aridity” combined with high winds led to unprecedented fire conditions.

“Our fire seasons are becoming more intense — this is clear,” Inslee said.

Inslee referenced an open letter he sent President Donald Trump regarding the fires’ link to climate change. He said the recent fires occurred in spite of the state’s efforts in forest management.

“It is outrageous to be to have a president to criticize states when the president himself called for cutting budgets that could be used to take care of the national forests,” Inslee said, adding that about 12 percent of forestland in Washington was in state-owned land compared to the more than 45 percent in national forestland. Trump’s budget proposal for 2020 would have cut $950 million from the U.S. Forest Service, the governor said.

Inslee said forest management could only go so far given the nature of the majority of the current fires having burned grass and shrubland. He said he felt that Trump could be using a focus on forest management practices as an excuse for not addressing climate change as a chief reason for the increased intensity of fires.

“By using that as an excuse to ignore this mortal danger of climate change is inexcusable,” Inslee remarked.

State surpasses 2,000 COVID-19 deaths

Inslee also addressed most recent data on the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the prior day Washington had surpassed 2,000 deaths of those with COVID-19, with more than 80,000 confirmed cases of the disease in the state.

Inslee mentioned he had a “productive” meeting in Pullman with Washington State University communities last week to discuss ways to avoid a spike in COVID-19 like the college town saw where the governor said some 800 cases were confirmed following the return of students to campus.

Inslee said there would be continuing discussions statewide in other college towns to address ways to avoid similar spikes in cases as students return, including enforcement action.

“We just cannot abandon our gains that we have had,” Inslee said regarding the state’s COVID-19 response. He said recent data from the Institute for Disease Modeling indicated a potential rise in the reproductive rate of new cases in the state, though there had been more positive signs, as Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that counties in Central Washington were seeing drops in infection rates.

Both Inslee and Wiesman stressed the need for returning students to host social gatherings which both said had contributed to the spike in cases.

“What we’re seeing is that the frontlines on this battle against this pandemic are moving,” Inslee said, with spread in living rooms and dormitories now the hotspots of transmission.

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