December 6, 2018

Time To Wake Up: Wildfires Are Getting Wilder

As-prepared for delivery

I’m pleased to be here today with my colleague from Oregon, Senator Wyden, to address some of the devastating effects of a changing global climate, from the shores of Narragansett Bay to the forests of Southern Oregon.  Rhode Island is looking at losing significant territory to storms and sea level rise; Oregon is seeing ancient forests go up in smoke. 

For most of the country, this summer has been a scorcher:  July was nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Before that, the contiguous U.S. experienced its hottest May and third hottest June on record.   Just last week, the Rhode Island organization Save The Bay recorded ocean surface temperatures in Little Narragansett Bay, off the coast of Westerly, Rhode Island, at nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit — the highest in over a decade of data. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released its report, “State of the Climate in 2017.”  The 500 scientists from 65 countries who contributed to this peer-reviewed report, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, reported ominous records broken:  the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere—a new high; heat in the upper ocean—a new high; sea level rise—a new high;  sea ice coverage in the Arctic and Antarctica—both new all-time lows.

In the West, the NOAA report called out 2017 as “an extreme western wildfire season [that] burned over 4 million hectares; the total costs of $18 billion tripled the previous U.S. annual wildfire cost record set in 1991.”

Right now, in the summer of 2018, blazing temperatures and drought conditions have contributed to wildfire outbreaks worldwide: in the U.S., Canada, Australia, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.  The raging Mendocino Complex fire recently became the largest wildfire in the history of the state of California.  The previous record was last year’s Thomas Fire.

Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said, “[L]et’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

Human-caused climate change has doubled the area consumed by forest fires since 1984.  According to a report by Climate Central, “[c]ompared to the 1970s, the annual average western U.S. wildfire season is now 105 days longer, has three times as many large fires (larger than 1,000 acres), and sees more than six times as many acres burned.”

Not only are fires becoming larger, they’re becoming more dangerous.  They burn hotter and more intensely.  They spread more rapidly and shift unpredictably, putting firefighters at greater risk.  A 2015 study in The Solutions Journal found that, as compared to 1990, fires are now larger, three times as many homes are burning, and around twice as many firefighters are losing their lives.

The federal government’s Climate Science Special Report, released late last year, warned that years without large fires in the western U.S. will become “extremely rare.”  The Environmental Protection Agency warns that unless we curb our greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change is projected to dramatically increase the area burned by wildfires across most of the contiguous U.S.”  The agency estimates for the western U.S. a more than 40 percent increase in the area burned by wildfires by 2100.  The amount of land in the Southwest burned each year by fires, including Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, could go up by as much as 140 percent.

Mr.President, these more frequent and more ferocious wildfires leave permanent scars on the American landscape.  Ordinarily, wildfires are part of the natural lifecycle of a healthy forest.  But the intensity, frequency, and scale of the infernos we’re now seeing reflect nature out of whack.  Instead of clearing dead trees and groundcover to make room for healthy trees and a rebirth of plant life, these superstrong wildfires are simply destroying these ecosystems. 

The National Wildlife Federation’s 2017 report, ominously titled Megafires, says “If hot enough, extreme fires can even sterilize the soil by killing subsurface seed banks that normally aid in post-fire recovery.”   Some native environments are permanently lost to charred landscapes and invasive species.   

A 2017 study reported in the journal Science found that “[t]hanks to climate change, areas ravaged by wildfires may never recover, wiping out entire ecological communities forever.”  This review of areas ravaged by wildfires showed that “[t]he proportion of sites with no regrowth almost doubled after 2000” as compared to the 1980s or 1990s.

The consequences of these fires to human life are dire.  Fourteen people died in last year’s wildfires in California, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah.  But the risk doesn’t end with the flames.

After last year’s devastating fires in California, when rain finally returned to the area, but without trees and other plants to hold the soil in place, the downpours unleashed torrents of mud, rocks, and debris killing more than 20 people.  The Center for Disease Control estimates 25-30 people die each year in these post-fire floods and mudslides.

Air pollution is another consequence of wildfires, and it can spread far beyond the burned-out site of the fire.  Hundreds of miles downwind, air can become unhealthy and even hazardous.  I remember visiting Saskatchewan with Senator Graham and seeing skies there clouded from Oregon’s fires.  Last month, air in the Northwest took the title of “worst in the nation,” with officials recommending residents wear masks when venturing outdoors.  Children, pregnant women, and people with breathing difficulties were told to leave town.

Wildfires unleash an especially harmful air pollutant: tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter.  For comparison, an average human hair is around 70 microns wide, so we’re talking about very small particles circulating in the air.  Because of their size, particles this small are easily inhaled, and can lodge deep in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.  Exposure has been associated with asthma, heart attack, stroke, and some cancers.  Emerging research even links this nasty pollution to premature births.

A researcher at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, told Science that wildfire smoke is “one of the largest problems facing air quality and climate issues going forward.”  According to a 2016 study in the journal Climatic Change, wildfires were to blame for more than two-thirds of the bad-air days in the western U.S. that had unhealthy levels of particulate matter. 

Smoke and pollution from western wildfires get picked up in the jet stream and can carry 3,000 miles to the East Coast, contaminating air across the country with noxious particulate matter, methanol, benzene, ozone, and other toxins.  This image shows the plume of smoke from West Coast fires spilling across the country last September.  NASA reports that when airborne contaminants are drawn down to ground level, as happened in Iowa last September, wildfires can trigger air quality warnings hundreds to thousands of miles away.

Mr. President, the scourge of these wildfires in Senator Wyden’s home state is one of the most dangerous symptoms of our carbon addiction.  His constituents have seen the devastation firsthand.  Senator Wyden has helped rush additional resources to federal firefighting agencies to step up the response to these exploding wildfires.  I thank him for joining me here today as we implore our colleagues to recognize what’s going on.  It’s climate change, plain and simple, as we careen towards what could be an irreversible shift in our climate, changing the Earth into a “hothouse.”

And here we are, the great Congress of the United States, stuck in dirty fossil-fuel politics, fiddling under the Capitol dome, while the Western United States burn.

I yield to my friend from the great state of Oregon.