When faced with the explosive fury of multiple wildfires torching hundreds of homes like so many Roman candles, journalists can perhaps be forgiven for hyperbole — including stories that begin with statements like “the State of Colorado is on fire.”
But in truth, the facts speak loudly for themselves: As of July 12, 76 active wildfires were burning across more than 2.1 million acres of the American West — an area nearly as large as sprawling Los Angeles County.
And the heart of the fire season is still ahead of us.
The fires have predictably followed six months of paltry precipitation and near record warmth in large parts of the region. In Colorado, what little snowpack there was had fallen into a death spiral of rapid melting by March, more than a month earlier than average.
So as one fire after another seemed to pop up in the parched and sun-baked region in June and early July, reporters, bloggers and opinion writers began trying to move the story beyond the details of breaking news to causes and context. There was much to discuss.
Freelance journalist Michael Kodas distilled the context of this furious burning season to its essence in an article in OnEarth. “Even among skeptical firefighters and usually cautious scientists, there’s little doubt anymore: forest management and development issues have been priming the West for epic fires, but it was this year’s climate-driven drought and heat that lit the fuse,” Kodas wrote.
In their stories on causes and context, journalists and commentators chose to emphasize different parts of that equation. Some examined decades of forest management policies that have left many forest ecosystems overgrown and fully fueled for intense fires. Others examined the climatic factors that lit the fuse, as Kodas put it. Some missed the mark in their coverage, with over-simplification and lack of appropriate skepticism. Many others added important information to public discourse on this increasingly critical issue.
Scientists and journalists alike have pointed to a multimedia package co-produced by Kodas for the independent, non-profit iNews Network as an exemplar of good reporting. In “Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger,” Kodas, along with investigative reporter Burt Hubbard and videographer Carolyn Moreau, documented the impact of one factor that can be drowned out in discussions of the role of climate change in wildfire activity: explosive population growth in forest zones at very high risk of fire.
Combining an analysis of census data with mapping, interactive features, video and good, old-fashioned narrative journalism, the iNews team alerted citizens to a concerning trend: “In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones - the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires,” they wrote. “Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone.”
According to Laura Frank, the founder and director of iNews, the story ran in just about every major news outlet in Colorado, potentially bringing an under-reported aspect of wildfires in the West to the attention of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.
“I think they’ve nailed this,” commented Andrew Revkin, the New York Times Dot Earth blogger and Pace University professor. While climate change is clearly an important context for the wildfires, “there wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t people living in these fire zones,” he said.
That may be a bit of an overstatement, since increasing wildfire activity in the West and elsewhere is highly newsworthy all on its own — as a phenomenon wholly consistent with what scientists have been expecting from climate change.
Much of the region has been warming faster than the globe as a whole. And research has shown that with the warming temperatures and an increasingly early onset of spring, large wildfire activity in the West began to increase dramatically in the mid-1980s, bringing more frequent and longer lasting large fires, and a more drawn out wildfire season as well. Moreover, for large portions of the West over the past two decades, “the minimum burned area has been increasing quite a bit from year to year,” said Anthony Westerling, a scientist with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced.
So the climatic context is certainly one important part of the story. How prominent has it been in national coverage? At least during June, not very, according to an analysis by Media Matters for America of wildfire stories in major print and broadcast outlets. The study found that only 3 percent of wildfire coverage mentioned long-term climate change or global warming.