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Scientists: Large, High-Intensity Forest Fires Will Increase in West

Fighting fires by helicopters and airplanes increased after an upsurge in Colorado wildfires in 2012 and 2013. (Pixabay)
Fighting fires by helicopters and airplanes increased after an upsurge in Colorado wildfires in 2012 and 2013. (Pixabay)
April 17, 2017

DENVER -- As the Trump administration takes steps to sideline environmental science, recent research confirms that western states will need to brace for more frequent - and bigger - wildfires as a result of climate change.

South Dakota State University scientist Mark Cochrane studied more than a decade's worth of satellite data examining nearly 23,000 fires worldwide. He said the biggest fires emerged from similar conditions.

"Extreme drought, high wind, high heat and low humidity are getting more and more common,” Cochrane said. "That correlates completely with where we see these - we'll call them 'mega-fires' - and those conditions seem to be worsening. And therefore we would expect more and more of these very large fires to continue occurring."

Cochrane said western states will continue to be most at risk in the U.S., unless leaders get serious about cutting carbon emissions.

President Trump has blocked Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce climate pollution and wants to cut the agency's budget by at least 30 percent, citing a need to reverse what he sees as government intrusion and also to create jobs.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said the state's fire season is 80 days longer than it was 15 years ago. And the Denver Post reports that more than 5,500 fires in the state burned nearly 107,000 acres in 2016.

Cochrane said it's important to take steps to adapt.

"Part of that would be not building our houses in extremely flammable landscapes. Or, if we're going to do that, then to build them to be more survivable in those landscapes,” he said. "Right now we're building very flammable houses in flammable landscapes, and so that's a recipe for disaster."

Cochrane said assuming CO2 emissions remain as they are, by 2041 western states should expect four extreme fire events for every three that occur now.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO